Environment: Trading in Destruction

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The solutions put forward at a recent conference on climate change in Exeter are inadequate, writes Ian Rappel. Our interview of the month is with environment activist George Monbiot.

Another month passes, and the issue of global warming hits the headlines once again. A series of dire predictions and scenarios poured forth from a conference on 'Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change' held at the Hedley Centre of the UK Meteorological (Met) Office in Exeter last month. This event brought together over 200 scientists from 30 countries, and was sponsored by the UK government's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), at the behest of Tony Blair himself.

The conference delegates discussed the social, economic and ecological impacts of climate change at regional and global levels, and went on to consider various options and scenarios for stabilising greenhouse gas emissions. The reports (www.stabilisation2005.com) make for terrifying reading.

Overall it was concluded that the various climate change risks to which we are being exposed are more serious than previously suggested by the UN. There is now strong evidence that climate change is already under way and that future emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to increase global temperatures by between 1.4°C and 5.8°C during this century.

On current trends, the attack on the climate will continue on two fronts. Firstly, industrial, domestic and transport emissions of greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) - will rise. The IEA World Energy Outlook predicts that CO2 emissions will increase by 63 percent on 2002 levels by 2030 - committing the world to a temperature rise of between 0.5°C and 2°C by 2050.

Emissions increase is significant in itself, but the situation is likely to worsen through ongoing disruption to the planet's ecological systems that are capable of countering or softening the impact of global warming. The increased acidity of the oceans and continuing tropical deforestation mean that the two most significant 'carbon sinks' that take CO2 out of the atmosphere may well become inoperable. The oceans could reach CO2 saturation point and the forests, if logged and burnt at current rates, will release more CO2 than they absorb.

The regional and global impacts of climate change are wide-ranging and breathtaking in their implications. There is some speculation that certain parts of the world - notably the temperate, 'developed' regions - are likely to 'benefit' from a mild increase in temperature. In contrast, however, the entire continent of Africa is expected to fall even further behind as drought, disease and crop failure increase in reaction to this initial temperature increase.

No region is likely to benefit from a rise in global temperature of more than 1°C. For example, a regional increase of 2.7°C (corresponding to 1.5°C global increase) could be the threshold that triggers the melting of the Greenland ice-cap, with all its implications for sea level and climate change for eastern North America and Europe.

Disruptions occurring because of a global increase between 1°C and 3°C pale in significance to those that could accompany an increase above 3°C. Here, large-scale irreversible systemic disruptions are likely, including changes to the planet's climatic and oceanic circulation systems and destabilisation of the Antarctic ice sheets.

The Exeter conference significantly argued that the impacts of climate change are already being felt and observed. Changes to polar ice, glaciers and rainfall regimes have occurred. And while the links between these changes and man-made climate change require further research, they remain consistent with the projection models used to date. The expected extreme weather conditions (heat waves, storms, hurricanes, flooding, etc) have likewise already been recorded - Europe's drought in 2003, and most recently, Australia's storms of January 2005.

Finally, the conference concluded that the rate of adjustment will have to be greater the longer action for greenhouse gas stabilisation is delayed. A 20-year delay could require the rate of emission reduction to be three to seven times greater to reach the same temperature. Even a delay of five years could be significant.

Having established the need for urgency and dynamism, however, the Exeter conference failed to rise to its own challenge. Instead, a number of limited technical and market-driven solutions and recommendations are placed before us - including emissions trading and nuclear energy!

There are glaring contradictions between these piecemeal 'solutions' and the urgency and the magnitude of the changes that are needed to actually stabilise our climate. The belief that the industry will simply adopt environmentally sustainable measures which may eat into profits is deeply inadequate in the face of a system in which the most powerful tear up agreements on the environment, plunder natural resources and wreak global environmental havoc, not least through war.

What the Exeter conference shows beyond doubt is the need to urgently knit the issue of environmental sustainability into our resistance to neoliberalism and war, and to capitalism as a whole.