Saturday, March 28, 2015

What’s Climate Change got to do with Lincolnshire?

Involved in the general election campaign, working to get more Green Party candidates elected to Parliament and local government in Lincolnshire, I was asked "What's climate change got to do with Lincolnshire?".

I've given a written answer:

First, let’s just deal with the basic science, the stuff about which there is absolutely no controversy within the scientific community.  The physics was determined in the 19th century.  Add ‘greenhouse’ gases such as carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere and the global average temperature will rise. It’s as certain as gravity causing apples to fall to the ground.  More effort has been put into studying the climate than any other field of science and there are now no working climate scientists who dispute the basic understanding.  For sure there is still plenty that is uncertain; just how quickly a given amount of extra greenhouse gas will cause the temperature to rise by how much and just what that will mean for the climate in any particular place is not known quite exactly.  But then it’s also hard to be sure which way a falling apple will bounce and whether it lands on a daisy or a dandelion.

Global warming is real and most of it is caused by human action.  No question.

Second, let’s deal with confusion of language; why people sometimes say ‘global warming’ and sometimes ‘climate change’.  They are often muddled and used without careful thought.  Global warming refers to the increase in temperature of the whole of planet Earth.  It’s easiest to measure with thermometers in the air at the surface of planet but this method has limitations.  About 90% of all global warming takes place in the deep oceans.  The average rise in temperature of the atmosphere only accounts for about 3% of the extra heat retained by our greenhouse gasses.  Climate change refers to what happens at a particular location as a result of global warming.  Some places get drier, some wetter and with more water vapour in the atmosphere as a whole, rainfall patterns change, with sudden downpours producing floods while shifts in winds cause some areas to experience long droughts.  With global warming causing average temperatures to rise, some areas will experience a greater than average warming of their local climate, while other places will warm more slowly, or even experience a cooler climate, at least for a while.

The climate of the British Isles is dominated by the Atlantic Ocean, temperate with extreme events being rare.  It is likely that we will not experience such a rapid shift in climate as many parts of the world.  Places with continental climates or subject to monsoons or in the Arctic or the tropics, are likely to experience faster change. Nevertheless, even small changes in average temperature can have significant impacts on farming and wildlife. Changing distributions of insects and birds have already been noticed in Lincolnshire and species of fish once confined to southern waters are appearing off the Lincolnshire coast.

The most immediate threat is the increased probability of extreme events. Global warming makes weather events that have happened only rarely, happen more often.  So we should expect more periods of very dry weather and more periods of stormy weather.  Both droughts and floods will be more common in Lincolnshire in a warmer world.  A more long-term threat is the possibility that the ocean currents in the Atlantic will slow down.  This is far from being certain but there is some evidence emerging that such change is underway.  A reduced influence of Atlantic currents would make our climate more continental, with cooler winters and warmer summers.

The practical consequences for living and working in Lincolnshire involve slow, gradual but relentless adjustments.  Farming patterns will change to cope with the occasional but severe droughts, making investment in water conservation and supply imperative.  Flood defences and maintenance of the drainage system will also need prioritising.  The design of new buildings should take into account the likelihood of extended heat waves as well as being insulated to avoid energy costs for heating.  Our population needs to be prepared to cope with heat stress.

Lincolnshire will undoubtedly be affected by rising sea level. As the ocean waters warm they expand and this has been contributing a couple of millimetres to the sea level each year.  Melting glaciers, particularly the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, are now contributing to more sea level rise than thermal expansion of the water.  Estimates of future sea level rise are uncertain but as evidence is gathered the indications are that it will be greater and faster than previously thought.  The Environment Agency, in planning future sea defence work, assumes a rise of about one metre by the end of the 21st century.  That’s within the lifetime of today’s small children.  There is more possibility that this is an underestimate than an overestimate. It is more likely that things turn out worse than expected as we are only just beginning to appreciate the way in which melting is occurring under the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets.

It costs money and effort but a one metre sea level rise can be coped with fairly easily; we only have to look to the Dutch to see how it’s done.  A continuous programme of improving the sea defences with higher walls and banks in some parts, managed retreat in others, will be a feature of Lincolnshire’s coast for the rest of the century.  But sea level rise will not stop in the year 2100.  It now seems likely that the great ice sheets are in an irreversible decline and no matter what we do in the future all of the ice will eventually melt.  Opinions differ as to how many centuries or even millennia it will take, but eventually much of Lincolnshire will be lost to the sea under a sixty metre rise. At 83m the Boston stump would have its top 20m above the waves.  With its 90 metre spire and standing on ground 20 metres above today’s sea level, St. James church in Louth fares better, but of course the church will be destroyed as soon as the waves crash at the base.  The spire celebrates it 500th anniversary this year but it won’t make it to 1000.

The biggest effects of global warming will be felt, indeed are already being felt, far from Lincolnshire.  We see the devastating effects of floods around the world with increasing frequency and new records are being set for tropical storms. The ongoing drought in the south-west of the USA has had a devastating effect on California’s fruit production.  The cost of almonds and marzipan has shot up in our shops.  It is now widely accepted that one of the key triggers for the civil war in Syria was the worst drought in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ since agriculture was invented in the Neolithic, driving a million farmers from their land to the cities in search of help.  They found none so turned to religion and guns.  The political instability across many parts of sub-Saharan Africa can also be related to the spread of deserts.

But we’ve seen nothing yet.  Many of the world’s greatest cities and much of the world’s best agricultural land lies within a couple of metres of sea level.  The squeeze is already well under way in Bangladesh and several of the small island states of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Many millions, perhaps billions, of people will become climate refugees through the coming decades.  Lincolnshire is part of the global economy and cannot remain detached from global financial and political change, rises in food prices and pressure from migration.

The issue of global warming and the consequent climate changes have to be tackled at all levels from international agreements between governments, through planning and spending policies of local government, to the individual actions that each one of us make.  We are all responsible; we all have both a duty and an opportunity to act.  The first priority has to be mitigation, doing what we can to reduce the harm.  That means stopping burning fossil carbon fuels, coal, oil and gas, as soon as we possibly can.  Secondly we must learn to adapt, changing our homes, our lifestyles, our work and our farming so that we can enjoy a zero-carbon future.  We must embrace the new energy technologies of wind and sun.  Almost all of the fossil carbon that has already been discovered needs to be left in the ground.  To explore for more is folly.

And we must be mindful of the debt we owe to many other part of the world. Britain started the coal-based industrial revolution and our historical contribution to global warming has been second to none, yet the first to suffer and those who suffer the most are often among the poorest in the world and in no way to blame for the unravelling tragedy.

The tragedy of British politics is that it is largely concerned with the next election. With the scramble for power over the next few years, the long term future is given little attention, and the interests of generations not yet born have no voice. The Conservative Party has shifted from a promise before the last General Election to be the ‘greenest government ever’ to ‘cut the green crap’.  The LibDems have made ineffectual efforts to counter the climate-deniers in the Treasury and DEfRA.  Labour, once responsible for the 2008 Climate Change Act, has done little to promote global warming as a significant issue in the political debate.  None of these parties has given the greatest threat to our future, to the world’s civilisation’s future, the attention required. UKIP is in complete, and absurd, denial.

Only the Green Party has consistently argued that global warming and climate change are the most important issues for politics.  Only the Green Party takes seriously our long-term obligation and responsibility.  The voiceless future generations must be given voice, not sacrificed for our present convenience. And it is in our own interests.  We cannot be truly happy, to live satisfying lives, while we know that our grandchildren’s lives will be nasty, brutish and short, because we have been too selfish, to party on while the future goes hang. 

It is time to act for the common good.


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