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Climate Change

– in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 18th March 2004.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd 6:01 pm, 18th March 2004

I should like to open my debate today by asking the Minister to consider the following scenario: in five years' time the populations of the Scandinavian countries flood south into northern Germany and the Netherlands, five years later those populations themselves are forced to flee further south to southern France, Italy and Spain, and by 2025, those populations flee to the north coast of Africa, the EU collapses and war breaks out.

Those are not the thoughts of an "end is nigh" board-carrying ranter. It is the scenario put together by Peter Schwarz and Doug Randell for the Pentagon in October 2003. The report was commissioned by Andrew Marshall, the founding director of the Pentagon office of net assessment. Marshall was asked by President Bush to lead the Pentagon military review, part of which involved an assessment of climate change. The report stated that

"the real threat to national security is from global warming triggering an abrupt climate change event".

The fact that Marshall, a trusted and discreet adviser to many Administrations, chose to speak out on such a sensitive issue in the US presidential election year, shows how seriously this loyal adviser took the threat.

The report was highlighted by The Observer, which managed to get hold of a copy, and it has been further highlighted by an "Horizon" programme in November 2003.

The main reason for the scenario that I have just outlined is the collapse of the Atlantic conveyer, or the north Atlantic drift, as it sometimes referred to. The Atlantic conveyor is a vast warm current with 16 times more volume than all of the rivers of the earth combined. The current carries the heat of a million power stations. It allows Britain to have a warm temperate climate, despite the fact that it is as far north as Alaska or Newfoundland, where polar bears live. Warm water is carried on the surface from the Caribbean up to the north Atlantic. When it reaches the north Atlantic it cools and becomes denser. It also increases in salinity, which helps the water to sink to the bottom of the ocean and then return on the final leg of the journey back to the Caribbean, thus creating a continuous conveyor belt effect.

The conveyor belt is in danger of being switched off because of global warming. There are two main reasons for that. One comes from the melting of the ice of the North Pole, which is 1,000 miles long, 400 miles wide and 2 miles thick at its centre. It is one of the biggest blocks of frozen water in the world, and if it were to melt completely, it would raise water levels by 6 to 7 m, drowning most of the major cities in the world.

Air surveys have been carried out over the Arctic at regular five-year intervals, and they show that warming is already taking place. Certain glaciers in Greenland have doubled their speed in recent years, sending massive amounts of frozen fresh water into the Arctic ocean, thereby altering its salinity. Much of that fresh water is heading for the sinking zone of the Atlantic conveyor.

The other sources of fresh water are the mighty rivers that straddle northern Russia—the Ob, Enesai and Elena—which are increasing in volume and disgorging huge volumes of fresh water into the Arctic ocean. It is predicted that global warming will lead to a much wetter world. The major northern Russian rivers already disgorge 20 times more fresh water into the sinking zone of the Arctic than comes from the glaciers of Greenland. Some scientists claim that there will be a 50 per cent. increase in discharge from those Russian rivers into the Arctic ocean in the next 100 years. The influx of that fresh water is altering the salinity of sea water in the north Atlantic, which is in turn is altering the ability of the water to sink to the bottom of the sea and may cause a breakdown of the Atlantic conveyor.

When many people in Britain think of global warming, they think of the UK reaching temperatures like those of the south of France; some even say that they look forward to it. However, that is not what will happen in the scenario envisaged by Schwarz and Randell. The pace of change could be very rapid. Within a decade, the Atlantic conveyor could be switched off, leading to the nightmare scenario that I outlined in my opening remarks. Temperatures could fall by as much as 20°F. Temperatures in London could be as low as those in Spitzbergen, which is 600 miles north of the Arctic circle.

The BBC's "Horizon" programme of November last year interviewed a number of eminent scientists about the effect of rapid climate change on the UK. Professor Bill McGuire said:

"I can only describe it as catastrophic. It's clearly going to influence every single one of us every day of our lives."

Dr. Richard Brook said:

"You could expect to see sea ice off the coast of South East England, probably several miles offshore."

In its worst case scenario, the Met Office says that ice storms will lead to a complete breakdown in the national grid as power lines collapse under the weight of frozen ice. Some people ask, "Could we not still exist if it is as cold as Alaska, Iceland and the Arctic circle, because people live in cities there?" The answer is yes, they do, but they have had 200 or 300 years to build up the necessary infrastructure. We are talking about change possibly taking place over 10 to 20 years. That could be the end of the British way of life as we know it.

The effects would not be limited to Europe. The Atlantic conveyor is just one part of a continuous loop of interconnected underwater currents that affect the climate patterns of the whole world. Those complex interconnected ocean currents transport heat and moisture around the planet. When the conveyor has altered direction and shut down in the past, that has caused global temperature changes within decades. Those past changes can be measured in ice cores, ocean bed sediments, pollen and seed deposits. Much more research needs to be conducted on those valuable sources of information. An understanding of the way in which climate patterns have worked in the past will help us to gain a greater understanding of present and future changes and dangers.

The problem of global warming is not one to be tackled by future Governments or populations, but must be tackled here and now. If we do not take action, we risk the collapse of the whole fabric of our infrastructure. There is strong evidence that the first stirrings are making themselves felt. Around the Arctic circle, Inuit peoples have witnessed the retreat of ice fields. Animals that they rely on for food are migrating to other areas. In the late 1980s, a Russian nuclear-powered ice breaker became the first surface ship to reach the geographic north pole. Last year, India and France recorded their highest temperatures ever, and thousands of people died of heatstroke. Since 1995, there have been more than 35 hurricanes, and they are increasing in ferocity. A few years ago, hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 people in the Caribbean. In May 2003, there were 562 tornadoes in the United States.

Schwarz and Randell say that several actions should be taken immediately. They call for improved predictive climate change and for a deeper understanding of the relationship between ocean patterns and climate change.

Yesterday, I spoke to one of the top British scientists working on British research on ocean currents and climate change. The Government have invested £20m in research in this area. We must give them credit for that, because it is the biggest science research grant that has ever been given. The scientists will put in place 22 underwater buoys across the 26th parallel, from the west coast of Africa to Florida. Two of them will provide a satellite link, which will give continuous information for a four-year period, while the rest will store information to be examined on a yearly basis. That research is welcome, and the grant is one of the largest ever given; but is it enough?

What research is being conducted on the conveyor belt in other oceans? Is sufficient research being conducted into freshwater flows in the northern Russian rivers? In January this year, our chief scientific adviser agreed with the Pentagon assessment, saying:

"Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious than the threat from terrorism."

The total amount spent globally combating terrorism dwarfs the total amount spent globally monitoring climate change. I support the measures that our and other Governments have taken to combat terrorism, and their continued spending of resources on that, but I feel that the threat posed by rapid climate change warrants a huge increase in UK funding for research.

It is not just research on the monitoring of climate change that needs additional funding. A key aim should be research into renewable energies to allow the growth of CO2 emissions to be curbed. Since the advent of privatisation of the utilities, the excellent research facilities of the Central Electricity Generating Board have been shut. That decline now needs to be reversed. We should be investing in research and development in respect of renewables in this country. We need to be leading the world on that.

Is there enough co-ordination between countries as regards that research? The United States and Norway are donating additional amounts of $7 million and Euros2.5 million to that project. What measures is the Minister's Department taking to co-ordinate and enhance international research to help us to understand the threat? Have the Government placed that item on the agenda of all multinational organisations that could have a bearing on research, such as the EU, the G8 and the United Nations? Are we pressing the case at the top table?

Our Government have done more than most to promote the issue of global climate change. The Deputy Prime Minister led the way in Kyoto, but have we done enough to maintain the momentum, especially in the light of the most recent information? It states that the UK and European countries could be the first to suffer from rapid climate change if the Atlantic conveyor were slowed or stopped.

Schwarz and Randell call for comprehensive predictive models of climate change impacts, to redress potential sources of conflict between and within countries where there is competition for limited food, water and energy supplies. To achieve that, detailed research on the potential ecological, economic, social and political impact would be needed. Certain countries that are homogeneous, and enjoy social cohesion, such as Japan, will fare better in attempts to change the behaviour of their population peacefully than other countries that already have racial, social and religious divisions, such as South Africa, Indonesia and India. Such countries will have difficulty maintaining order.

A matrix of vulnerability could be produced for those countries likely to suffer most. That would help to predict the impact of rapid climate change on agriculture, water and mineral resources, as well as the technical capability to adapt and change, and would include such issues as social cohesion and the adaptability of the population.

Schwarz and Randell suggest that adaptive response teams be established to address and prepare for events such as mass migration. That migration, even just in Europe, would be 100 or 200 times greater than the one seen at the time of the Irish potato famine. All such scenarios could be planned for in advance to mitigate their impact.

Particular attention should be paid to the areas of the world that supply food. The impact of drought and pests on those areas should be studied, and contingency plans drawn up in advance.

M

There is further information on the BBC programme that Chris Ruane refers to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/bigchill.shtml

Submitted by Martin Belam

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Independent Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in this very interesting debate. May I congratulate him on securing it and on the material that he has produced for it? Does he agree that changes in climate, affecting temperature and the salinity of seas, have been taking place for some time? He has just mentioned food, and those changes affect the location of fish. For example, we have seen cod leaving waters in Newfoundland because of the conveyor that he is discussing, and a change in the salinity of the water and the water temperature. All that must be taken into consideration in planning for the future.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. One scenario that Schwartz and Randell have outlined is the occurrence of wars over fishing rights, especially on the Iberian peninsula between Spain and Portugal—like the cod wars that we saw back in the '70s.

Schwarz and Randell also suggest research into geo-engineering—that is, the releasing of hydrofluorocarbons that will heat up the atmosphere and compensate for the drop in temperatures. That needs to be approached very carefully, however, because there is no way of knowing exactly what impact such releases would have, and we could end up doing more harm than good.

The research that Schwarz and Randell undertook was for the Pentagon and the US Government, and was supposed to influence US strategy and thinking on climate change. I doubt that it will change the policies of the current US Administration. President Bush has shown his contempt for a number of international agreements and initiatives, including the Kyoto protocol. He has imposed steel sanctions that have hit steel communities in UK, and created subsidies to US farmers that undercut farmers in the developing world and allow for dumping. He has also refused to join the International Criminal Court.

President Bush's father, George Bush senior, commissioned the international panel on climate change. George Bush junior set up a panel of the National Academy of Sciences to study global warming. George Bush junior dismissed the findings of both. He has now called for additional research to prove what the vast majority of climate change scientists already know: that the earth is getting warmer. This was described in The New York Times as a

"redundant examination of issues that had largely been settled, bereft of vision, executable goals and timetables—in short little more than a cover up for inaction".

I mentioned earlier the brave efforts of Andrew Marshall to bring this issue to public attention. It is interesting to note that the journal he used was a business journal called Fortune. I hope that this issue becomes a live issue in the presidential election campaign. Three quarters of Americans believe that there should be mandatory controls on CO2 emissions. In the run-up to the presidential elections, the interests of the coal, oil and automobile industries should be weighed against the damage that climate change is doing to the environment.

I summary, I call on the Minister dramatically to increase research budgets for research on the workings of the Atlantic conveyor, on developing renewable energy sources, and on improvements to developing cleaner fuels. I call on him to work collaboratively with other Departments to ensure that the UK is prepared for all eventualities, and I ask that the issue be raised at all international forums. I call upon the Minister, and indeed the Prime Minister, to do all that they can by making direct approaches to President Bush to end US inaction. I also urge the Minister and his colleagues to work in strong collaboration with Governments around the world to commission research on past and present climate change, and to draw up contingency plans for the rapid climate change that could end life as we know it in the UK and beyond.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:17 pm, 18th March 2004

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Ruane on securing this debate and on raising some very serious issues. He has demonstrated his clear knowledge of, and interest in, them and I listened to what he had to say with great interest. I agree with his points and acknowledge their seriousness. I shall certainly try to address them.

I saw the press coverage of the Pentagon report, and I read it with considerable interest. Like my hon. Friend, I saw the assessment of the implications for national security in the United States and for a range of other matters. I take encouragement from the fact that such reports have been commissioned, which demonstrates that the United States recognises that there is a serious issue in relation to climate change. I also found it interesting that the Pentagon report recognised that no country will escape the effects of climate change, whether it is rich, poor, large or small. The implications are severe for us all, and they are global. That places a responsibility on those of us from the developed world and the industrial countries, which have of course been the biggest contributors to climate change, to understand what is happening in relation to the research and the science and take measures to tackle the problem.

My hon. Friend rightly addressed the question of what could happen if the north Atlantic drift, or the gulf stream as it is commonly known in our country, switched off. That is a possibility, and the work that has been done on the subject means that there is no denying it. Our best scientific assessments tell us that we can expect a slow-down rather than a complete shut-off of the gulf stream over this century. Up to 2050 at least, there will still be a net warming over the UK, as the cooling effect of the gulf stream's slow-down will not cancel out the warming effect of climate change due to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, although there will be an effect.

We know that the gulf stream has switched off in the past, so there is a sound basis for speculation about it slowing down or halting. We should be clear that further research and assessment are required. We also know that if it does switch off, scenarios of the kind that my hon. Friend painted are a possibility.

There are lessons there, particularly for that dwindling group of people who are sceptics on climate change. They are becoming increasingly isolated and clutch at straws, saying that there is no evidence for it. They are becoming the flat-earthers in the debate, given the overwhelming evidence being accumulated on what is happening.

My hon. Friend is right that the UK is a world leader in research on the issue. I refer in particular to research funded by my Department at the Hadley centre in Exeter, which is recognised as a world-leading institution in predicting the effects of climate change; the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is based in Lowestoft; and the Natural Environment Research Council, which funded the rapid research programme to provide state-of-the-art analysis in simulation modelling and ocean monitoring. A great deal of work is going on and the UK will continue to lead on research on this important topic. We will use further evidence as it emerges in our ongoing planning for adaptation for climate change, as we have to consider the implications as well.

There have been some excellent presentations from the Hadley centre and the Tyndall centre, and I was privileged to present some of their findings to an international audience at the climate change conference in Milan recently. They have made observations on weather patterns going back almost 1,000 years from what can be ascertained from ice core, peat and soil samples. Their research shows that there is a cycle of weather patterns over the centuries.

Temperatures vary within a range from decade to decade and century to century, but the latest figure, which is taken not from sampling but from the weather patterns that we have been able to observe for the last few hundred years, shows that the range—the curve—increases dramatically. That curve completely changes from the cycles we have seen over many centuries. Something distinctive, radical and worrying is happening to our climate, and we cannot ignore that.

As a matter of interest, yesterday I was at a maritime research exhibition to launch the WaveNet programme, which has been developed by CEFAS. It involves a series of remote buoys around our coast that take real-time temperature, current and wave height samples. That excellent project can be accessed on the internet, and people can click on to individual buoys around the coast and be given a real-time reading of temperature and wave patterns. It is a fantastic facility that is available internationally and globally. Anyone who has access to the internet can access that data, which is a real step forward in sharing information and in understanding our knowledge.

I also saw work involving a satellite programme, in collaboration with the Met Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and a range of other institutions. Remote sensors are dropped internationally, all around the seas, and they sink, take temperature readings, resurface and transmit the data to the satellite, which transmits it back to our scientific research stations. That is world-class science at the cutting edge of our understanding.

We are keen to co-operate, and are working with a range of international bodies. I recently met American representatives to discuss climate monitoring, and they were keen to co-operate with us, as we are to work with them. The Hadley centre has developed a computer model based on its global predictions, which can apply to regions around the world. I have met Indian scientists who have taken the PRECIS—Providing Regional Climates for Impacts Studies—computer model and are applying it to the Indian subcontinent. The program predicts climate change implications, which are severe and include: flooding in Bangladesh and low-lying areas; drought, as my hon. Friend said; crop failure; and increase in disease, as disease-carrying mosquitoes spread into new areas because of changing temperatures. That is modelled by PRECIS, which is a useful tool and particularly helpful for developing countries that do not have the capacity to develop such sophisticated computer models themselves but can take computer programs and apply them. They are doing a great deal of invaluable scientific work in their regions in helping us understand what is happening.

I assure my hon. Friend that that work will continue. He will have heard the Chancellor's comments about the importance of science in his recent Budget announcement, and about how we need to continue the investment in our science and education base, because it is crucial. He will be aware of the Government's commitment to reducing CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. We are recognised as world leaders both in what we are doing and in relation to our energy White Paper, which made clear our strategy for achieving those reductions. We are also the first country in the European Union to publish the national allocation plan for the European emissions trading scheme. We are well advanced in dealing with this issue.

We have set up the climate change impact programme to examine the potential effect on this country and ways in which we need to prepare for that, not just in reducing CO2 but through more research and development on environmental technologies, which includes renewable energy—as my hon. Friend said—clean transportation and clean fuel technology. All that work is ongoing, and we are collaborating with Japan, for example, on issues such as hydrogen fuel cell technology and transportation, and with many other countries.

I recently held a joint meeting with Sweden on environmental technologies, at which we called together a range of academics and companies to discuss how to develop new technologies for reducing energy and energy saving. We also set up REEEP—the renewable energy and energy efficiency programme—which is designed to be a global forum for sharing information on energy efficiency. The secretariat of REEEP, although it was set up by the UK, has now moved to Austria, where it is developing as an international organisation, with contributions from countries all over the world.

We have done a great deal on climate change, which is a real and serious threat to this country and all the countries of the world. Even if temperatures increase by the relatively small number of degrees projected, the impact will be considerable.

Ann Winterton mentioned fish stocks. She is right that water temperature and the productivity of species such as cod are clearly linked. Although over-fishing has played a part in some declines, climate is certainly a factor.

This is a serious issue. My hon. Friend was right to raise it and has done the House a service. I hope that I have reassured him that we in the Government share his views and are prepared to act to combat what is one of the most serious global threats that we face.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o'clock.