Getting the measure of climate change

Monday February 15th: Climate change has been an even hotter topic than usual recently, with research methods called into question and the Copenhagen summit dubbed the ‘Munich of our times’ for delivering what many consider a worthless piece of paper. It was with great timing, therefore, that BRLSI’s World Affairs Group persuaded a genuine climate science heavyweight to come to Bath and speak on the issue.
Prof Chris Rapley (pictured right) is Director of the Science Museum, London, and a former Director of the British Antarctic Survey (of ice-core sampling fame). After decades spent studying the evidence he’s in no doubt that human-generated climate change is real, and he spelt out, in rather chilling detail, why he thinks that something catastrophic is going to happen unless we work very hard to prevent it.
The figures are stark. The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased by 100 parts per million (ppm) since 1850 – as much as in the natural 10,000 year cycle between ice ages and inter-glacial periods. Worse, it’s increased by 30 ppm in the past 17 years. New satellite measurements show that the seas are rising by 3mm per year (and the rate is increasing), and although we’ve had a cold winter here, the global average temperature this January was the warmest on record, with 1.08 million fewer km2 of Arctic ice than the 1999-2000 average. These, he stressed, were actual measurements, not models.
Perhaps most chilling of all, Prof Rapley pointed out that the world’s climate system has not finished responding to what we’ve already done, so it may be too late to prevent some changes occurring. Admitting that Copenhagen had been a ‘disaster’, he attacked ‘cherry-pickers’ who focus on exceptions to the general pattern (‘the odd glacier that doesn’t melt’) as proof that the entire pattern is false.
His solutions. meanwhile, were as stark as his evidence. In a series of graphs, from population to CO2 emissions, land coverage and nitrogen fixing, the pattern was the same – a low, fairly contant line running for centuries, then a sudden, near-vertical rise from the mid-19th century onwards. The cheapest and most effective action to stem climate change, he said, would be worldwide free contraception (the number of unwanted pregnancies each year pretty much equals the number causing population growth), while at some point the principle of endless economic growth, and corresponding increase in per capita energy consumption, will have to be questioned. Those, unfortunately, are propositions that no politican will be keen to touch.