Governments Fiddle as Climate's Tipping Point Reached Says Edinburgh Medal Winner

With climate change not merely the 'hot topic' of the 20th Edinburgh International Science Festival but of everyone and their granny's breakfast table, it was no great surprise Professor Chris Rapley, former Director of the British Antarctic Survey, took Great While It lasted; Now What? as the title and theme of his Edinburgh Medal Address on the subject.

Lord Provost George Grubb took the opportunity in his presentation of the medal to remind the audience not only of the Festival's 20th anniversary, but additionally of the many other science festivals occurring around the world every month of the year, and all of them 'Edinburgh bairns', traceable to the initiative of the city.

Professor James Lovelock, promoter of the Gaia theory, paid warm tribute to Professor Rapley both as a scientist and a mentor of the work of other scientists, promoting and publicising their work.

Professor Rapley himself was keen to indicate in his address how different disciplines contribute to our understanding of climatology past and present, and what these understandings imply for our future. He indicated the extent to which Earth has been a self-regulating entity, but that at various times a 'tipping point' has been reached precipitating significant change.

Earth is open to energy (from the sun) but closed to matter, allowing the planet to benefit from photosynthesis and other processes which maintain biosystems. Human history can be simplified into a long period of relative stasis dependent on organic stability followed by a very short period of rapid growth based on vast consumption of fossil resources (coal, oil, etc.). Only 50% of emissions from these sources can be re-absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, and our material production can be seen as the 'fleeting by-product' of sending 1,000 tons of CO2 per second into our atmosphere.

Furthermore, CO2 emissions have grown 250 times in the last one hundred years. Over the last fifty years there has been a pattern of increase of polar warming and of an increase of 50% in the amount of heat stored in oceans. There has also been a noticeable reduction of glacier size since the 1830's, which many now be accelerating, and a significant decline in Arctic Sea ice over the last thirty to forty years. For the first time in history the Northwest Passage across the Arctic was clear for two weeks last year, raising new issues over the sovereignty of the North among Northerly states such as Canada, Russian, and Denmark.

Perhaps most perplexing, and thereby worrying, was film Professor Rapley showed of ice floes which has sheered into perfect geometrical oblongs. The reaction of the late John Laurie's 'Corporal Fraser' sprang rapidly to mind. But are we really doomed?

Game over?

Professor Rapley pointed out that at the moment we are almost certain to break the 2 degree temperature level at which climate change may become irreversible. Significant and very likely painful alteration in living patterns will make some difference - increasing emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability of production, decreasing rather than increasing meat production, population limitation, restriction on private and petrol/diesel transport and above all controlling carbon emission in all forms all need to be considered and acted on in some measure.

Yet emissions are increasing NOW (even as you read this) and government remains unwilling to react. Professor Rapley pointed out a business case needs to be made if business can continue, if not as usual, then at least in ways business can be sustained.

Faith in the people, however, may not be enough to ensure tough decisions are taken before instability brings forth its own monsters.

Published on 2008

Copyright Bill Dunlop 2008