High profile experts debate climate change

by EcoStreet Moderator on December 7, 2006

in Climate Change

High profile experts debate climate change, posted by Ben Nickell, GreenSteps Ltd.

Billed as ‘Climate change and the environment – your questions answered’, Ben Nickell, GreenSteps Ltd’s Managing Director, was eager to discover how a debate could live up to such an ambitious title.

A lively debate on climate change took place at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday 30th November; featuring Professor David Bellamy OBE, Greg Barker MP (Shadow Environment Minister), Peter Mather (UK CEO of BP), Professor Mark Maslin and BBC Newsnight’s ‘ethical man’ Justin Rowlatt. I attended the event to find out how the panel of experts tackled the types of questions posed by an informed and inquisitive audience.

Whilst an evening such as this was only ever going to scratch the surface of the subject matter, a number of valuable conclusions appeared to be reached. These can be summed up as follows: Yes, climate change is a serious physical and economic issue for the UK; yes, the weight of scientific evidence indicates that climate change is happening now; yes, we should all be doing something about it and we can each make a difference; no, it is not a fruitless exercise to reduce our own CO2 emissions in the light of the industrialisation of China and India; no, raising green taxes is not the best incentive to persuade people to ‘go green’; yes, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way in green technology and eco-living; and whether you agree or disagree about the extent of global warming and climate change, the positive impacts of adopting a ‘greener’ lifestyle are beneficial to individuals, communities and nations and are therefore worth adopting anyway. Read on to discover how and why these conclusions were reached.

The first question asked from the floor concerned the issue of climate change versus that of terrorism. Which one poses the biggest threat to the UK? With two such challenging issues placed head to head, which one would come out on top? Without exception, the panel of experts did well to avoid the temptation to answer the question with a straightforward plump for one side or the other. Frankly, the issues are so far removed from one another that any attempt to do so would have been to miss the point. Instead, the question served to provoke a series of pertinent observations about the differences between the two issues which make them effectively incomparable. Firstly, the immediacy of the impacts of a terrorist attack versus the (relatively) long term impacts of climate change. Secondly, the numbers of people potentially affected by either event – climate change is clearly a global threat to billions of people; terrorism, without wishing to play down its importance, affects few people in few places, relatively speaking. It is clear that we should be addressing both issues, to secure both the short and the long term future of the UK. Which one poses the biggest threat? That depends how you define the word ‘threat’. However, the audience concluded by a show of hands that climate change would have the bigger overall impact on mankind.

The second question queried the validity of the science behind climate change; time for the scientists to battle it out. Professor Mark Maslin began by fighting the corner in favour of climate change science:
There is no question as to the validity of the science of climate prediction. The weight of evidence all points to an increase in temperature of the Earth’s surface. More CO2 = warmer planet. The reason for the large ranges of estimates of future temperatures is the uncertainty placed into the equation by the presence of man and his economics. We cannot be certain about the rate at which CO2 will continue to be pumped into the atmosphere and so this creates a large range of potential eventualities. If we act now to reduce CO2 emissions, perhaps the end result will be lower than if we continue to allow CO2 emissions to increase.

Professor David Bellamy holds a very different view:
The relationship between CO2 and absorption of radiation is exponential and we have already reached such a point on this curve that future increases in CO2 levels will not make much difference to the ‘greenhouse effect’ that this planet is already subject to.

So, the scene having been set, it was time for the remainder of the panel to have their say. The common theme which emerged from this was the ‘precautionary principle’. If the balance of the weight of evidence points towards climate change, then it is both prudent and indeed morally imperative to act in order to prevent or at least reduce it. If it turns out that there never was to be a catastrophic outcome from climate change, then so be it, but to wait and find out whether it is going to happen without taking mitigating action would be both foolish and morally incorrect. At this point, a suggestion that scientists were reluctant to go against the flow of current thinking on climate change was challenged vigorously by Professor Maslin: “Scientists are the least likely people to follow the crowd. If someone could disprove global warming they would be rich, famous and probably win a Nobel Prize.” Climate change research has been going on for over 20 years and keeps coming up with the same conclusions. CO2 levels are rising and the Earth is getting warmer. However, Professor Bellamy insisted that he had consistently been unable to have papers challenging the theories of global warming published by scientific journals.

This exchange led opportunely onto the next question from the floor. Has the media become obsessed with climate change at the expense of other important issues? Justin Rowlatt immediately made the point that there is a danger of over exposure in the media leading to complacency amongst the public. However, Greg Barker responded that it is too difficult to have stories published in the tabloids without some form of scandal or political conflict over the issue. There is general consensus between political parties over the seriousness of global warming and climate change and there is, therefore, little political argument to report. Professor Bellamy offered something surprising into the mix at this point by suggesting that the polar ice-caps were not melting and that this issue is over-dramatised in the press. What was his scientific premise for this statement? That the weight of snow and ice in the centre of the ice cap is growing due to increasing precipitation at the poles. The panel acknowledged that this may be true to a degree, but there is no doubt that the extent of the polar ice caps is reducing each season. The tendency to compartmentalise news into manageable portions was criticised by Professor Maslin. 200million people starve every year – eradication of global poverty is just as important as tackling the problems of global warming. In fact the two issues are closely linked, but the press rarely attempts to tackle the whole picture.

Why should the UK bother to tackle climate change if China and the USA do not? This was the inevitable question which came next from the floor. Greg Barker was quick to point out that the Chinese government is far from blind to the issues of global warming and climate change. Whilst it is often reported that the Chinese economy is expanding at a rate which demands the construction of large numbers of coal fired power stations, it is usually overlooked that there are many areas where Chinese environmental standards leave the West’s looking woefully inadequate. For example, Chinese emissions standards on cars are higher. China also develops more energy from wind power than any other nation. We cannot encourage countries which are industrialising later than the West to respond urgently to climate change if we do not lead the way. Professor Bellamy proposed the rather cynical notion that environmental issues are being hyped in the UK in order to make excuses for raising so called ‘green’ taxes. This provoked an interesting exchange of views on the alternative forms of ‘incentivising’ the UK population to behave more responsibly with the environment. Micro-generation (domestic scale energy production – e.g. photovoltaic solar panels) in Germany is promoted by forcing energy companies to pay more for energy put back into the grid than they can charge their customers for electricity from the grid. Greg Barker proposed a radical shake up of the electricity generation industry to create a marketplace capable of promoting responsible generation and consumption of electricity. This was recognised by other members of the panel as a radical policy proposal and one which would be generally welcomed.

Does the panel agree with the Stern Report? There was a general recognition that the report is extremely thorough and attempts to tackle many inter-related issues. It points out the moral and economic obligations placed upon us by the reality of climate change and prices-in the implications of carbon emissions upon the actions of consumer markets. Justin Rowlatt suggested that the market imperfections which exist as a result of carbon emissions implications not currently being factored-in to the prices of carbon expensive activities should be corrected. The pros and cons of carbon offsetting were debated at this point, highlighting the ineffectiveness of many schemes. Peter Mather maintained that carbon offsetting should be the last resort, behind replacement or reduction. If it is the only alternative then it seems that the credentials of the chosen scheme should be checked carefully. Later in the evening, a further discussion on carbon pricing highlighted that venture capitalists were busy putting money into solar technology in silicon valley. Oil companies are investing in green energy primarily because it is the market of the future. Professor Mark Maslin made the comment “Capitalism has caused this problem and I can only see Capitalism solving it.”

Are politicians simply seeking the ‘green vote’, rather than addressing the underlying issues? The implied scepticism in this question was challenged wholeheartedly by more members of the panel than just the one politician, Greg Barker. Both Professor Maslin and Justin Rowlatt acknowledged that there has been a sea change in the attitudes of society towards green issues. If elected into power, politicians will be held to account for their decisions against what they have promised. Professor Maslin pointed out that 186 countries have signed the Kyoto agreement to lower CO2 emissions, (albeit with the notable exception of the US). This level of consensus amongst politicians from so many nations is unheard of elsewhere.

What practical steps can we take in our own lives to reduce our carbon footprint?
Justin Rowlatt, BBC Newsnight’s ethical man, seemed the natural choice to answer this question. He made the important point that small changes can combine to have an enormous effect. He suggested the following four items to make a start:
– Reduce the number of flights you take, or eliminate them completely
– Consider the rest of your travel arrangements carefully
– Switch energy supplier and consider your power consumption in the home
– Consider your boiler, its efficiency and how you use it

The final question which came from the floor queried whether it was simply the hot air from politicians causing most of the globe’s warming! Professor Bellamy was adamant that we have plenty of time to deal with the issue of global warming through technology transfer. However, most of the panel acknowledged that politicians make an easy target in this sort of debate. Peter Mather pointed out that it is ultimately up to us to decide if the science behind global warming is right or wrong and use our votes accordingly. If we care enough, we can become involved in public policy. In the UK we are lucky to have politicians with passion for whom we can vote.

What became apparent throughout the evening was that, whether you agree or disagree about the extent to which global warming and climate change are affecting our planet, it is very hard to argue against the principles of ‘greener’ living. At www.greensteps.co.uk, we believe that this is one of the most important points to bear in mind when considering taking up the mantra of ‘eco-living’. There are so many additional benefits besides the reduction of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, that there really is no reason to avoid it. Visit www.greensteps.co.uk to find out how you can take your first green steps today.

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