Climate For Change: England Gets Serious About Global Warming

According to the prestigious journal Nature, 2004 was the fourth-warmest year on record. And January 2005 was the second-warmest January of the past 27 years, says the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama.

Despite evidence like this, climate change has yet to make it onto the radar screens of most Americans. The opposite is true in England, where the science is hotly debated. In the Daily Express newspaper, for instance, David Bellamy, a much-beloved figure in Britain for his TV shows about plants and other natural phenomena, recently weighed in with a treatise. He claimed that global warming is a lot of hot air, but even if it was true the increase in carbon dioxide would simply be good for plant growth. Bellamy had apparently missed a 2002 article in the respected journal Science, which concluded that “elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) actually reduces [emphasis added] plant growth when combined with other likely consequences of climate change—namely, higher temperatures, increased precipitation or increased nitrogen deposits in the soil.”

Traffic in downtown London has been reduced 30 percent by an innovative “congestion charge.” London now has its own Climate Change Agency. © Jim Motavalli

But Bellamy is definitely in the minority in England, a country that is fast recognizing its responsibility to do something about global warming. Last September, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a major speech on the subject, pointing out that the 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1990, and that the planet has experienced the most drastic temperature rise in more than 1,000 years in the northern hemisphere. “Glaciers are melting,” he said. “Sea ice and snow cover is declining. Animals and plants are responding to an earlier spring. Sea levels are rising
Apart from a diminishing handful of skeptics, there is a virtual worldwide scientific consensus on the scope of the problem.”

Unlike the U.S., which refuses to sign the treaty, England is on target to meet its Kyoto goals, thanks to a determined carbon reduction effort underway on the federal and municipal level. Typical of the commitment is Allan Jones, the new head of the London Climate Change Agency. Jones came to London after achieving revolutionary change in Woking, a city of 100,000 people. With combined heat and power (CHP) cogeneration systems and solar energy (10 percent of Great Britain’s installed capacity), Woking has reduced its energy use by 48 percent since 1990, which means 5.4 million pounds of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere. The city is now nearly 90 percent independent of the grid, with its own energy services company.

Woking’s reductions will be scaled up for Greater London, which has 7.2 million people. Nicky Gavron, the city’s deputy mayor, is confident that this world capital can reach the ambitious goal of a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010. It doesn’t have much choice, she adds, since rising tides are an imminent threat. “The Thames Barrier, built to close against rare storm surges, has been forced to shut 19 times in a month,” she says. “With rising tides we would lose most of South London, The City [London’s Wall Street] and the tube [subway].”

London is addressing its transportation-based emissions with a 5 ($9) “congestion charge” for vehicles entering the city. Imposed in 2003 by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, the scheme has already reduced traffic delays by 30 percent. An estimated 18 percent reduction has been achieved on traffic entering the zone. Bus ridership is up. Although some taxi drivers are sour on Livingstone as “anti-car,” 70 percent of businesses (initially the biggest opponents of congestion charging) are now supportive.

Gavron estimates that only 20 percent of London’s CO2 emissions is caused by vehicles; buildings produce more than 70 percent. London is learning from partners like Toronto how to implement energy audits and make new home construction (necessary because of rising population) more efficient. Woking’s CHP model—high-efficiency localized units that combine power generation with heating and cooling—will also be studied. “We’re going for big CO2 hits,” she says.

And Britain is also leading the scientific charge. Opening the UK Conference on “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” in Exeter, Dennis Tirpak pointed out that “there is evidence that rising greenhouse gases are affecting rainfall patterns and the global water cycle.” These same gases “are probably increasing river flows into the Arctic Ocean, consistent with the observational record since the 1960s.”

The scientists at the conference were struggling with the use of the word “dangerous,” since their work demands objectivity. But there was little doubt that the evidence they presented threatens our future. Stephen H. Schneider of Stanford University (who was privately contemptuous of the Bush administration’s go-slow approach to global warming) reiterated the global effects predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): more frequent heat waves, more intense storms, a faster spread of disease, inundation of small island nations, species extinction and loss of biodiversity.

Schneider detailed such speculative effects as a possible collapse of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation (the Day After Tomorrow scenario, though on a much less dramatic timetable), and the deglaciation of polar ice sheets in Greenland and the West Antarctic, causing many feet of additional sea-level rise. Then there are what he called “true surprises,” dramatic events like rapidly forced climate change that we can’t accurately foresee (despite the rows of climate-dedicated supercomputers on display in the Hadley Centre, where the conference took place).

The collapse of thermohaline circulation is a fancy way of saying that huge amounts of Arctic ice melt will affect the flow of warm water in the Gulf Stream, plunging Europe into dramatically colder temperatures. Will it occur? Opinions at the conference were divided. Richard Wood of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research described it as a “high impact, low-probability event.” He predicted a shutdown of “from zero to 50 percent” over the next century. “Loss of the thermohaline circulation is possible, and it could be irreversible,” Wood said. “But there is no detectable weakening yet.”

An even scarier scenario was presented by Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois. He predicted, “The likelihood of the collapse of thermohaline circulation in the next 200 years is two in three. Even with rigorous human intervention to stop it the risk is one in four.” He gave the numbers as a four-in-10 chance by 2100, and 65 out of 100 by 2200.

Sir David King, the Blair government’s chief science advisor (and a professor of physical chemistry at Cambridge), concluded, “Kyoto is just a beginning for dealing with climate change. The UK will take a leading role, but true global action is necessary. We have to bring India, Brazil and China [which will build as many power stations in 2005 as exist in all of England] into the process. And we have to persuade people to worry about this for their grandchildren’s sake. We’re not talking about long-term scenarios anymore. The impacts over just the next 30 years could be quite severe.”