Hot heads still need cold facts

April 6, 2001

We need more basic research on climate change before we assign blame, Tony Brown writes.

Since the late 1980s, climate change has been at the top of the environment-science agenda. The Rio summit set the ball rolling. Political agreements to limit greenhouse gases have been less successful - few countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol and, last week, US President George W. Bush made non-ratification a plank of his shift to the right.

This political failure has not, however, kept the issue from being inserted at all levels of government. The scientific community has also responded - nearly all the research councils in the United Kingdom have projects that incorporate climate change. Although the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity is the main cause of accelerating climate change, many uncertainties remain because climate is complex and variable.

Partly because of the perceived unlikelihood of a reversal in the warming trend, many climate-research programmes are becoming impact-assessment studies, generally based on scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Although several are still doing basic research, there is an increasing emphasis on the private sector and the impact of climate change on industry and the economy. However, this has thrown up contradictions and inconsistencies in how scientific knowledge is gathered and even more in how it is applied. These revolve around who pays for research, how information is interpreted and who is responsible for climate change.

First, although research committees and funding forums increasingly include industry, the desired result - a sense of industry's future needs and sensitivities to climate change - can be elusive. Business does not have a uniform sensitivity to climate change - it may well have conflicting interests. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect a consensus.

Second, it is important to ask whether climate change is necessarily deleterious. Although the climate predictions from global circulation models are value-free, the interpretations are not. Sea-level rise, the frequency and magnitude of floods, droughts and even disease are vitally important research areas, but it does not follow that all impacts will be negative. Many of the problems offer opportunities - increased flood risk could force development restrictions on floodplains.

Third, the more sure scientists are that climate changes are being induced by industrialisation, the more guilt we shoulder. But who are "we" - society, industry or the individual? The government advises citizens to drive less, turn off lights, only half-fill the kettle and so on. These may be laudable practices, but they are unlikely to affect future climate change materially.

This is part of a trend for government to offload responsibilities and to individualise problems so as to avoid blame, a trend resulting from the impotence of national governments in the face of globalisation. Other organisations are following suit: the Environment Agency recently started to blame global climate change for flooding in the UK.

Individualising global problems can have uncomfortable and contradictory consequences. For instance, worries about decreasing rainfall leading to a water shortage in southwest England have led one regional forum to blame and denounce mass tourism as unsustainable. This is ironic given the UK's rural crisis and is not in the region's economic interests. It is not even based on sound research: there are strong reasons to believe that rainfall in the area will increase due to a rise in sea surface temperatures.

There is no alternative to proper research into climate change. Government-industry initiatives, the funding of impact studies or the creation of an eco-bureaucracy are no substitute for the monitoring of environmental change - an area where funding has fallen. More basic research on the causes and extent of climate change is needed before we decide who is to blame, who pays the bill and who gets the windfall.

Tony Brown is professor of physical geography and palaeoenvironmental analysis at the University of Exeter.

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