Bryony Worthington on why a slow-down in air temperature increases should not mean the UK rows back on its climate change commitments
Today sees the publication of the 5th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the science of climate change. Over the next 24 hours the contrarians and climate change deniers, keen to derail efforts to clean up our economies, will try to to undermine clear scientific evidence. They will claim that because global average air temperatures have been increasing more slowly than in previous decades, we should pull the plug on efforts to tackle climate change. It is a ridiculous suggestion, for at least 5 key reasons.
First, planetary warming has not stopped: one measurement of it has just slowed down. The amount of energy being released into the atmosphere is greater than that being lost into space and so, thanks to the laws of physics, the world’s energy balance is changing and warming. Precisely where the energy is being stored is a key area of scientific research but it cannot, and has not, simply disappeared into thin air. Sceptics like to highlight the recent slow-down in global average air temperatures, which has happened; but this is just one measurement measured over a relatively short time period. If, as some scientists believe, heat is being stored in warmer oceans, then another big cyclical El Nino event, which last occurred in 1998 and is due any time now, could distribute it back into the atmosphere, causing air temperatures to start rising again.
Second, we are already witnessing impacts because of the additional energy already in the system, some of which, like melting Arctic sea ice, are happening faster than models predicted. Incidents of heatwaves and intense periods of rainfall are also increasing in line with predictions. If we do not slow the release rate of greenhouse gases these impacts and others will only get worse.
Third, the UK has proportionately put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation (except Luxembourg). We are the home of the original fossil fuel powered industrial revolution that scientists are now over 95% sure is causing the majority of planetary warming. We have a responsibility to the rest of the world to usher in a new clean energy revolution. Indeed, there’s a strong moral dimension to why we must lead in efforts to tackle climate change.
Fourth, there is a solution and one which we must be both optimistic and confident about: human ingenuity can and will find ways of powering our world without releasing greenhouse gases. As with the last energy revolution, the development of new cleaner, more efficient ways of powering our factories and homes will bring economic and social benefits. And we are already seeing improvements in our balance of trade with China thanks to the export of green goods and services.
Fifth, rather than do less, the science tells us we all need to do more. Scientists are more certain than ever that our actions are changing the climate and that the risks involved in doing nothing about it are large. We have to act and act quickly but our efforts to date have not been sufficient. To date, the lack of action has partly been because it is a global problem requiring global action and, until recently, big countries like China and the US did not appear to be playing their part. Now that they are making much stronger progress in introducing carbon constraining policies, we in the UK must stick together with the rest of Europe to strengthen our own commitments.
Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords
Published 27th September 2013