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Time is Running Out

British Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Gives Talk on Climate Change Crisis in Seoul
Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Unless solutions are found soon, in just 30 years from now, the world will not only have to cope with a climate change crisis that causes an overwhelming number of weather-related disasters, it must also face massive shortages in energy, food and water. That was the message of a talk given by Sir John Beddington, the British government’s chief scientific advisor, in October in Seoul at the Joint Conference on Climate Change and Green Growth, hosted by the Global Green Growth Institute, the German and British embassies in South Korea, and the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Korea.

Beddington also said that sometime in the next couple of weeks, the population of the world, which had been about 6 billion people only ten years ago, was going to have reached 7 billion. This type of continuously explosive population growth would cause humanity to face what he described as “formidable problems.” Beddington called population growth one of the major changes that would drive the way the world will look in the future. He added that population growth differed vastly by region, with the OECD shrinking or keeping constant, while Asia and Africa will continue to expand. The second major issue, he said, was urbanization. Last year, according to Beddington, the number of people living in towns and cities topped those living in rural areas for the first time in human history. And there were signs that by as early as 2030, a significant majority of the world’s population would live in cities and towns. Given this explosive growth in population and urbanization in China alone, a city larger than Sydney, Australia would have to be built every year until 2030 just to allow for internal migration from rural regions to cities in China itself.

And, he added, the third major change driving the future of humanity was the climate change problem, which is already causing a huge rise in weather-related disasters such as floods, wildfires, droughts and typhoons. Beddington urged the world to do something about the climate change crisis, lamenting the fact that there seemed to be little chance that countries would reach a legally binding agreement to address the problem by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and thereby holding an increase in the temperature of the world as a whole to somewhat below two degrees centigrade. In his opinion, even a two-degree rise would be problematic, leading to an increase in floods and storms, shortage of water, impacts of food production, and greater depth of permafrost thaw.

But four degrees would be a complete disaster, and the world was on a trajectory that was headed in that direction. If the world doesn’t cut back on greenhouse gas emissions now, the most optimistic scenarios indicate a possible four degree rise by about 2110, according to Beddington. Meanwhile, the more pessimistic scenarios show that this might come as soon as 2060, with the more likely areas falling somewhere between those extremes.

In a four degree warmer world, yields of the major food products would go down. But also, very importantly, sea levels would likely rise, and incidents of major surges and major changes in severe weather would likely be much greater. Beddington stressed that avoiding such a world was a “formidably difficult” problem, but one which had to be avoided “at all costs.”

As for the fourth major driver shaping the world’s future, Beddington said it was poverty, and he emphasized the importance of alleviating this global affliction. However, he also pointed out that the four drivers should not be thought of in isolation, since climate change needs to be considered in the context of other major problems the world faces.

Beddington stressed that these four major changes were going to pose “phenomenal, really difficult” problems to humanity, with developing countries facing the greatest challenges from them. He also said those problems stemmed from a “gross inequality” in people’s access to food, water and energy, pointing out that even now, about a billion people live in food poverty and are malnourished, a little under a billion people cannot access fresh, clean water, and around one and a half billion people lack access to electricity. So “just 19 years away, by 2030, all the expectations are we need 40 percent more energy, we need something on the order of 40 percent more food, and 30 percent more availability of fresh water. And at the same time, the challenge we have is to actually mitigate an adaptive climate change,” he said.

Beddington also said “we don’t have the time” to be avoiding any particular technology to produce energy, and said the world needs to recognize it has “technology that works now,” so it should not be avoiding nuclear energy out of safety concerns such as those that arose from the Fukushima nuclear accident earlier this year. He said that instead of moving from nuclear power to solar energy and other renewable energies, mankind should not be forbidding the use of any type of energy. Instead, it needs to focus on the increase in demand in energy – especially in the developing world, and in particular, China – that is looming in the coming years.

In addition to voicing concern at moves in recent months to abandon nuclear energy, saying it was necessary to fight global warming, the expert told the forum that “there is very clear analytical work that says this is not feasible for the United Kingdom to abandon nuclear without a completely catastrophic increase in energy prices.” And he emphasized that nuclear power would have a significant role to play in the United Kingdom’s energy sources.

Beddington said the crippled reactors at Fukushima, Japan posed only “moderate” dangers. He also said expert studies showed there was no need at all to evacuate British nationals from Japan as a result of radioactive leaks coming from the nuclear power plants, which were hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March of this year. The experts had set a worst-case scenario of all radioactive material at the site of the nuclear disaster being released into the air and winds blowing towards the Tokyo metropolitan area. But even in such a worst possible scenario, there was no need for the evacuation.

He also called on each country to do a risk assessment of what climate change is likely to mean for them, since climate and weather are uncertain. Beddington stressed the importance of international collaboration in innovation and science, saying British experts are working closely with colleagues in other nations in Asia and around the world, including South Korea, to try to produce more detailed predictions of the future significance of climate change for individual countries. Results of the cooperation in this area between scientists of the United Kingdom and Republic of Korea would be published in the next month or so, he said.

Beddington highlighted the seriousness of the climate change crisis and resulting weather catastrophes, saying the global warming problem would be with us worldwide for the next 20 or 30 years. And developing countries are massively more vulnerable to it, as such countries have the lowest climate change coping capability. So the international community needs to think about how it can address these issues, recognizing that “time is against us.”

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