On Global Warming: A Cool Breeze from Britain

Meeting the press at the climate conference. Second from left is Dr. RK Pachauri, chairperson of the IPCC. Third from left is England’s Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett. (Jim Motavalli photo)

EXETER, ENGLAND—2004 was the fourth-warmest year on record, reports the prestigious journal Nature. And January 2005 was the second-warmest January of the past 27 years, according to the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama. It was almost a full degree Fahrenheit warmer than seasonal norms. This little fact should be stored along with the huge inventory of anecdotal evidence that the planet is warming, the kind of material amply documented in our book Feeling the Heat.

Despite this, I opened my Daily Express over breakfast in England and was met with an incredible blast of hot obfuscation by the distinguished David Bellamy, OBE. Bearded botanist Bellamy is a much-beloved figure in Britain for his TV shows about plants and other natural phenomena. But his treatise on global warming recycles a stale batch of cliches, including (with no evidence) the tired notion that an excess of carbon dioxide will be simply good for plant growth. He might want to read 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.”

Bellamy is, fortunately, 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 for 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.”

Can you imagine George W. Bush making a speech like that? Unlike the U.S., which refuses to even 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. During my trip to Great Britain, I met with 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.

Imagine those reductions scaled up for a city the size of 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 said. “With rising tides we would lose most of South London, The City [London’s Wall Street] and the tube [subway].”

London is already addressing its transportation-based emissions with a 5 “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 a taxi driver I rode with was sour on it, 70 percent of businesses (initially the biggest opponents of congestion charging) are now supportive.

David King, Tony Blair’s science advisor

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 projections) 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 said.

Opening the UK Conference on “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” in Exeter, Dennis Tirpak pointed out that 2004 was the fifth-warmest year since records were first kept in 1659. “There is also evidence that rising greenhouse gases are affecting rainfall patterns and the global water cycle,” he said. 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.” If it did occur, the paper Wood presented said the climate in the UK could become “substantially colder than that experienced during the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th and 18th centuries.”

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.

The conference was highly scientific, of course, which makes it easy for most people to tune its out. Just a bunch of scientists droning on about their boring climate models. But Sir David K

ing, the Blair government’s chief science advisor (and a professor of physical chemistry at Cambridge) was refreshingly direct and candid. “Kyoto is just a beginning for dealing with climate change,” he said. “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.”