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Act locally while awaiting global climate treaty

This opinion piece by Sir Julian Hunt appeared in The Australian on October 08, 2010.
Julian Hunt is visiting professor at the Dutch Delft University of Technology and a former director-general of the UK Met Office.

SCIENTISTS need to do a better job of explaining how the environment affects our lives.

THE UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin, China, that ends tomorrow has been taking place against the backdrop of the northern summer’s extraordinary floods in Asia and unprecedented temperatures in much of the world. For instance, static weather patterns across much of the western US (which climate change is likely to induce more often in the future) have led temperatures to rise in Los Angeles to 45C. The urgency to act is thus growing: Copenhagen cannot be repeated at the Cancun climate change summit in December.

The problem is that there remains slow progress and uneven elite and popular support in many countries for the UN objective of achieving within the next 20 to 30 years the necessary reductions in overall emissions of greenhouse gases by means of immediate agreed international action by wealthier countries and longer-term action by less wealthy countries with growing populations.

In addition to securing a post-Kyoto global change agreement, we must look beyond present scientific and technical arguments, and political rhetoric, to see whether there may be other ways of moving forward and better engaging the doubters and objectors.

Unlike now, the international consensus paradigm worked well from the 1960s to 90s for dealing with serious continental-scale environmental degradation caused by industrial processes – notably air pollution and the ozone hole. In these cases the scientific case was soon established, within about 20 years, and the economic costs of the technical solution were hardly noticeable.

However, where the solutions of international environmental problems are vastly expensive and life-changing to communities and individuals alike (as with climate change), not only are they sometimes resisted but the science that has identified the problem then tends to be challenged. Dissenting groups have in recent years also doubted data and predictions on the deterioration of the marine environment and fish stocks, and of forests. The challenge of securing an international agreement to replace Kyoto is also complicated by the large and uncertain economic and social effects of such a new treaty, and the increasing recognition that such an approach may not be the best way to achieve the overall desired goal, which is for each country to secure sustainable policies to minimise the human causes of climate change and adapting to its consequences.

In this light, political leaders in several countries and in large cities are showing that other approaches can work. In China – which is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases – authorities are encouraging industries to reduce emissions by using carbon trading at five regional centres. Beijing is also considering a mandatory carbon trading scheme as part of its 12th five-year plan, due for publication early next year. The European Union’s carbon trading scheme may be linked to those in other countries.

There is similar variation in policies. In some countries, including the US, nuclear and wind energy tend to be favoured because they are economic and more secure than importing fossil fuels. US politicians are also often sceptical about the scientific case for human-induced global warming and tend to deprecate any connection between their non-fossil energy policy and reducing global warming.

Other countries concerned about the future reserves and prices of fossil fuels are also now including nuclear energy as part of their non-fossil energy plans, despite there being no reference to this development in the UN summary document following Copenhagen. In Europe, by contrast, political leaders and communities are expanding low-carbon energy systems mainly because they reduce global warming.

Similarly, low-energy technologies to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels are driven as much by economic and resource limitations as by climate change policies and the other international goals of reducing the loss of biodiversity and improving the environment. For instance, the network of mayors of large cities, led by the mayor of Mexico City, is successfully negotiating with automobile companies to reduce the costs of suitable electric vehicles for urban transportation; the co-operative ideal should not be forgotten in the age of global companies and UN agreements.

Whether these practical policies are regional or international, what’s uncontroversial is that they will be most effective if they are based on good science and continuing research into the environment, its effects on society and how the climate is changing. All the countries engaged in climate research accept that this requires a global approach.

However, what is missing, and vitally needed, is that the science of climate and environment is much more widely explained, so that people understand how it affects them and how they can positively contribute. In Britain, for instance, car drivers are not informed about how their speeding adds to greenhouse gas emissions, as they are in France and Germany.

In only a few cities of the world is there public information about environmental and climatic trends. But data from air quality monitoring stations may be a beginning to reverse this.

Regularly publicised local data is crucial to enable communities to appreciate trends and the range of possible developments, including the consequences of different emission strategies, protective measures and possible natural hazards that might be likely. Such measures appropriate to each region are being considered right across the world, and in many cases being combined with measures to introduce low-carbon energy systems, such as wind turbines on dykes, reforestation and bio-mass energy. There is no global solution for the best way to combine mitigation and adaptation policies.

Even at the highest level meetings, as at Copenhagen, the data supplied is often quite inadequate.

Hopefully, at Cancun the range of observed and predicted climatic trends for different parts of the world, including the marked differences in the trends over land and sea, will be presented more fully. Science still has much to do to explain and predict the kind of climatic fluctuations seen over the past 10 years when there was a marked cooling of the oceans, which is now ending. How these large fluctuations will strengthen or, as I suspect, weaken is unknown. However, governments and wider society need to know about these possibilities, despite their uncertainties.

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