If God hadn’t promised no more floods, would we take climate change more seriously?

I’m serious – is the sub-conscious defence against (what to my mind is) overwhelming evidence that the polar ice caps, like the Presidents of the USA, are not going to make it, that the rainbows tell us it cannot happen? Could we be so hard-wired to our Judeo-Christian upbringing?

Monbiot’s latest post is a splendid one.

The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59cm this century. Hansen’s paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets the panel expects doesn’t fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another. When temperatures increased to 2-3 degrees above today’s level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels rose not by 59 centimetres but by 25 metres. The ice responded immediately to changes in temperature.

We now have a pretty good idea of why ice sheets collapse. The buttresses that prevent them from sliding into the sea break up; meltwater trickles down to their base, causing them suddenly to slip; and pools of water form on the surface, making the ice darker so that it absorbs more heat. These processes are already taking place in Greenland and West Antarctica.

The paper by Hansen et al (2007), to which Monbiot refers, is pretty bloody fascinating. He discusses the positive feedbacks inherent in climate change, and something call the ‘albedo flip’, which is the key to these results – the climate operate not according to snakes and ladders, but switches. So as Monbiot’s quote says, the ice doesn’t ‘merely’ melt, glaciers don’t ‘merely’ disappear – I mean that one literally:





The report Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers, put forward by the IPCC, fills in quite a bit of the detail. I’ve had a few conversations, particularly with colleagues who are skeptical of the numbers and the method employed for this sort of thing. Which is fair. As I’ve said, it comes down mostly to prior prejudices, and mine favour the truth of this over the self-interest of climatologists, as we like to call them. I recommend skeptics check out the IPCC report – particularly the sources, and the Hansen et al (2007) paper – and again the sources. And bear in mind the point Monbiot has always made: there are almost innumerable studies supporting this thesis, all in peer-reviewed journals. There are none that counter the thesis (barring, I believe, a couple that have since been discredited).

Monbiot’s post is partly about drawing attention to the Hansen, et al (2007) article, partly about drawing attention to the policy responses – the need for a political albedo flip.

The EU has set a target for 20% of all energy in the member states to come from renewable sources by 2020. This in itself is pathetic. But the government refuses to adopt it: instead it proposes that 20% of our electricity (just part of our total energy use) should come from renewable power by that date. Even this is not a target, just an “aspiration”, and it is on course to miss it.

Meanwhile, he has found several positive indications concerning our ability not only to safely meet but far surpass the 20% renewable figure:

  • Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to North Africa and Iceland with high voltage direct current cables (up to 80% of power would be sourced renewably – I just made that word up, I think).
  • Mark Barrett at University College London published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power (up to 95% of our electricity would be renewable energy).
  • A new study by the Centre for Alternative Technology (at which Monbiot, the bastard, got a sneak preview. We wait until July 10) suggests that, with some technolog and expansion of storage, not only 100% of domestic use for our heating and transport systems could be powered by renewable energy.

I’m impressed. I particularly look forward to that last paper, about which you’re bound to hear more, here. For me, there are two things going on here. Non-renewable sources of energy are running out. That fact, like climate change, is simply not a matter of any serious debate any longer. So one can believe or not believe that temperatures will rise 2 degrees, or that that increase will cause sea levels to rise 25 metres (metres! How can the chances of that not scare the hell out of you?), but moves such as these to take more and more of our energy away from fossil fuels, saving what remains for all the other shit up for which we burn it, makes perfect sense. We should at least acknowledge our interest in saving oil for cars and aeroplanes, irrespective of any other argument or incentive. Like I said, I will report back when report by the Centre for Alternative Technology comes out. I predict fascination.


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