As scientists at Rothamsted’s GM trials plead with activists not to sabotage their work, Michael McCarthy of The Independent visits the battle field
The trial involves a wheat strain modified to be resistant to aphid pests, but an ad hoc group of activists, assembled in a campaign entitled Take The Flour Back, have said they will march to the trial site this Sunday and attempt to destroy the young crops.
The activists say the trial, at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, is a threat to agriculture because pollen from the GM wheat could contaminate non-GM plants outside the trial boundary, and they believe GM is in general a dangerous and inappropriate technology for agriculture. But the scientists say cross-contamination from the site is virtually impossible, and that the new strain of wheat they are producing, besides being a boost to food security in an ever-hungrier world, itself has significant environmental benefits, as it will mean the input of pesticides is considerably lessened.
At Rothamsted yesterday, three of the leading figures in the project appealed to the protesters not to destroy it, saying they would be on the site on Sunday and would be happy to talk to the activists. “Call off your plans to destroy our experiment and come on the day and talk to us, but don’t come in a mindset of destruction,” said Dr Gia Aradottir. “This is a sustainable method that would reduce the carbon footprint for agriculture, if we don’t need to be driving tractors spraying pesticides. Surely that’s a good thing for environment? If they understand the technology and they understand what we’re doing, then they should embrace it, because really we have the same goals.”
Professor Johnathan Napier said: “Why would you want to destroy knowledge? I would ask the protesters what their solutions are to the problem of food security with the growth of the human population. What are your solutions to how are we going to feed nine billion people? We can’t do it by just simple highly-intensive, low-input organic production systems. We have to use lots of approaches.”
Professor Huw Jones, head of Rothamsted’s Cereal Transformation Lab, said that to destroy the experiment would be “absolutely counter-productive”. He said: “We are going to need to grow an awful lot more food to feed the world by 2050 and to do this more sustainably, with less water and the prospect of climate change, will be a very big challenge.”
The demonstrators are meeting at noon on Sunday in Rothamsted Park, and will march to the trial site, which is about a mile away, and which has a 2.4-metre chain links fence surrounding it. A spokesman for Take The Flour Back would not specifically say they would attempt to break through the fence, but said the purpose of the demonstration was “a decontamination” of the site.
Hertfordshire Police said they would have an “appropriate presence” at the demonstration. “We fully recognise the right to demonstrate lawfully, but it is also our job to uphold the law, and we will respond appropriately to any criminal acts,” a spokeswoman said.
The GM wheat plants are now nearly a foot tall, and due to be harvested in September, and the current research consists in measuring the aphid presence in the GM wheat against the number of aphids found in control-plots of non-GM wheat.
The modified crops contain a pheromone which is identical to the chemical used by the aphids as an alarm signal; when the aphids encounter it, they scatter, and aphid predators are attracted. The chemical, E-Beta-farnesene or EBF, is naturally occurring and found in about 400 plants, from hops to peppermint. The current trial at Rothamsted is being sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, so in effect it is being funded by the taxpayer.
In this, as in several other respects, it differs from the widely publicised trials of commercial GM crops promoted by giant agribusiness companies a decade ago, which found they would damage the environment as the extra-powerful weedkillers they were designed to tolerate would kill much other wildlife beside the target pests.
There has since been a virtual moratorium on GM crops in Britain and in much of Europe, although in other parts of the world GM technology is widely employed in agriculture on crops such as maize and soya beans.
- The Genetically Modified Food debate moves on… (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Farmer charged with criminal damage at GM crop trial site – The Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
- Farmer charged with criminal damage at GM crop trial site (guardian.co.uk)
- Modified wheat trial vandalised (bbc.co.uk)
- Man Charged Over GM Crop Trial Lab Vandalism (news.sky.com)
- GM wheat ‘damage attempt’ condemned (independent.co.uk)
- Hertfordshire town holds key to rich harvests, claim scientists. So why do activists target it? (guardian.co.uk)
- Organic Farmer Charged for Disturbing Genetically-Modified Crop Trial (commondreams.org)
- Aristocrat old Etonian eco-warrior ‘vandalises’ controversial GM wheat field trial (dailymail.co.uk)
COMMENT: I recently visited another the Chinese city of Kungming where anyone can buy a tiny ‘cute’ turtle swimming around inside a tiny plastic bowl… It’s a toy. But read on, in THE INDEPENDENT today…
Turtles and tortoises are now the most endangered group of vertebrate animals, with more than half of their 328 species threatened with extinction, according to a new report.
Their populations are being depleted by unsustainable hunting, both for food and for use in traditional Chinese medicine, by large-scale collection for the pet trade, and by the widespread pollution and destruction of their habitats, according to the study Turtles In Trouble, produced by a coalition of turtle conservation groups.
The result is that their plight has never been greater, and the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in a few decades without concerted conservation efforts, the report says.
Asia is the worst affected region; of the 25 most endangered turtles, more than two thirds (17) are from Asia, a result of decades of massive exploitation. “For example, in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, close to 100,000 wild caught turtles are butchered for consumption during a one-day religious holiday each year,” the report adds.
It goes on: “Furthering the problem is a lucrative international black market trade in pet turtles and tortoises that has escalated prices of some of the more rare species into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rumours even exist that some of the rarest Asian species are now commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The world’s 328 species are divided into 263 fresh water and terrestrial turtles, and 58 species of tortoises (plus seven sea turtles which are not covered in detail by the report). With up to 54 per cent of the total considered threatened, turtles and tortoises are at a much higher risk of extinction, the report says, than other vertebrates such as birds, mammals, sharks and rays or even amphibians – which are usually considered the most endangered grouping.
“Turtles are disappearing fast and we are dealing with one of the most significant wildlife crises of our lifetime,” says Rick Hudson, President of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA)
. Several species are down to just a handful of remaining individuals.
No. 1 on the list is the Pinta Island tortoise, one of the Galapagos tortoises species that contributed to Charles Darwin’s theories on “natural selection”. Sadly, only a single male of this species, “Lonesome George”, remains alive today, and the report comments: “Ironically, Darwin and other travellers often ate many of the islands’ tortoises and released rats, goats and other animals, which significantly contributed to their decline.”
Close behind is the Red River giant softshell turtle of China and Vietnam, weighing more than 250lbs with a shell more than three feet long. With only four animals left, the stakes have never been higher. Some species are in danger of disappearing before scientists even find out where they live. Zhou’s box turtle (the 6th most endangered) has occasionally appeared in the turtle markets of China, but to date no one has located a wild population.
The report, Turtles in Trouble, can be downloaded at the link below.
Five under threat
Sulawesi forest turtle This semi-aquatic animal is endemic to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and was originally used in Chinese food in the early 1990s. Habitat destruction has reduced the forest cover on which it depends for survival.
River terrapin With males exhibiting striking seasonal breeding colours, these unusual and attractive turtles have now all but vanished.
Ploughshare tortoise One of the rarest tortoises in the world, there are now only a few hundred left in Madagascar.
Roti island snake-necked turtle This freshwater turtle is found on the tiny island of Roti in south-eastern Indonesia.
Geometric tortoise This small species is found in low-lying sandy areas of the Western Cape in South Africa.
From The Independent last night…. A series of Questions & Answers has produced a very interesting discussion and led to a huge reader response…
World-renowned physicist Professor Freeman Dyson has been described as a ‘force-of-nature intellect’. He’s also one of the world’s foremost climate change sceptics. In this email exchange, our science editor, Steve Connor, asks the Princeton scholar why he’s one of the few true intellectuals to be so dismissive of the global-warming consensus
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
You are one of the most famous living scientists, credited as a visionary who has reshaped scientific thinking. Some have called you the “heir to Einstein”, yet you are also a “climate sceptic” who questions the consensus on global warming and its link with carbon dioxide emissions. Could we start by finding where we agree? I take it you accept for instance that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet (1); that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen since direct measurements began several decades ago (2); and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years (3), if you take longer records into account, such as ice-core data.
Would you also accept that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of burning fossil fuels and that global temperatures have been rising for the past 50 years at least, and possibly for longer (4)? Computer models have shown that the increase in global temperatures can only be explained by the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations (5). Climate scientists say there is no other reasonable explanation for the warming they insist is happening (6), which is why we need to consider doing something about it (7). What part of this do you accept and what do you reject?
From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor
First of all, please cut out the mention of Einstein. To compare me to Einstein is silly and annoying.
Answers to your questions are: yes (1), yes (2), yes (3), maybe (4), no (5), no (6), no (7).
There are six good reasons for saying no to the last three assertions. First, the computer models are very good at solving the equations of fluid dynamics but very bad at describing the real world. The real world is full of things like clouds and vegetation and soil and dust which the models describe very poorly. Second, we do not know whether the recent changes in climate are on balance doing more harm than good. The strongest warming is in cold places like Greenland. More people die from cold in winter than die from heat in summer. Third, there are many other causes of climate change besides human activities, as we know from studying the past. Fourth, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is strongly coupled with other carbon reservoirs in the biosphere, vegetation and top-soil, which are as large or larger. It is misleading to consider only the atmosphere and ocean, as the climate models do, and ignore the other reservoirs. Fifth, the biological effects of CO2 in the atmosphere are beneficial, both to food crops and to natural vegetation. The biological effects are better known and probably more important than the climatic effects. Sixth, summing up the other five reasons, the climate of the earth is an immensely complicated system and nobody is close to understanding it.
That will do for the first set of questions. Now it is your turn.
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
So you accept that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet, that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have been rising since direct measurements began several decades ago, and that CO2 is almost certainly higher now than for at least the past 800,000 years. You think it “maybe” right that CO2 levels have been increasing as a result of fossil fuel burning but you don’t accept that global temperatures have been rising nor that the increase in carbon dioxide has anything to do with that supposed trend. And finally, you have little or no faith in the computer models of the climate.
As a physicist you must be aware of the calculations of estimated increases in global average temperatures due to the positive radiative forcing of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the heat “captured” by CO2. The mainstream estimate suggests that doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels would increase global average temperatures by about 3C. If you accept that CO2 levels have never been higher, but not that global average temperatures have increased, where has the extra trapped heat gone to? Can we deal with this before we go on?
From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor
No thank-you! The whole point of this discussion is that I am interested in a far wider range of questions, while you are trying to keep us talking about narrow technical questions that I consider unimportant.
You ask me where the extra trapped heat has gone, but I do not agree with the models that say the extra trapped heat exists. I cannot answer your question because I disagree with your assumptions.
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
Sorry you feel that way, I hope we can get back on track. I was only trying to find out where your problem lies with respect to the scientific consensus on global warming. As you know these models are used by large, prestigious science organisations such as NASA, NOAA and the Met Office, which use them to make pretty accurate predictions about the weather every day. The scientists who handle these models point out that they can accurately match up the computer predictions to real climatic trends in the past, and that it is only when they add CO2 influences to the models that they can explain recent global warming. There is a scientific consensus that CO2 emissions are having a discernible influence on the global climate and I was attempting to find out more precisely why you part company from this consensus.
You have written eloquently about the need for heretics in science who question the accepted dogma. There are a number of notable instances in science where heretics have indeed been proven to be right (Alfred Wegener and continental drift) but many more, less notable examples where they have been shown to be wrong and, in time, will be forgotten (remember Peter Duesberg or Andrew Wakefield?). So it was in the light of your heretical stance on climate science that I’d like to know why we should believe a few lone heretics – albeit eminent ones such as yourself – rather than the vast body of scientists who have a plethora of published work to back up their claims? It’s an important question because it’s about who we, the public, should believe on scientific matters and why?
From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor
When I was in high-school in England in the 1930s, we learned that continents had been drifting according to the evidence collected by Wegener. It was a great mystery to understand how this happened, but not much doubt that it happened. So it came as a surprise to me later to learn that there had been a consensus against Wegener. If there was a consensus, it was among a small group of experts rather than among the broader public. I think that the situation today with global warming is similar. Among my friends, I do not find much of a consensus. Most of us are sceptical and do not pretend to be experts. My impression is that the experts are deluded because they have been studying the details of climate models for 30 years and they come to believe the models are real. After 30 years they lose the ability to think outside the models. And it is normal for experts in a narrow area to think alike and develop a settled dogma. The dogma is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. In astronomy this happens all the time, and it is great fun to see new observations that prove the old dogmas wrong.
Unfortunately things are different in climate science because the arguments have become heavily politicised. To say that the dogmas are wrong has become politically incorrect. As a result, the media generally exaggerate the degree of consensus and also exaggerate the importance of the questions.
I am glad we are now talking about more general issues and not about technical details. I do not pretend to be an expert about the details.
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
Well, I’ll try to keep it general, but it may involve talking specifics. One of my own academic mentors once explained to me that science is really just a very useful intellectual tool for teaching us about the world, just as philosophy teaches us how to think. The trouble for non-scientists is that we have to rely on professional scientists to tell us what they are finding out. But as you say yourself, it is even difficult sometimes for scientists in one field of endeavour to truly get to grips with the details in a different discipline. So, as a layman, I look at the wealth of evidence being presented to me on climate change, and the qualifications and track record of those presenting their results in the peer-reviewed literature, and I make a judgement. Do I believe in the small minority of mavericks, many of whom do not have a published track record, or the vast majority who do? Do I go with the heterodox or the orthodox?
Politicians of course have to do the same but they have to make important decisions, or not as the case may be. And the problem with climate change, as you know, is that if we wait until we are absolutely certain beyond any doubt whatsover that global temperatures are rising dangerously as a result of carbon dioxide emissions, it will be too late to do anything about it because of the in-built inertia of the climate system. Even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions overnight immediately, temperatures would still be expected to increase for some years to come before they stabilise.
So I guess my question would be, what if you are wrong? What if all the other scientists connected with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK Met Office, NASA, NOAA, the World Meteorological Organisation, and just about every reputable university and institute doing research on climate science, happen to be right? Isn’t it a bit risky for me and the rest of the general public to dismiss this vast canon of climate science as just “fuss” about global warming when all I’ve got to go on is a minority opinion?
From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor
I have this unfortunate habit of answering email immediately, which is in the long run not sustainable. So I will answer this one and then remain silent for three days.
Of course I am not expecting you to agree with me. The most I expect is that you might listen to what I am saying. I am saying that all predictions concerning climate are highly uncertain. On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop. This harm resulted directly from the political alliance between American farmers and global-warming politicians. Unfortunately the global warming hysteria, as I see it, is driven by politics more than by science. If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.
I wish that The Independent would live up to its name and present a less one-sided view of the issues.
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
Just to return to Alfred Wegener for one moment. Although he wasn’t the first to note that the continents seem to slot together like a jigsaw, such as the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America, he was a visionary who actually went out to find the geological evidence to support his idea of continental drift. However, as you say, he didn’t have a mechanism for how this “drift” happened. So it is perhaps understandable that many of his peers dismissed his theory in the 1930s. It was only with the discovery of plate tectonics 30 years later that everyone could agree on the true mechanism, which replaced Wegener’s discredited theory of the continents somehow forging their way through the crust of the ocean basins. This doesn’t in any way undermine his heroic contribution to science, and I say heroic in the true sense of the word given that he died in 1930 on his 50th birthday while trekking across Greenland – his body was never recovered and is now presumably encased in ice and moving slowly to the sea.
The point I want to make is that it may well have been right for the scientific “establishment” of the 1930s to be sceptical of Wegener’s theory until more convincing evidence emerged, which it eventually did. The experts, rather than the public, could see the flaws in Wegener’s argument which is why there was a scientific consensus against him. You are saying that the situation today with global warming is similar. However, surely an important difference this time is that it is the scientific consensus that is warning us of the dangers of continuing emissions of carbon dioxide, and that this consensus is saying quite categorically that if we wait until utterly definitive evidence emerges of dangerous climate change it will be too late to do anything about it.
One of the problems I have with the climate “sceptics” is that they keep changing their arguments. First they say that there is no such thing as global warming, thereby dismissing all the many thousands of records of land and sea temperatures over the past century or so. Then they say that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing the Earth to warm up, thereby defying basic physics. If that fails, they say that a bit of extra heat or carbon dioxide might not be that bad – it may be true that more people die from cold than heat, but how many die of drought and famine? And true, carbon dioxide boosts plant growth, but did you see the recent research suggesting a possible link between two atypical droughts in the Amazon in 2005 and 2010, when the rainforest became a net emitter of carbon dioxide, with higher sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic? Plants need water, not just carbon dioxide.
And if all else seems to fail, the final line of argument of the “climate sceptics” is that, “OK, carbon dioxide may have something to do with rising temperatures but what the heck, we can’t do anything about it because the cure is worse than the disease”. It seems to me that although there are still many uncertainties, much of the science of climate change is pretty settled, more so than you will admit to. To continue to report on “both sides” as you suggest is rather like ringing up the Flat Earth Society and asking them to comment on new discoveries in plate tectonics.
From: Freeman Dyson
To: Steve Connor
My three days of silence are over, and I decided I have no wish to continue this discussion. Your last message just repeats the same old party line that we have many good reasons to distrust. You complain that people who are sceptical about the party line do not agree about other things. Why should we agree? The whole point of science is to encourage disagreement and keep an open mind. That is why I blame The Independent for seriously misleading your readers. You give them the party line and discourage them from disagreeing.
With all due respect, I say good-bye and express the hope that you will one day join the sceptics. Scepticism is as important for a good journalist as it is for a good scientist.
Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson
From: Steve Connor
To: Freeman Dyson
Sorry you feel that way. Thank you anyway.
Freeman Dyson website
More climate change discussions
From Michael McCarthy in The Independent today
I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come.
Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn’t happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.
I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn’t suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth’s natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.
Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.
It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).
This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed’s greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.
What it doesn’t do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.
You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.
There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man’s limits.
The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn’t (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).
In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what’s Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.
Except that it isn’t. What’s Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth’s problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.
We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).
It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.
The conference which begins in Cancun today must restart the battle to lower emissions, says Michael McCarthy
From Editorial of The Independent
Snowfalls grip swathes of Britain. Temperatures in Wales dip to minus-17. As Britain shivers in the kind of freezing winter that we normally associate with Eastern Europe, it’s hard to remember that the world is at the tail end of the hottest, or second hottest, year on record. That is the problem with global warming. The steady rise in temperatures is incremental and often almost undetectable, especially in the cold northern hemisphere, where some feel tempted to celebrate the prospect of more Mediterranean-style summers. Unfortunately, the price that the rest of the world stands to pay for more agreeable northern summers is catastrophic in terms of rising sea levels, drought and desertification, which is why progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions at this week’s climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, is vital.
The article in full
Officials and ministers from nearly 200 countries meet in Mexico today to attempt one of history’s greatest repair jobs: the mending of the world’s project to cope with climate change, which was comprehensively wrecked in Copenhagen a year ago. For the delegates gathering in the Caribbean “super-resort” of Cancun, it will not be possible to achieve the aim of the failed conference in the Danish capital, which was a new, legally binding treaty involving all countries, to slash the emissions of the greenhouse gases which are causing global warming. But what they may be able to do is “put the wheels back on the wagon” and restore momentum to the climate change negotiating process – which after the Copenhagen meeting seemed to have been smashed to pieces – in the hope of achieving a legal treaty at a future United Nations climate conference, perhaps even the next one, which is scheduled for Durban, South Africa, in a year’s time. They badly need to, because although climate change may have fallen out of the headlines and slipped down the political agenda in recent months, not least because of international financial turmoil, the threat of rising world temperatures has continued to mount. Last week, the Met Office in London released a report which asserted that evidence of global warming was stronger than ever, and later this week the World Meteorological Organisation is expected to announce that 2010 has been either the hottest or the second-hottest year ever recorded. Today, another group of British scientists claims that if the warming is not checked, children born today may live to see a world on average 4C hotter, which is unprecedented in human history.
It remains no less a critical issue, then, on the table at Cancun. The two-week meeting it is about to host will be seen, and even defined, in terms of the failure at Copenhagen last December. That was the most traumatic event in the two decades of international talks which have gone on since the global warming issue burst on to the scene in the late 1980s, not least for the enormous weight of expectation which had built up behind it. “Hopenhagen”, the young climate campaigners were calling it beforehand. Never have hopes been so dashed.The disenchantment was the greater for the fact that the 194 countries involved in the talks all accepted that if radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions were not made, average temperatures might rise by up to 6C by the end of the century. The threshold for dangerous climate change is generally thought to be a rise of about 2C. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated that to be on a path to halt the warming, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) had to be cut by between 25 and 40 per cent by 2020. A new, legally binding agreement to achieve this was Copenhagen’s central aim. But such a deal would have to go much further than the existing climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which did not include the world’s two biggest emitters of CO2 – the US and China. George Bush had withdrawn America from Kyoto shortly after taking office in 2001; and under the terms of the protocol, China, along with all other developing countries, was not obliged to make actual emissions cuts. (Only the rich developed nations were so bound). Yet the US and China were each annually emitting about seven billion tonnes of CO2, making up nearly a third of the global total. The project to construct a new, all-embracing legal climate treaty that would incorporate them fell apart principally because of dissension about the form of the new agreement. The developing countries, led by China and India, were strongly attached to Kyoto, and wanted a renewal of its commitments (which run out at the end of 2012), because Kyoto made sure the rich countries were doing something, while they – the developing nations – did not have to do anything. Perhaps not unreasonably, they take the view that the rich world put most of the CO2 up there, and should take the lead in dealing with it. The developed countries, on the other hand, strongly led by Britain and the other EU states and backed by the US – which under the leadership of President Barack Obama was prepared to re-engage with the process and had set itself an emissions target for the first time – wanted to tear up Kyoto and replace it with a new deal, to set legally binding targets on the developing world alongside those on the rich nations. The gap between these two strongly divergent positions proved unbridgeable and the negotiations foundered. As more than 100 world leaders arrived for what was intended to be the triumphant final agreement, they faced the nightmarish prospect of there being nothing to agree on. The situation, and their faces, were saved by a last-minute, patched-up deal for which the main architect, it is entirely fair to say, was the former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and for which the credit was taken by Mr Obama. This was the so-called “Copenhagen Accord” – a three-page, 12-clause statement of intent, legally binding on no one, saying in effect that climate change is a Jolly Bad Thing and promising that We’re Jolly Well Going To Work Together To Stop It. On one level – in terms of the legally binding agreement which is needed – it is meaningless. But over the past year, the Copenhagen Accord has proved to have virtues, not least because all countries were invited to submit plans (entirely voluntary ones) for how they might cut emissions, to be inserted into an Appendix of the Accord, and 80 of them have now done so, including the leading carbon emitters, China, the US and India.Some of the targets (China’s and India’s for example) are for reducing the energy intensity of their economies rather than for actual emissions cuts, and the US target, to cut emissions by 17 per cent on 2005 levels, was dependent on the Senate passing legislation which is not, for now, going to happen.Nevertheless, it was unthinkable even two years ago that the US, China and India, along with other major emerging economies such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa, would have set out specific pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, yet all have done so, and this is a major step forward – as long as the pledges are carried out. An analysis published last week by the UN Environment Programme calculated that, if implemented in full, they might go 60 per cent of the way towards the emission cuts needed by 2020.This is where Cancun begins. There is no possibility of the 16th conference of the parties of the UN Climate Convention – COP-16, in the jargon – agreeing a new, legally binding climate treaty. The subject is not even on the agenda. So what can it do? The first thing is that it can regularise the Copenhagen Accord and the pledges it contains. The accord is not a decision of the COP, which is what is needed to give it legal status; it is at present merely a document which the conference of the parties has “noted”. More than that, the pledges, which were put forward from the end of January onwards, have not been formally acknowledged by the UN Climate Convention in any way at all, other than by being listed on its website. They need to be brought into the convention legally so they can be regularised and possibly improved. British officials are working towards this.Second, Cancun can make real progress on a number of climate side-issues, of which the most prominent are finance and forestry. The meeting can agree on the structure of a new fund to control the huge sums of money which were promised at Copenhagen, in its main positive outcome, to help developing countries cope with a warming world – $30bn (£19.2bn) by 2012 and $100bn annually by 2020. Third and finally, it can – it must – start out once more on the road to that treaty, and the object of cutting world emissions by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020.For its part, the British Government (along with the rest of the EU) now accepts that the attachment of developing countries to the Kyoto Protocol is very strong. It will contemplate a double deal, with a renewed Kyoto running alongside a new agreement which sets climate targets for developing as well as developed countries.But there is a price. Any new agreement, as far as the UK is concerned, has to be legally binding on the signatories. Countries might set their own targets, but once set, to avoid cheating they must have a legal obligation to meet them.This, potentially, is the crucial stumbling block on the road ahead. The Chinese made it crystal clear at Copenhagen that they were absolutely unwilling to be legally bound with regard to their future emissions.As for the US, Mr Obama’s pledge to cut emissions by 17 per cent last year was predicated on the US Congress agreeing it. Since the triumph of the Republicans in the midterm elections, that agreement and that legislation are dead in the water.The climate project ran into the ground in snowy Copenhagen. Now there is a chance to resurrect it in sunny Cancun. But nobody is saying it will be easy; the road ahead will be long and hard.Climate change: the paperwork* The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate ChangeThe basic international mechanism under which the fight against climate change is carried on. Signed in June 1992, the convention now covers virtually every country, including the US (which has withdrawn from Kyoto). * The Kyoto ProtocolSigned in Japan in December 1997, this treaty commits countries to making legally binding cuts in their emissions. So far, only the rich nations have targets. The US was part of this group until George Bush withdrew in 2001. Kyoto’s targets do not go far enough to slow down warming, and it does not set targets for developing countries. * The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change A UN body which reviews the science of global warming. There have been four assessment reports so far. The last, published in January 2007, warned that if emissions were not drastically cut, world average temperatures could rise by up to a devastating 6.4C by 2100. * The Copenhagen AccordThe outcome of the 2009 UN meeting (COP-15), at which it was hoped that a new treaty would be signed to make much more drastic cuts in emissions. It fell apart because the industrialised nations wanted a new treaty binding all states; the developing countries wanted to renew Kyoto. The patched-up accord instead consisted of pledges with no official status whatsoever. * Cancun – COP-16The Cancun meeting will try to pick up the pieces of the wreckage of last year; one of its tasks will be to try to make the pledges of the Copenhagen Accord an official part of the convention.WHAT AN AVERAGE TEMPERATURE RISE O F 4 °C WOULD REALLY MEAN FOR THE PLANETOVERVIEWThe average rise will not be spread uniformly, and temperatures over land will be significantly higher (5.5C on average) than over the ocean, as the land heats up more quickly than the sea.THE ARCTICTemperatures at higher latitudes, particularly in the Arctic, will rise much more steeply in a four-degree world as they experience climate feedbacks due to the loss of sea ice and snow cover.Already, scientists have detected signs of unusual permafrost melting in Siberia and the release of vast quantities of underground methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.SOUTHERN EUROPEThe summer of 2003, when night-time temperatures were far beyond normal, caused many thousands of deaths through heat stroke and other related conditions. A four-degree world will make such summerscommonplace, causing environmental as well as medical problems.INDIAN SUB-CONTINENTA growing population puts pressure on water supplies, which will be exacerbated in regions of the world that will experience the greatest increase in numbers of people, such as India. In a four-degree world, however, the problems of water shortages will be primarily caused by climate change – a double whammy for the most populated countries.AMAZONAt higher temperatures, the Amazon rainforest is vulnerable to drought and uncontrolled spread of fires. Some climate models predict increased rainfall, while other “more realistic” computer projections predict severe drying in the Amazon. SOUTH-EAST ASIASea level rise is inevitable in a warmer world, but the problem will be significantly worse in a four-degree world because of melting ice sheets, glaciers and thermal expansion. Low-lying, heavily populated river deltas and coastal regions are especially vulnerable to flooding. Small oceanic islands will experience increased storm surges and problems with increased soil salinity.SUB-SAHARAN AFRICAAt 4°C, virtually all cereal-growing regions of the world experience crop failures or shortages. The areas affected most will be semi-arid regions where agriculture is already difficult, such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Some regions may become uninhabitable with widespread famine