Climate change: still think it’s a myth?

Tick, tock, tick tock. Time marches inexorably forward. In Cancun at the international climate change summit, negotiators exchange texts and proposals on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But 13 years after the Kyoto Summit, little progress has been made in reaching the political breakthrough needed. In the surreal political bubble where UN texts are thrashed out, it sometimes seems like there is all the time in the world. Meanwhile in the real world outside, each day, and every day, tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases are released into our planet’s wafer-thin atmosphere.

As the snow gently falls across northern Europe, many of those who’d rather believe we don’t have a problem take comfort from the wintry weather. But many of the people who take snow and ice as affirmation for a policy of doing nothing have become confused between trends and events. For a while the snow gives the impression that temperatures are getting cooler but the global average readings tell a different story. Throughout 2010, high temperature records have been broken in country after country and this year will be one of the warmest on record. Sure, it’s cold outside, but the natural variability we experience every day in the changing weather must not be confused with the trends that are embedded in longer-term climatic patterns. The trend data show that the world is warming, that the climate is changing and that the release of greenhouse gases is the cause.

Each day more and more of these heat-trapping gases accumulate in the atmosphere. Tick tock, tick tock.

No one knows for certain what might constitute a dangerous level of greenhouse gases, but many scientists believe we may already be at the brink of triggering major changes in the Earth’s climate system. So-called positive feedbacks will mark major points of departure. These feedbacks are changes to the Earth system caused by warming, and that will in turn cause more warming, no matter what we do.

One such feedback, the long-term loss of ice and snow cover, is already underway, leading to more of the Sun’s energy being absorbed rather than reflected back into space. This is one reason why the Artic is warming so quickly. This week I learned of two more feedbacks that might be underway. One is linked to a recent rise in methane concentrations, possibly caused by the melting of permafrost in the northern hemisphere. The other is the third major drought in the Amazon in 12 years. The extreme conditions here have been set off by warm sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic and will cause additional carbon dioxide emissions as the vegetation dies back. If, as projected in some of the climate change models, this becomes a more permanent state of affairs, billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases will be released, as the dense forest transforms to savannah and grassland. The longer we fail to reduce emissions from other sources, power stations, cars, factories and the rest, the bigger the risk we run. Tick tock, tick tock.

Having spent more than two decades urging that the world address this issue with the pressing urgency it evidently requires, I have become more and more convinced of the need for a broad based public mandate for action, and that will only come when enough of us understand what is going on and why. When that happens, it will be possible for politicians to do what is necessary, for companies to change their products and services and for us all to play our part in how we live.

This is why I have been pleased to be a member of the advisory panel that helped with the development of the Science Museum’s new gallery ‘atmosphere: exploring climate science’. This outstanding new resource doesn’t tell people what to think or how to live, but what it does do is present the science that lies behind why the world’s governments are locked in complex negotiations in Cancun.

The climate change challenge is without precedent, both in terms of the scale of the changes underway and the complexity and size of the response needed. And that is why the new gallery is so important. If you believe there is a problem and that we need to act with urgency, pop along and get the information you need to be a confident campaigner for change. More importantly, if you think that a mistake has been made, and that the Earth is not getting warmer, or that the warming is not caused by people, go there and see if you can sustain your complacency.

Tick tock, tick tock…

Originally published by The Independent.