SGR Position Statement on Climate Change 1997

November 1997
 

Summary

Scientists for Global Responsibility accepts
1.1. the conclusion of the IPCC WG I report (1996) that 'the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate'.
1.2. the conclusion of the IPCC WG III report (1996) that, in tackling the problem of climate change, 'significant "no regrets" opportunities are available in most countries... and application of the precautionary principle provide rationales for action beyond no regrets'.
 
Scientists for Global Responsibility believes that many measures recommended by IPCC WG III (1996) to tackle climate change could and should be implemented (taking full account of the question of international equity), in particular:
2.1. removal of barriers to the implementation of energy efficiency.
2.2. promotion of and investment in renewable energy sources.
2.3. ecological tax reform (increasing taxes on energy and pollution and decreasing taxes on income).
2.4. phasing out subsidies on fossil fuel sources of energy, including aviation fuel.
2.5. protection of forestry.

Scientists for Global Responsibility also believes that
3.1. current proposals for climate/ geo-engineering should not be applied to try to offset greenhouse gas emissions, because of the complexity of the climate system and our current inadequate understanding of the feedback processes within this system.
3.2. the current application by many researchers of cost-benefit analysis to the assessment of climate change is inappropriate, as it involves the highly subjective valuation of social and environmental qualities, including ecosystems and human life.

Therefore, Scientists for Global Responsibility believes that, at CoP-3 in Kyoto,
4.1. as a step towards the aims of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreement of a legally binding target of at least 20% reduction of CO2 emissions over 1990 levels by 2010 by Annex 1 (industrialised) countries is needed.
4.2. legally binding emission reduction targets of a similar magnitude should be agreed for all other greenhouse gases not covered by the Montreal Protocol.
4.3. effective monitoring procedures should be set up to verify emissions reductions.
4.4. the implementation of climate engineering proposals should be prohibited until a much more comprehensive understanding of the climate system is achieved.

Following CoP-3, Scientists for Global Responsibility believes that
5.1. further reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised countries are necessary until such time as 'dangerous anthropogenic inference with the climate system' is no longer believed to be a possibility.
5.2. a strategy for contraction in global greenhouse gas emissions and convergence towards equal per capita level of emissions on a global scale should be implemented.
 

Main Text

The Problem

Since the Rio Earth Summit, the UK and over 160 other countries have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which commits them to “stabilising greenhouse gases concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human-induced interference with the climate system” [1]. Credible scientists have now reached a consensus that “the balance of the evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate” [2]. Such influence, if continued, could lead to global warming greater than at any time in the last 10,000 years. This was the conclusion of the 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body set up to review the evidence, which drew on the work of some 2,000 of the world’s leading scientists. We are a group of scientists independent of the IPCC, but we fully support its conclusions.
 
At Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, the World’s governments meet again to agree on binding commitments to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases which are causing this human-induced climate change. Despite an earlier commitment by the industrialised nations to aim to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, all countries except the UK and Germany are set to fail to meet this commitment. It is important to realise, however, that stabilisation of current emission levels will not lead to a stabilisation of atmospheric concentrations. Currently, emissions of CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) are equivalent to over 6 billion tonnes of Carbon per year. Of this, about half are taken up by the oceans and by forests and soils, with the remainder contributing to the increased atmospheric concentration. Once in the atmosphere, CO2 has a lifetime of the order of 100 years before it is eventually taken up by either the ocean or land sinks. So, to stabilise atmospheric concentrations at current levels would require an immediate reduction of at least 50% in emissions [2]. In the meantime, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 continues to rise from its level before the industrial revolution of around 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to its current level of 365 ppmv (a 30% increase) and beyond. Concentration of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and CFCs (which have higher global warming potentials), have increased even more rapidly this century. The evidence suggests that the current magnitude and rate of increase in the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are likely to cause significant effects on the global climate system.

The Evidence

The evidence that the increase in the content of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely to cause dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate system comes from two main sources - historical records and global climate models. By analysing data taken from ice cores in Antarctica, scientists were able to build up a record of the climate and CO2 levels over the past 160,000 years [3]. This record showed a remarkably close correlation between the atmospheric CO2 concentration and the average global temperature. Subsequent studies at other locations have confirmed this correlation.
 
Scientists at the U.K. Met. Office and other institutions have, over the last 20 years, been developing sophisticated models of the global climate system which run on super-computers. Current trends indicate that the atmospheric CO2 concentration will reach double the pre-industrial level, around 550 ppmv, by the year 2050. The models predict that this would result in a global warming of between 1.5 and 4.5 oC, most probably 2.5 oC [2]. By including both warming effects and a slight cooling effect due to short-lived sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere, these models have become increasingly accurate in reproducing the 0.5 oC rise observed over the last century. Whilst there are still a number of uncertainties, particularly related to feedback effects - both positive and negative - due to for example increased cloud cover or thawing permafrost, this success increases confidence in the models’ future predictions.

The Consequences

The likely consequences of a global warming of the amount predicted by the climate models are many and diverse, and both their effects and the ability to adapt to them will differ greatly between different regions and countries of the world. The most established consequence is sea-level rise. As the ocean warms, the volume of the water will increase by thermal expansion causing the sea-level to rise. In addition, as the warming causes melting of the land ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica, the melt water will add to the sea-level rise. The consequences of this will be felt most dramatically by small island states, especially those in the South Pacific such as Kiribati, which face the disappearance of their entire nation under the rising waters.
Furthermore, many low lying areas which are home to fertile arable land and large cities, such as in Bangladesh, Egypt and the Netherlands, will be at risk from an increasing frequency and magnitude of flooding. Indeed, projected sea-level rise over the next century is likely to double or even treble the number of people at risk from flooding [4].
 
The warming is also likely to lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of other severe weather effects including storms, hurricanes, heat waves and droughts. This threat is already being taken extremely seriously by the global insurance industry, in view of the fact that the number of million dollar insurance claims has been steadily increasing over recent years [4].
 
A further possible major effect of warming could be the disruption of the global ocean current system. Recent research [5] suggests that a rapid rate of warming could lead to the displacement and eventual switch-off of the North Atlantic Current, the extension of the Gulf Stream which currently keeps Britain and Northern Europe several degrees warmer then they would otherwise be. Thus, global warming could lead to regional and local cooling in Britain and other parts of Europe - illustrating both the sensitivity of the global climate-ocean system and the need to take a precautionary approach.
 
Indeed, human-induced climatic change could already be causing severe problems. The El-Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the largest natural fluctuation in the climate system, but recently it has been increasing in both frequency and strength, with devastating effects on agriculture in South America and contributing to the 1997 smog over Indonesia. Initial research [6] shows that such effects are compatible with global warming although it is too early to say whether there is a direct causal link.

Climatic change is also likely to disrupt both agriculture and natural biological diversity. As regional climate changes, crops, plants and animals will have to adapt or migrate. Regional climate is likely to change much faster than the global average. Of course, the faster the change, the less chance ecosystems will have to adapt naturally without major loss of species or considerably lower crop yields.

It is clear that the potential consequences of global warming are likely to put a great strain on many already fragile human and natural systems. It is particularly ironic that the major burdens will be felt most keenly by people in poorer countries in the South who lack the resources to adapt, when the vast majority of the contribution to global warming has so far come from richer, industrialised nations, such as the UK and the USA. Indeed, this fact is obscured by the application of 'Cost-Benefit Analysis' to the assessment of climate change. Due to the higher cost of living in the industrialised nations, damages, including loss of human life, are valued at a higher monetary level, leading to a disproportionately low assessment of the effects on the countries of the South.

The Action Needed

Given the significant possibility of catastrophic effects due to climate change, but in view of the remaining uncertainties in our assessment of the problem, what action should governments take now and what agreement is necessary at the meeting in Kyoto? In this context, applying the precautionary principle is simple common sense. After all, we pay to insure our homes and possessions against possible risks, shouldn’t we do the same with our even more valuable planet? Moreover, many of the necessary steps that we would have to take are indeed ‘win-win’ [7]. For example, action to improve energy efficiency and insulation in homes in the UK would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and greatly benefit the poorest people in the country. Action to move away from excessive car use by a better funded and integrated public transport system would also reduce congestion and local air pollution. Moving to more small-scale and renewable forms of energy generation, such as solar power, could also create thousands of new jobs. These initiatives would be aided by ecological tax reform (the taxing of energy and pollution rather than income).

The major lobby against action comes from an alliance of oil companies and motor manufacturers, known as the ‘Global Climate Coalition’ (GCC), who see their industries and their profits under threat. They heavily fund 'sceptic' researchers who do not accept the evidence for global warming. Others, however, go further, suggesting that current research aimed at altering the dynamics of the climate system so that it can take up more greenhouse gases should be applied. Such climate- or 'geo-engineering' includes adding iron to the fertile surface layers of the ocean to enhance its ability to absorb greenhouse gases. But our ability to predict the effects of such action is very low, hence, there is a significant risk that it could make matters worse.

However, there are signs that the opposition to action on climate change is declining. Recently, a major European oil company broke away from the GCC, accepting the evidence for global warming and announcing investment in solar energy.
 
The SGR View

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) believes that a reduction of at least 20% in greenhouse gas emissions by industrialised countries by 2010 is both urgently needed and technologically and economically feasible - but the necessary changes require political will and informed public consent. This target would need to be followed by further reductions in future decades as our knowledge of the consequences and effects of climate change increases, but they would also act as a spur to the development of cleaner and more efficient technologies.
 
The bottom line in the need for action now, though, comes from a consideration of the question of equity between people in richer and poorer nations. The majority (over 80%) of the greenhouse gas emissions so far have come from the richer, industrialised nations, so they should be the first to reduce their emissions. Moreover, developing countries naturally aspire to the standard of living seen in industrialised countries and in some cases are already undergoing rapid economic growth. Industrialised countries need to set an example which is more sustainable, energy efficient and with large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. SGR believes that the only long-term solution to the problem of global warming is to move towards a strategy of contraction in emissions and convergence towards equal per capita emissions on a global scale, as advocated by the Global Commons Institute (GCI).

References

[1]. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Article 2 (1992).

[2]. IPCC WG I (1996) Climate change 1995: The Science of Climate Change - Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, Houghton J.T., Meira Filho L.G., Callander B.A., Harris N., Kattenberg A., Maskell K. (eds.) Cambridge University Press, UK.

[3]. J. Jouzel et al. (1987) ‘Vostok Ice Core: A Continuous Isotope Temperature Record over the Last Climatic Cycle’, Nature 329, 403-408.

[4] IPCC WG II (1996) Climate Change 1995 - Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change: Scientific-Technical Analyses. Contribution of Working Group II to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, R.T. Watson, M.C. Zinyowera, R.H. Moss (eds.), Cambridge University Press, UK.

[5]. T.F. Stocker, A. Schmittner (1997) ‘Influence of CO2 emissions on the stability of the thermohaline circulation’, Nature 388, 862-865.

[6] Meehl G.A., Branstator G.W., Washington W.M. (1993) ‘Tropical Pacific interannual variability and CO2 climate change’, Journal of Climate 6, 42-63.

[7] IPCC WG III (1996) Climate Change 1995 - Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Editors J. Bruce, Hoesung Lee, E. Haites, Cambridge University Press, UK.