Betreff: Apocalypse now: how mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the Earth
Von: Teresa Binstock
Datum: Sun, 06 Feb 2005 08:19:30 -0700

Apocalypse now: how mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the Earth

Floods, storms and droughts. Melting Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers,
oceans turning to acid.

The world's top scientists warned last week that dangerous climate
change is taking place today, not the day after tomorrow. You don't
believe it?

Then, says Geoffrey Lean, read this...

06 February 2005

Future historians, looking back from a much hotter and less hospitable
world, are likely to play special attention to the first few weeks of
2005. As they puzzle over how a whole generation could have sleepwalked
into disaster - destroying the climate that has allowed human
civilisation to flourish over the past 11,000 years - they may well
identify the past weeks as the time when the last alarms sounded.

Last week, 200 of the world's leading climate scientists - meeting at
Tony Blair's request at the Met Office's new headquarters at Exeter -
issued the most urgent warning to date that dangerous climate change is
taking place, and that time is running out.

Next week the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that tries to
control global warming, comes into force after a seven-year delay. But
it is clear that the protocol does not go nearly far enough.

The alarms have been going off since the beginning of one of the warmest
Januaries on record. First, Dr Rajendra Pachauri - chairman of the
official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - told a UN
conference in Mauritius that the pollution which causes global warming
has reached "dangerous" levels.

Then the biggest-ever study of climate change, based at Oxford
University, reported that it could prove to be twice as catastrophic as
the IPCC's worst predictions. And an international task force - also
reporting to Tony Blair, and co-chaired by his close ally, Stephen Byers
- concluded that we could reach "the point of no return" in a decade.

Finally, the UK head of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, took time out - just before
his company reported record profits mainly achieved by selling oil, one
of the main causes of the problem - to warn that unless governments take
urgent action there "will be a disaster".

But it was last week at the Met Office's futuristic glass headquarters,
incongruously set in a dreary industrial estate on the outskirts of
Exeter, that it all came together. The conference had been called by the
Prime Minister to advise him on how to "avoid dangerous climate change".
He needed help in persuading the world to prioritise the issue this year
during Britain's presidencies of the EU and the G8 group of economic powers.

The conference opened with the Secretary of State for the Environment,
Margaret Beckett, warning that "a significant impact" from global
warming "is already inevitable". It continued with presentations from
top scientists and economists from every continent. These showed that
some dangerous climate change was already taking place and that
catastrophic events once thought highly improbable were now seen as
likely (see panel). Avoiding the worst was technically simple and
economically cheap, they said, provided that governments could be
persuaded to take immediate action.

About halfway through I realised that I had been here before. In the
summer of 1986 the world's leading nuclear experts gathered in Vienna
for an inquest into the accident at Chernobyl. The head of the Russian
delegation showed a film shot from a helicopter, and we suddenly found
ourselves gazing down on the red-hot exposed reactor core.

It was all, of course, much less dramatic at Exeter. But as paper
followed learned paper, once again a group of world authorities were
staring at a crisis they had devoted their lives to trying to avoid.

I am willing to bet there were few in the room who did not sense their
children or grandchildren standing invisibly at their shoulders. The
conference formally concluded that climate change was "already
occurring" and that "in many cases the risks are more serious than
previously thought". But the cautious scientific language scarcely does
justice to the sense of the meeting.

We learned that glaciers are shrinking around the world. Arctic sea ice
has lost almost half its thickness in recent decades. Natural disasters
are increasing rapidly around the world. Those caused by the weather -
such as droughts, storms, and floods - are rising three times faster
than those - such as earthquakes - that are not.

We learned that bird populations in the North Sea collapsed last year,
after the sand eels on which they feed left its warmer waters - and how
the number of scientific papers recording changes in ecosystems due to
global warming has escalated from 14 to more than a thousand in five years.

Worse, leading scientists warned of catastrophic changes that once they
had dismissed as "improbable". The meeting was particularly alarmed by
powerful evidence, first reported in The Independent on Sunday last
July, that the oceans are slowly turning acid, threatening all marine
life (see panel).

Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey,
presented new evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to
melt, threatening eventually to raise sea levels by 15ft: 90 per cent of
the world's people live near current sea levels. Recalling that the
IPCC's last report had called Antarctica "a slumbering giant", he said:
"I would say that this is now an awakened giant."

Professor Mike Schlesinger, of the University of Illinois, reported that
the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, once seen as a "low probability event",
was now 45 per cent likely this century, and 70 per cent probable by
2200. If it comes sooner rather than later it will be catastrophic for
Britain and northern Europe, giving us a climate like Labrador (which
shares our latitude) even as the rest of the world heats up: if it comes
later it could be beneficial, moderating the worst of the warming.

The experts at Exeter were virtually unanimous about the danger,
mirroring the attitude of the climate science community as a whole:
humanity is to blame. There were a few sceptics at Exeter, including
Andrei Illarionov, an adviser to Russia's President Putin, who last year
called the Kyoto Protocol "an interstate Auschwitz". But in truth it is
much easier to find sceptics among media pundits in London or neo-cons
in Washington than among climate scientists. Even the few contrarian
climatalogists publish little research to support their views,
concentrating on questioning the work of others.

Now a new scientific consensus is emerging - that the warming must be
kept below an average increase of two degrees centigrade if catastrophe
is to be avoided. This almost certainly involves keeping concentrations
of carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change, below 400 parts per

Unfortunately we are almost there, with concentrations exceeding 370ppm
and rising, but experts at the conference concluded that we could go
briefly above the danger level so long as we brought it down rapidly
afterwards. They added that this would involve the world reducing
emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 - and rich countries cutting theirs by
30 per cent by 2020.

Economists stressed there is little time for delay. If action is put off
for a decade, it will need to be twice as radical; if it has to wait 20
years, it will cost between three and seven times as much.

The good news is that it can be done with existing technology, by
cutting energy waste, expanding the use of renewable sources, growing
trees and crops (which remove carbon dioxide from the air) to turn into
fuel, capturing the gas before it is released from power stations, and -
maybe - using more nuclear energy.

The better news is that it would not cost much: one estimate suggested
the cost would be about 1 per cent of Europe's GNP spread over 20 years;
another suggested it meant postponing an expected fivefold increase in
world wealth by just two years. Many experts believe combatting global
warming would increase prosperity, by bringing in new technologies.

The big question is whether governments will act. President Bush's
opposition to international action remains the greatest obstacle. Tony
Blair, by almost universal agreement, remains the leader with the best
chance of persuading him to change his mind.

But so far the Prime Minister has been more influenced by the President
than the other way round. He appears to be moving away from fighting for
the pollution reductions needed in favour of agreeing on a vague pledge
to bring in new technologies sometime in the future.

By then it will be too late. And our children and grandchildren will
wonder - as we do in surveying, for example, the drift into the First
World War - "how on earth could they be so blind?"


What could happen? Wars break out over diminishing water resources as
populations grow and rains fail.

How would this come about? Over 25 per cent more people than at present
are expected to live in countries where water is scarce in the future,
and global warming will make it worse.

How likely is it? Former UN chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali has long said
that the next Middle East war will be fought for water, not oil.


What could happen? Low-lying island such as the Maldives and Tuvalu -
with highest points only a few feet above sea-level - will disappear off
the face of the Earth.

How would this come about? As the world heats up, sea levels are rising,
partly because glaciers are melting, and partly because the water in the
oceans expands as it gets warmer.

How likely is it? Inevitable. Even if global warming stopped today, the
seas would continue to rise for centuries. Some small islands have
already sunk for ever. A year ago, Tuvalu was briefly submerged.


What could happen? London, New York, Tokyo, Bombay, many other cities
and vast areas of countries from Britain to Bangladesh disappear under
tens of feet of water, as the seas rise dramatically.

How would this come about? Ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica melt.
The Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels by more than 20ft, the
West Antarctic ice sheet by another 15ft.

How likely is it? Scientists used to think it unlikely, but this year
reported that the melting of both ice caps had begun. It will take
hundreds of years, however, for the seas to rise that much.


What could happen? Global warming escalates to the point where the
world's whole climate abruptly switches, turning it permanently into a
much hotter and less hospitable planet.

How would this come about? A process involving "positive feedback"
causes the warming to fuel itself, until it reaches a point that finally
tips the climate pattern over.

How likely is it? Abrupt flips have happened in the prehistoric past.
Scientists believe this is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future,
but increasingly they are refusing to rule it out.


What could happen? Famously wet tropical forests, such as those in the
Amazon, go up in flames, destroying the world's richest wildlife
habitats and releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide to speed global

How would this come about? Britain's Met Office predicted in 1999 that
much of the Amazon will dry out and die within 50 years, making it ready
for sparks - from humans or lightning - to set it ablaze.

How likely is it? Very, if the predictions turn out to be right. Already
there have been massive forest fires in Borneo and Amazonia, casting
palls of highly polluting smoke over vast areas.


What could happen? Britain and northern Europe get much colder because
the Gulf Stream, which provides as much heat as the sun in winter, fails.

How would this come about? Melting polar ice sends fresh water into the
North Atlantic. The less salty water fails to generate the underwater
current which the Gulf Stream needs.

How likely is it? About

evens for a Gulf Steam failure this century, said scientists last week.


What could happen? Food production collapses in Africa, for example, as
rainfall dries up and droughts increase. As farmland turns to desert,
people flee in their millions in search of food.

How would this come about? Rainfall is expected to decrease by up to 60
per cent in winter and 30 per cent in summer in southern Africa this
century. By some estimates, Zambia could lose almost all its farms.

How likely is it? Pretty likely unless the world tackles both global
warming and Africa's decline. Scientists agree that droughts will
increase in a warmer world.


What could happen? The seas will gradually turn more and more acid.
Coral reefs, shellfish and plankton, on which all life depends, will die
off. Much of the life of the oceans will become extinct.

How would this come about? The oceans have absorbed half the carbon
dioxide, the main cause of global warming, so far emitted by humanity.
This forms dilute carbonic acid, which attacks corals and shells.

How likely is it? It is already starting. Scientists warn that the
chemistry of the oceans is changing in ways unprecedented for 20 million
years. Some predict that the world's coral reefs will die within 35 years.


What could happen? Malaria - which kills two million people worldwide
every year - reaches Britain with foreign travellers, gets picked up by
British mosquitos and becomes endemic in the warmer climate.

How would this come about? Four of our 40 mosquito species can carry the
disease, and hundreds of travellers return with it annually. The insects
breed faster, and feed more, in warmer temperatures.

How likely is it? A Department of Health study has suggested it may
happen by 2050: the Environment Agency has mentioned 2020. Some experts
say it is miraculous that it has not happened already.


What could happen? Hurricanes, typhoons and violent storms proliferate,
grow even fiercer, and hit new areas. Last September's repeated
battering of Florida and the Caribbean may be just a foretaste of what
is to come, say scientists.

How would this come about? The storms gather their energy from warm
seas, and so, as oceans heat up, fiercer ones occur and threaten areas
where at present the seas are too cool for such weather.

How likely is it? Scientists are divided over whether storms will get
more frequent and whether the process has already begun.

<> * Rainfall in the South could drop by half <> Leading article: The world cannot wait <>