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Time for the All-out War on Climate Change
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By Jeremy Leggett

In last Friday's report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have a mayday alert. The fourth scientific assessment from this expert group in 17 years tells us that the first tank battalions have already broken through the border. Reading between the committee-written lines one can sense the panic.

In 1990, I listened to the scientists who had completed the IPCC's first assessment in a hotel in Berkshire, southern England. At a press conference, Margaret Thatcher, not otherwise known for eco- doom-mongering, warned the report would "change our way of life", and that we would cry out in the future not for oil, but water.

The world seemed to be listening. The UN called for multilateral negotiations and most governments signed up. But these have run now for 16 years, and they have done little to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of the reasons for this failure sat with me in the room that day in 1990. The lobbyists from Exxon, OPEC and the world's coal groups could not persuade the scientists to soften their language, though they tried.

'Carbon club' lies

But ever since, the "carbon club" has spun a formidable web of obfuscation at best, lies at worst. Much slush money has been cast about trying to buy public confusion, as it had been by the tobacco industry.

This, plus the carbon pushers' proxy ownership of key seats at the political table not least in the current White House administration has kept us addicted to the fuels that cause most of the greenhouse problem, and meant that the survival technologies remain pitifully neglected, despite their enormous potential.

The second and third assessments narrowed the uncertainties. By 1995 the IPCC's scientists who must operate on consensus when writing their reports were persuaded that they could see the first faint imprint of human enhancement of the greenhouse effect, in the pattern of rising temperatures around the globe.

This, plus British Petroleum's farsighted defection from the carbon club's ranks, which split the vested interest for the first time, allowed the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The third report persuaded the rest of the world to keep the Kyoto process alive after Bush's US pulled out in 2001.

Prepare for worst case

Back in December 1990, at the World Climate Conference a UN event called to kick-start negotiations for a global climate treaty colleagues from Greenpeace and I called for a worst-case analysis to be considered.

If this were a military security exercise, we argued, we would be basing our policy response on the worst-case analysis, not the best-guess consensus. We tabled a scenario wherein human greenhouse gas emissions stimulated huge emissions in nature, for example from the melting permafrost and drying soils and forests, none of which were in the climate models of the day. Scientists call such amplifications positive feedbacks.

In the very worst case, the amplifications could lead to a runaway effect, we argued, where feedbacks drown the potential to cut human emissions from fossil-fuel-burning and other sources.

Society needed to take out massive insurance against this horrific prospect, we argued. Billions needed to be invested in renewable and efficient-energy technologies, just as billions had been invested, rightly or wrongly, in taking out military insurance against a worst-case scenario of invasion during the Cold War.

This was dismissed as scaremongering at the time. But today, checking the feedbacks in that 17-year-old scenario against emerging reality, almost every box has to be ticked.
Now the invasion is upon us, surely we can delay no longer. We need to go at the task as though we are mobilizing for war. In an unnecessarily great hurry.

The author is an award-winning scientist.

(China Daily via agencies February 6, 2007)

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