Rapid Climate Change international scientific conference
24-27 October 2006
The government's chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, warned scientists at NERC's Rapid Climate Change International Science Conference earlier today that 'If no action is taken [on climate change] we will be faced with an economic downturn of the kind that we haven't seen since the great depression and the two world wars.'
Professor King's words come days before the Treasury publish the Stern report, a global economic analysis on the impacts of climate change which many NERC scientists have contributed to.
Professor King, who was introduced by NERC's Chief Executive Alan Thorpe, addressed the conference for thirty minutes and talked about communicating science to government, the importance of NERC's climate change programmes, as well as the economic consequences if the international community fails to act on this issue.
Professor King's introduction and abridged speech follows.
Professor Alan Thorpe
"The Rapid Climate Change programme has brought together a community of researchers involved in observation, modelling and the problems associated with rapid climate change.
NERC has invested about £20m in the programme which was originally was set up to look at abrupt or rapid climate change. Of course we know how important it is to the climate change problem as it is a critical indicator of whether the theory and knowledge of climate change is being translated into observational fact.
The programme has grown into an international activity and I am very pleased that we have partners in the US, Norway and the Netherlands.
The Rapid Climate Change programme fits very strongly within where NERC wants to go next, particularly regarding the new NERC strategy and the government's spending review 2007. This is a flagship programme for NERC and it is an important example of where the UK plays a leadership role in climate change science.
I would now like to introduce the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir David King. David has played a key role in raising the level of knowledge of the importance of climate change science within government."
Sir David King
"Thank you Alan, let me start by saying that I would like to thank this community of scientists because it is your work that provides most of the input to my presentations within government. As a matter of fact I see my role in government as seeing that government is able to be an intelligent consumer of scientific output, so I have to absorb what you are doing.
When I talk about the changing climate of global warming I'm really referring to two climates, the physical climate and the political climate. The Boxing Day tsunami and Hurricane Katrina tell us that governments ignore the advice and extraordinary capability of scientists today at the peril of their own population.
We all know we have already witnessed a global average temperature rise of 0·7°C in the last century and that this is the most dramatic rise on record for at least 1000 years. Did this come as a surprise to all of us? No. The scientific community is very clear about the background to this. With all the inputs from earthquake activity, solar activity, carbon dioxide changes, there's a pretty good description of past climate. So what we see is that the theory fits rather closely with the outputs of experimental measures, which is usually what scientists like to see.
What we're also seeing is that extreme events are becoming more frequent, glaciers are melting, sea ice and snow cover is declining, sea levels are rising up to 88 cm by 2100 - that was the last IPCC top end, now we're waiting to see what the IPCC will make of the latest data [The next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is due to be published February 2007]. By 2100, sea level rise will threaten 100 million people because a large percentage of our population live on the coastline.
Already the number of people affected by flooding has risen from seven million in the '60s to 100 million today. In Europe we know that in 2002 floods cost an estimated €16bn and the summer heat wave of 2003 killed over 30,000 people. Analysis shows the summer heatwave was an extreme event of enormous magnitude. But what we can see is that this extreme event is sitting on top of a rising baseline making it a much more likely event [in the future] and so the language of one in 50 years, or one in a 1000 years is something we'll all have to move away from.
As we move forward in time to 2040-2050 the mean temperature in central Europe will be that 2003 figure. It's no longer relevant to talk in terms of static baseline temperatures when we look at extreme events. That's a very important and difficult message to get across within political spheres, and we just have to keep hammering away.
These effects are already being picked up by the insurance industries. The insurance industries have to be smart. They have to be intelligent customers of what the science base says because they are laying out bets with all of us who take out insurance policies, and they can't afford to lose. And so if you talk to companies like Swiss Re they are very much aware of what you people are doing and they are redoing their calculation yearly, on the basis of your outputs.
Swiss Re are the world's second largest reinsurer. They estimate the economic costs of global warming, and nothing else, are likely to double to €150bn each year in the next ten years. We are seeing them predicting a massive increase in insurance costs as we move forwards in time.
We know there is now developing a global scientific consensus on the scope of the problem, certainly amongst the scientists. Following this is an understanding within the global community as well. A recent MORI poll showed that 92% surveyed thought that, yes, they felt that global warming was a serious problem.
If you asked people if the Earth is spherical or near spherical you wouldn't get 92% agreeing on that so I think you've done a remarkable job at least with the British public. 4% said no and 4% said don't know. And we now have political consensus in the UK: all three main political parties all fully agree on action. The only thing they are scrapping about is which party is going to take the greatest action. And perhaps this isn't a bad place to be.
Robust and urgent action is what each party is demonstrating to the public that they are in favour of, and that puts me in rather a good place. So what we need is global leadership. The UK produces two per cent of the world's carbon dioxide, we are aware that we do not solve the problem by switching to a carbon free economy. What we need is international leadership and in the absence of leadership from the US I think the UK has stepped into that position.
We are also moving away from the direct science to the economic impacts. I was hoping to tell you a little detail of Sir Nicholas Stern's review [the review team interviewed many NERC scientists including Alan Thorpe and NERC's director of Science & Innovation, Steven Wilson, as part of the process].
"... immediate action is required if we are to bring this under control with the least economic hurt."
I have had a detailed briefing of the review which will be published next week. In brief, what his review will demonstrate, in the most detailed economic analysis that has yet been conducted, and it is a global economic analysis, that first of all, if no action is taken we will be faced with an economic downturn of the kind that we haven't seen since the great depression and the two world wars. And his analysis will also indicate that immediate action is required if we are to bring this under control with the least economic hurt. So I think we are going to see a very detailed and robust analysis of the economics emerging from the UK.
Nick Stern by the way is a man of massive international standing. He was previously the chief economist at the world bank so he comes to the task with a tremendous record.
I've passed over the recent meeting in Monterey. May I just say that that meeting, behind closed doors, of the 20 leading economies around the world was the first time that we have seen complete agreement on the science, and, through Nick Stern's presentation at that meeting, the economics. Therefore the need to act was seen by all 20 nations.
What is now required is for us to find the political process that will lead to an equitable solution that leads to a steady reduction of carbon dioxide emissions around the world. There is no question that this requires a fiscal process to drive this through and it requires agreements in addition to the technologies that we all know are needed."
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Press feature : 63/06
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