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Plain Science

This opinion piece by Sir Julian Hunt was published in the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST on Thursday, October 7, 2010. Lord Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University of Technology and former director general of the UK Met Office.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Tianjin comes against the backdrop of this summer’s extraordinary floods in Asia and unprecedented temperatures in much of the world. The urgency to act is thus growing: the disappointment at Copenhagen cannot be repeated at the Cancun climate change summit in December.
The problem, however, is that progress remains slow with uneven support for the United Nations objective of achieving within the next 20 to 30 years the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, we must look beyond current scientific and technical arguments, and indeed political rhetoric, to see whether there are other ways of moving forward and better engaging the doubters and objectors.
There is an increasing recognition that an international agreement may not be the best way to help each country work out for itself policies to minimise the human causes of climate change and adapt to its consequences.
In this light, some political leaders 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.
In some countries, including the United States, nuclear and wind energy tend to be favoured because they are economical and more secure than importing fossil fuels.
Still other countries concerned about the future reserves and future prices of fossil fuels are also now including nuclear energy as part of their energy plans, despite there being no reference to this development in the UN summary document following Copenhagen. “Low energy” technologies to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels are driven as much by economic and resource limitations, as by climate change policies.
As well, the basic co-operative ideal should not be forgotten even in the age of global companies and UN agreements. For instance, the network of mayors of large cities, led by the mayor of Mexico City, is negotiating with car companies to reduce the costs of suitable electric vehicles for transport.
Whether these practical policies are regional or international, they will be most effective if they are based on good science and continuing research into the environment’s effects on society and how the climate is changing.
What is missing, and vitally needed, is to explain much more widely climate science, so that people understand how it affects them and how they can positively contribute. Public information about environmental and climatic trends is available in only a few cities. But data from air-quality-monitoring stations may be 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 and protective measures. Such measures are being considered across the world, and in many cases are being combined with measures to introduce lowcarbon energy systems, such as wind turbines on dykes, reforestation and biomass energy.
Even at the highest-level meetings, as at Copenhagen, data supplied is often quite inadequate. Hopefully, at Cancun, the range of observed and predicted climatic trends for different parts of the world 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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