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25 October 1997

A Warming Thought

Peter Sammonds proposes that a warmer climate might well be of benefit to us all

'US rips up green treaty' ran the headlines. Despite a worldwide stock market crash many newspapers lead on 24 October with the announcement by Bill Clinton that the United States would not meet the promises made at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. The media's response, and that of environmental groups, suggested that an impending global calamity was imminent unless promises to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions were met. The European Union claimed that 'environmental disaster' would result. The World Wide Fund for Nature described the decision as showing that the US was 'morally in the dark ages' and 'holding the whole world to ransom'. There was a more pragmatic response from the British government which took the view that the US agreeing to anything at all over global warming was good news.

Global warming theory became scientific orthodoxy with the publication of the first report in 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the UN Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation to assess the scientific evidence on climate change and its impact, and to formulate a response. In its 1992 report the IPCC predicted a best estimate of a global mean temperature rise of 2.5 degrees centigrade in the next 100 years, and 0.5 degrees centigrade by 2010. The US accounts for about a fifth of all emissions of greenhouse gases which are widely held to be the main culprit in warming the earth's temperature. But does this matter?

Studies of past climate show that the earth's climate has always been changing. Reconstruction of palaeo-climate and palaeo-environments shows that six to seven thousand years ago in what geographers call the mid-Holocene thermal optimum, global mean temperatures were some 2-3 degrees warmer than today. With warmer climates comes increased precipitation, and in the Holocene optimum global net rainfall was nine per cent higher. So for instance, the Sahara desert effectively did not exist. There were some areas of increase aridity, such as Turkey and the Rocky mountains, but in general the Holocene optimum meant a more fertile and productive earth. So if for the earth as a whole global warming is not a problem, why should there be impending disaster?

One issue that is always included in the list of global warming problems is the migration of populations from Third World regions likely to be severely affected by the predicted one metre sea level rise, such as Bangladesh. This is seen as a major problem in the countries where refugees from floods and famine may descend. But the idea that society cannot adapt to changes such as this even in a hundred years says a lot about how the developed world views the likely development of the Third World and its own ability to adapt.

It also is argued that global warming is an additional stress on society in a world of 'finite' resources. Rejecting the finite resources argument, and instead arguing for more and not less development to facilitate progress, points the way to addressing the problems that could result from global warming. The solution is to promote the industrialisation of countries such as Bangladesh, not check it. And not forget about the benefits global warming might well bring us all.

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