Warming to climate change

Here is the text of an article recently published in the Marshwood Vale Magazine

“Britain colder than the South Pole” trumpeted a headline in December last year as we endured a second bitterly cold winter.  Living through a cold winter leaves some people sceptical about claims that the climate is getting warmer, a sentiment reflected in headlines like “Britons going cold on global warming”.  Superficially it may be reasonable to draw this conclusion but it runs counter to the scientific consensus. 

The scientific consensus on climate change

Climate science is complex; it deals in probabilities and predictions, not certainties.  Nevertheless, the scientific consensus is that there is warming of the planet.  For example, a recent report from the UK’s premier science body, the Royal Society, concluded that climate change had significant implications for present and future lives.  The report noted warming of the planet by nearly one degree centigrade since 1850 and concluded that there was “strong evidence that warming of the Earth over the last half century was largely caused by human activity such as burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use”.  It is important to understand that these changes in temperature are global averages so that local temperatures e.g. cold winters in the UK are poor guides to global conditions. 

A change in global temperature of about one degree seems almost trivial but it destabilises some of the important determinants of our climate.  For example, warmer air can hold more water vapour and this extra water vapour leads to more intense rainfall and increased storms.  So one rather obvious effect of global warming is an increase in extreme weather events and this can only worsen as we continue burning fossil fuels.  

Public opinion on climate change

Despite the apparent scientific consensus there are some very vocal individuals who doubt the ideas of climate change, the so-called climate change sceptics.  But what about the general population, what is their attitude to climate change?  Let’s look at two recent opinion polls.  An IPSOS/Mori poll in 2010 found that only 31% of respondents agreed that climate change was definitely a reality.  In contrast a Guardian/ICM poll in 2011 reported that when asked if climate change posed a current or imminent threat, 83% of Britons agreed.  68% of those asked agreed that humanity is causing climate change.  The figures show how difficult it is to gauge opinion on the basis of a single opinion poll but they do suggest a degree of scepticism in the general public.  Much will need to be done to bring the public “on side” and the situation is not helped by the lack of international political will shown in recent conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun.

Adapting to climate change?

Although there may be public scepticism, the scientific consensus supports global warming and attendant climate change.  How will this affect the beautiful and historic part of the country in which we live?  A recent report from a body called Climate South West addresses this.  The report is called “Warming to the idea – 2010” and one of its key conclusions is that “Climate change is happening now in the South West and we are already vulnerable to extreme weather.  We need to plan for both current and future vulnerability.”  The report contains predictions (albeit with a level of uncertainty) of the climate in 2050 with temperatures 2-3 degrees warmer, wetter winters, drier summers and increases in extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall or heatwaves.  Sea levels are predicted to be about 20 cm higher leading to increased flooding and coastal erosion.  The report concludes that “Further climate change is inevitable and unavoidable.  Planning for the impacts will be more cost-effective than reacting to them.”  So it’s far better to come to terms with climate change now and plan accordingly rather than just waiting to react to its effects in the future. 

The report highlights some of the threats posed to the South West by climate change but it also points out some opportunities.  Threats are many and include coastal erosion, increased flood risk, changes in animal and plant species, and reduced pest die-off in winter.  Opportunities include increased tourism, growth of new crops and increased markets for leisure, renewable energy and adaptation.

So it’s not all doom and gloom.  There will be increased opportunities for business in a longer tourist season and new opportunities to grow different crops; vineyards or fields of sunflowers could become features of the Dorset landscape as the climate warms.  But we will have to adapt; communities and roads close to the sea may become vulnerable.  For example the Preston Beach Road linking Weymouth and East Dorset may be unsustainable beyond the middle of this century as sea levels rise and realignment of the road may be necessary.

We need to plan for the effects of climate change and it is good to see this report.  Climate South West is funded by a group of organisations each with an interest in the future of the South West.  These include insurance companies, water companies, the NHS, conservation bodies and DEFRA.  It is reassuring to see these bodies taking the consequences of global warming and climate change seriously despite the lack of global action.

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