President of Royal Society Compares Effects of Climate Change to WMD
28 November 2005
In his annual anniversary address to be delivered to the UK Royal Society on Wednesday, Royal Society President Lord May will invite a comparison of the potential effects of climate change with those of weapons of mass destruction.
This will mark Lord May’s final address to the Royal Society—the UK national academy of science—as President. He will draw attention to the meetings of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 11 and COP/MOP 1), which began today in Montreal.
We need countries [at the Montreal meeting] to initiate a study into the consequences of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at, below, or above twice pre-industrial levels, so that the international community can assess the potential costs of their actions or lack of them. Such an analysis could focus the minds of political leaders, currently worried more about the costs to them of acting now than they are by the consequences for the planet of acting too little, too late.—Lord May
This reiterates a joint call for such a study made by the national science academies of the G8 nations, along with Brazil, China and India, in June 2005. Lord May will also draw attention to:
...the increasing incidence of “extreme events”—floods, droughts, and hurricanes—the serious consequences of which are rising to levels which invite comparison with “weapons of mass destruction”. In particular, recent studies, made before Katrina, suggest that increasing ocean surface temperature (the source of a hurricane’s energy) will have little effect on the frequency of hurricanes, but strong effects on their severity. The estimated damage inflicted by Katrina is equivalent to 1.7% of US GDP this year, and it is conceivable that the Gulf Coast of the US could be effectively uninhabitable by the end of the century.
In a message targeted especially toward the US, Lord May will warn that
...countries must recognize the need to sever the link between economic growth and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. No country, including the UK and US, has yet managed to achieve this, mainly because growth currently means increased use of energy generated from fossil fuels. Appropriately constructed economic instruments, such as a carbon tax, could help motivate a reappraisal of this perverse message.
In the US, the Bush Administration rejected the Kyoto Protocol largely on the grounds that adhering to the restrictions as defined in the protocol would harm the US economy and competitive position.
The UK already seems likely to miss its target for the Kyoto Protocol, because emissions have risen for the past two years, owing to the UK not getting to grips with the difficult questions of meeting demand for electricity and transport without burning more and more fossil fuels.
By the same token, emissions of greenhouse gases by the US are currently 20% higher than in 1990, compared with the target assigned to it in Kyoto of a cut of 7%. President George W. Bush’s failure to follow through on the commitments his father made on behalf of the US is underlined by his failure even to mention climate change, global warming or greenhouse gases in his 2,700-word speech when welcoming the new US Energy Act in August 2005, just weeks after signing the Gleneagles G8 communique.
In short, we have here a classic example of the problem or paradox of co-operation (also known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma or occasionally the Tragedy of the Commons) referred to at the outset: the science tells us clearly that we need to act now to reduce inputs of greenhouse gases; but unless all countries act (in equitable proportions), the virtuous will be economically disadvantaged whilst all suffer the consequences of the sinners’ inaction.
Some 10,000 delegates are gathering in Montreal this week in the two major international climate change conferences: the 11th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP11) and the first meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP 1).
Bridging the gap between the Kyoto approach of mandatory reductions based on an absolute threshold and the US preference to rely on technology to reduce greenhouse gas intensity (a reduction of emissions per unit of economic activity) rather than adopt an absolute Kyoto-like framework is one of the essential tasks of the two-week conference.
The issue today is not whether we should take action [on climate change] but how.—James Connaughton, US senior advisor for the environment to the White House
Last week’s issue of Nature—one of the major international, peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journals of science— included reviews, original research and comment on the regional effects of climate change.
One group of authors (Patz, et. al.) considers the available evidence and suggested that climate warming already contributes to ill health and thousands of premature deaths across the world, and is likely to have serious health implications in the future.
Barnett et al. evaluate the effect of a near-surface warming trend under the influence of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere on regional hydrology, particularly in snowmelt-dominated environments. They suggest that warming will cause a change from snowfall to rain, diminishing natural water storage capacity, as well as earlier melting of winter snow, shifting peak river runoff away from the periods of highest demand in summer and autumn. The reduction in glaciers and snow-packs are likely to have severe consequences for the water supply of one-sixth of the Earth’s population.
Milly et al. focus on streamflow and water availability trends and find that an ensemble of twelve current climate models accurately accounts for twentieth-century changes. The same models project potentially crucial regional effects on streamflow in the future that could threaten the availability of freshwater in many regions of the world by the year 2050.
And in the editorial for the issue, Nature posits that Washington DC still doesn’t seem to understand the threat posed by global warming.
“Impact of regional climate change on human health”; Jonathan A. Patz, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Tracey Holloway and Jonathan A. Foley; Nature 438, 310-317 (17 November 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04188
“Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions”; T. P. Barnett, J. C. Adam and D. P. Lettenmaier; Nature 438, 303-309 (17 November 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04141
“Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate”; P. C. D. Milly, K. A. Dunne and A. V. Vecchia; Nature 438, 347-350 (17 November 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04312
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