Why not wait and see

The debate about climate change not only addresses how much action is required but also when it needs to be taken. In the light of scientific uncertainty, it has often been argued that the case is not strong enough for much action to be taken now. What we should do is to obtain as quickly as possible, through appropriate research programmes, much more precise information about future climate change and its impact. We would then, so the argument goes, be in a much better position to decide on relevant action. However, such a wait-and-see attitude is inadequate for a number of reasons.

In the fi rst place, enough is already known for it to be realised that the rate of climate change due to increasing greenhouse gases will almost certainly bring substantial deleterious effects and pose a large problem to the world. It will hit some countries much more than others. Those worst hit are likely to be those in the developing world that are least able to cope with it. Some countries may actually experience a more beneficial climate. But in a world where there is increasing interdependence between nations, no nation will be immune from the effects. Further, as we saw in Chapter 6 (Figure 6.4a), because of the time taken for the oceans to warm, we are already committed to substantially more climate change than has yet been experienced.

Secondly, the timescales of both atmospheric and human responses are long. Carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere today will contribute to the increased concentration of this gas and the associated climate change for over 100 years. The more that is emitted now, the more difficult it will be to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to the levels that will eventually be required. With regard to the human response, the major changes that are likely to be needed, for instance in large-scale infrastructure, will take many decades. Large power stations that will produce electricity in 30 or 40 years' time are being planned and built today. The demands that are likely to be placed on all of us because of concerns about global warming need to be brought into the planning process now. Trends from 2000 until the present strongly reinforce this argument. Although much consideration and talk has been given to ways of reducing emissions, a significant upturn in global emissions of carbon dioxide has in fact occurred since 2000 (more on this in Chapter 10) which points to the need for even more urgent action.

Thirdly, many of the required actions not only lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but they are good to do for other reasons which bring other direct benefits - such proposals for action are often described as 'no regrets' proposals. Many actions addressing increased efficiency lead also to net savings in cost (sometimes called 'win-win' measures). Other actions lead to improvements in performance or additional comfort.

Fourthly, there are more general beneficial reasons for some of the proposed actions. In Chapter 8 it was pointed out that humans are far too profligate in their use of the world's resources. Fossil fuels are burnt and minerals are used, forests are cut down and soil is eroded without any serious thought of the needs of future generations. The imperative of the global warming problem will help us to use the world's resources in a more sustainable way. Further, the technical innovation that will be required in the energy industry - in energy efficiency and conservation and in renewable energy development - will provide a challenge and opportunity to the world's industry to develop important new technologies - more of that in Chapter 11. And in all these matters, developed countries in taking the first actions (as demanded by the FCCC) need to show the way to developing countries as they develop their economies.

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