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
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
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
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
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)