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Heeding the headlines
Last updated: 6th February 2007

After all the thousands of headlines about global warming, all the meetings, speeches and millions of word written, nothing has impinged on the politicians, press and public, like the latest report from the UN panel on climate change. ‘Final warning’ said The Independent (London), ‘Worse than we thought’ said The Guardian (London) , ‘On the edge of climate calamity’ said The Australian (Perth), ‘Doubt gives way to certainty’ said the New York Times. (see: Evidence of human-caused global warming unequivocal.

Mark Lynas, writing in The Independent explained just what the various IPCC scenarios of temperature rise in this century would mean. By 2100, a minimum temperature rise of 2.4 per cent would make coral reefs almost extinct and leave a third of all species facing extinction. A more likely rise to 3.4 per cent would turn the rainforests to desert, lead to extinction of polar bears and displace millions from Africa’s drylands. A 4.4 per cent rise would see 100 million displaced by sea rise, while much of the sub-tropics was made uninhabitable by drought. And so on up to a possible 6.4 degree Celsius rise when most of life on earth would be exterminated. (See: Global warming: the final warning).

So how much time have we got to put the fight against climate change on a war footing? Not much according to Richard Betts leader of a research team at the UK Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre for climate prediction. "The next 10 years are crucial," he says. "In that decade we have to achieve serious reductions in carbon emissions. After that time the task becomes very much harder." One reason for the urgency say the IPCC scientists is ‘ecological feedback’. Once the earth has absorbed all the CO2 it can take, global warming can drive changes in the ecosystem that themselves cause more heating. (Marine phytoplankton in the oceans, for example, can absorb only so much carbon before it begins to die off, reducing the absorptive capacity of the sea.) The latest research suggests that we are now facing ‘stronger climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks’ than expected. (See: Why climate warming is worse than we thought)

One more wake-up note comes from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which warns that human-driven environmental changes are affecting many parts of the Earth’s system, in addition to its climate. For example, half of the earth’s land surface is now domesticated for direct human use and the whole earth is now in the midst of its sixth great extinction event. This is something that Planet 21 will continue to bear in mind as it tries to cover the unfolding story of people and the planet. (See: Global warming only one symptom of a stressed planet)

John Rowley