Economic activities have now pumped almost as much carbon dioxide into the air as the atmosphere contained, in total, at the start of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. Science has known for over 120 years that this should, in theory, cause warming by a few centigrade. Mankind is now testing that theory in the biggest, longest running and most idiotic accidental experiment of all time. Initial results are now in and they confirm the predictions spectacularly well. Detectable climate change is upon us and we have very little time—years not decades—in which to prevent warming from exceeding safe limits.
This was the context for February 26th’s debate on whether Wiltshire Council should declare a climate emergency. Around 40 local councils across the UK (and approaching 400 world-wide) have now declared a climate emergency as a result of pressure from grass-root movements increasingly frustrated by the inadequate actions of national governments. A motion that Wiltshire should join this movement had been put forward by Liberal Democrats but several Conservative councillors had felt that “climate emergency” was an unnecessarily emotive exaggeration. They responded by putting forward their own motion which supported action but removed that particular phrase. Another area of debate concerned a pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2030; is that really realistic and is it really necessary?
Let me share my own views. I’ve been a geophysicist for 35 years and I’ve looked carefully at the evidence for manmade climate change and at the counter-claims. In fact, I looked at the data first and only then became a climate activist. In my professional opinion, the evidence that we are heading for dangerous, manmade climate change is overwhelming and the counter-arguments are shockingly weak. The link between human-activities and climate change is to too tight for it to be a coincidence and it simply doesn’t make sense for the link to be backwards (i.e. warming temperatures stimulating economic activity rather than the other way around).
But how urgent is the need for action? Most of the world’s nations have now pledged to control their emissions but the promises are insufficient even if they are kept. Even with these unenforceable commitments, global annual emissions will rise to about 50 billion tonnes per year of CO2 whilst, to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C, we must not produce more than about another 770 billion tonnes (source, IPCC report on “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”). So, it’s simple arithmetic, 15 years until we bust the budget. The best case scenario is that we start and maintain steady reductions immediately, in that case we could stretch things out and not need to get to zero emissions for another 30 years. Unfortunately, there is no sign whatsoever of national governments getting the ball rolling on that. So, there really is a climate emergency and it is irresponsible to pretend otherwise.
To my delight, Wiltshire Councillors came to the same conclusion. After a well-informed debate, the Conservative-led Council voted by a narrow margin to accept the Liberal Democrat motion and then, unanimously, to accept the Conservative one. It was a remarkable example of democratic debate in action; one Conservative councillor even announced that he had changed his mind as a result of the debate. Changing your mind in response to arguments is a mark of good science but is not, often, associated with politics. It was a moving moment that gave me some hope for the future.
And there is hope. There is much that can be done to reduce emissions. We can’t go zero yet but we can buy time; time that will allow us to find permanent solutions. I’ll talk about how we do that in future columns.
First published in Marlborough News Online