Climate Scientist Calls on World Leaders to Show Courage and Vision on Climate Change

Professor Paul Pearson and Lydia Beaman
Professor Paul Pearson and Lydia Beaman

A climate scientist of some 25 years standing has expressed pessimism about the possibility of averting serious climate change, with terrible consequences for humanity and the biosphere of this planet, unless a massive effort is made by global leaders during the current round of negotiations at securing a legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Paris next year.

On past record he thinks this is extremely unlikely to happen and, when I pressed him on why it was that climate scientists do not speak out more vociferously and directly to politicians about the urgent need for drastic action, he agreed that perhaps some of them should “speak out more aggressively”.

He called on world leaders to show courage and vision on climate change in the run up to the decisive talks in Paris in November 2015 at which a legally binding global agreement to limit emissions to below 450ppm is hopefully to be agreed.

The scientist is Professor Paul Pearson of the internationally recognized School of Earth & Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University, one of the 1000 or so scientists who contributed to the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. He has been giving public talks on understanding climate change for 20 years and he gave one such talk at a meeting organized by  Transition Tywi on Thursday 27 June 2014.

When asked what should be done to avert serious climate change, he observed that:

“Eight years ago, when the Stern Review appeared, it said there was a window of 10 years during which we could take action to avert serious climate change. We have two years left, but any legally binding agreement reached in Paris in 2015 will not take effect until 2020.

“When giving this talk I tell people to work hard to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and work in their communities to persuade others to do the same. But if the Paris talks end without the required level of action there will be little point in individuals taking action.

“It’s quite clear that political leaders only act on their own narrow interests in a very short timeframe. We must demand decisive action on climate change at a global level, but judging on the record of the past 25 years of negotiations, it is difficult to be optimistic. The talks have achieved very little while atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have continued inexorably to rise.”

Up until now most climate scientists have avoided sticking their necks out for fear of being attacked by extremely aggressive climate change deniers. The majority also feel that their job consists solely in explaining the science as they find it, not in joining campaigners. This could be seen to compromise their objectivity. “But perhaps the time has come to end this position,” said Paul.

Much research has shown that when people think about climate change their dominant emotional response is gloom. But when people are shown positive examples of community action that combats climate change their most common emotional response is enthusiasm and optimism, increasing their motivation to take action themselves.

Paul’s opinion is that without political leadership there is little reason for individuals to take action. And yet there are degrees of climate change. Any action we take now will surely help to prevent things getting worse than they otherwise would, I put to him.

His response was: as long as the coal, oil or gas stays in the ground that would be correct. But as long as people keep digging it up and using it for something else – if not the purpose that you would have used it for – then your own action will make little[i3]  difference.

True global leadership would involve imposing penalties for extracting the remaining coal, gas and oil in the ground, especially the most polluting of it such as from the oil sands in Canada. But currently there are too many incentives for extracting it.

Paul believes that at the current rate and based on the present level of scientific knowledge, sea level rises of around two metres over the next few hundred years could occur as the ice caps and the ice on Greenland melt and the tropics heat up.

Furthermore, he says that the IPCC does not look at worst case scenarios – unlike military strategists, for example, who are forced to when planning a campaign. These worst-case scenarios for climate change are just too awful to even contemplate and so do not make it into the IPCC reports.

There is still 17 months for the world’s leaders to come together and act. Following the completion last month of the mid-year UNFCCC meeting of around 1900 diplomats from 182 countries in Bonn, Germany, in an “atmosphere of cooperation and positivity” – according to an official release – a draft text of the global climate treaty due to be agreed in Paris in December 2015 is to be produced in time for the major annual conference to be held this December in Lima.

Elements of the draft will be made available this month in advance of the last Bonn round in October when discussions will focus on non-CO2 gases and carbon capture, use and storage technologies.

However, scant progress was made on which countries should make the strictest contributions. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres urged parties to the Kyoto Protocol to rapidly ratify the Doha Amendment adopted in 2012 in Doha, Qatar. So far just eleven countries have done so (let’s hear it for Norway, Bangladesh, Barbados, China, Honduras, Kenya, Mauritius, the Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates), leaving 133 countries yet to do so before it can enter into force. Developing countries called yet again on richer countries to do so, and to increase their pledged level of emission reductions.

Annual emissions and broken promises

1990 First IPCC report calls for Global Treaty to limit carbon emissions (7.6 GtC (gigatonnes of carbon) emitted that year)
1992 Rio Earth Summit – UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – countries ‘cooperatively consider’ how to reduce global warming and emissions  (7.8 GtC)
1997 Kyoto Protocol agreed setting limited but legally binding emission targets (8.1 GtC)
2005 Kyoto Protocol comes into force; USA does not ratify (9.0 GtC)
2009 Copenhagen Accord – governments submit non-binding pledges and agree to limit emissions to prevent a temperature rise of over 2oC (9.3 GtC)
2012 Kyoto Protocol expires. Doha Climate Gateway – countries “strengthen their resolve” and set out to adopt a universal climate agreement by 2015 to come into effect 2020 (9.7 GtC emitted this year)
Written by David Thorpe

The website of Transition Tywi Trawsnewid, Carmarthenshire, Wales