Global temperatures will rise by an average of 3°C due to climate change and cause catastrophic damage around the world unless governments take urgent action, according to the UK government's chief scientist.
In a stark warning issued yesterday [February 14] Sir David King said that a rise of this magnitude would cause famine and drought and threaten millions of lives.
It would also cause a worldwide drop in cereal crops of between 20 and 400m tonnes, put 400 million more people at risk of hunger, and put up to 3 billion people at risk of flooding and without access to fresh water supplies.
Few ecosystems could adapt to such a temperature change, equivalent to a level of carbon dioxide of 550 parts per million in the atmosphere, which would result in the destruction of half the world's nature reserves and a fifth of coastal wetlands.
Many of Professor King's predictions come from a report published by the UK's Hadley Centre, a world leader in climate change modelling, called Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change.
Tony Blair wants governments around the world to set a target of a rise of no more than 2°C - equivalent to 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere - in global temperatures. This has already been agreed as an upper limit by the EU but Prof King said that this agreement would be difficult, given the refusal of the United States to cut emissions and those of China and India rising as those countries develop.
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said that despondency was not the answer. "George Bush won't be in office forever. When he's gone there will be a change of policy inside the United States.
"To what degree that change takes place is still an open question. We should be concentrating on working with those elements of US society that see the danger and seeking to change the opinion within the US to a point where that country can embrace a really ambitious programme of de-carbonisation," he said.
Prof King told the Guardian that the government would not go into any future negotiations with its mind already made up. "Our position back in 2003 was that we must aim to get global agreement to keep levels below 550ppm.
"The science has moved on since then and we're now aware that even 550ppm poses the impacts of dangerous climate change. The government's position now is that we must get negotiations on an agreed upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," he said.
"It must be below 550ppm but if we can get international agreement and there's public agreement around the world behind action required then that can be ratcheted down to, say, 500."
Mr Juniper said that even such limits on CO2 emissions went against what the government had previously indicated it would do. "It is surprising in so far as they've said that they want a science-based approach to this and other environmental issues," he said.
"Science says that 550ppm is far too high. We should be aiming for 450ppm and we should have the political strategies to deliver that rather than saying its inevitable we're going to go way above the thresholds that are likely to deliver devastating global warming."
Prof King's latest comments are partly designed to raise the profile of the climate change debate among members of the public. "The government's willingness to deal with it is there. The finance is behind it, the obligation on the utilities is behind it but now it really is for the public to support it.
"If we don't get international agreement, we don't tighten our belts further on the issue, then we certainly are heading towards issues that go into dangerous climate change," he said.
Mr Juniper added that messages from campaigners and scientists to the public need to stress the opportunities as well as the negatives when discussing climate change. While it was important to face up to danger, it should be done with a sense of optimism. "We can be generating many millions of jobs out of this, we can be helping to end fuel poverty, we can bring electric power to people who have never had it before with renewable energy technologies."
He added that perhaps the British could put their own house in order first. "The thing that Dave King and Tony Blair could focus on to underline that message is to start some reductions at home. It's all very well talking about America and China but the reality is that CO2 emissions are going up in this country," said Mr Juniper. "He [Tony Blair] has been in office now for nine years with a 20 per cent reduction target and he's not going to do it."
Source: The Guardian April 15, 2006 and Guardian Unlimited. Published with permission.
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