Thursday, April 17, 2008

Climate change hits water cycle

Global warming has already brought about significant changes to what is known as the hydrological cycle, warns an authoritative new report on climate change and water. The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) stark assessment comes as the major economic powers refuse to take action to cut carbon emissions and, in Britain’s case, are actually allowing them to rise.

In the hydrological cycle, water evaporates from the seas, falls as fresh water rain, and is stored in different forms – as ice (not so much), in underground aquifers, human-made reservoirs, or flows back to the sea. The IPCC says that changes to this cycle include new rainfall patterns – at both extremes, with increases in northern latitudes and decreases in the south - reduced snow cover and melting ice; and changes in soil moisture and runoff.

Climate scientists agree that this pattern will continue. Low-lying areas in northern Europe will become more subject to flooding, and semi-arid areas, such as the Mediterranean basin, western USA, southern Africa and north-eastern Brazil will lose water resources. The new report warns: “By the 2050s, the area of land subject to water stress due to climate change is projected to be more than double that with decreasing water stress.” In many regions, any increase in supply will be “counterbalanced by the negative effects of increased precipitation variability and seasonal runoff shifts on water supply, water quality and flood risks”. The IPCC that these changes are certain to affect food availability in many areas.

Former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson, speaking on Radio 4 this week about his new book which rubbishes climate science (I won’t bother you with the title – it’s completely bonkers and you’d get more useful knowledge from his previous book about how to lose weight!) said that the science is one thing but the real challenge is what we do about it. Human beings, he argued, are infinitely adaptable and resourceful, and will find ways to cope with climate change – and even turn it to their advantage, he suggested.

This argument is the basis of thinking of all governments – even those who accept the science of climate change – and the reason why technical fixes, military planning and profitable market solutions such as carbon trading and bio-fuel, form their response to the climate crisis, rather than action to halt the growth in emissions. But what Lawson and his co-thinkers like George W Bush and Tony Blair (impossible to say what goes on in the strange brain of Gordon Brown) do not articulate is that human resourcefulness takes many different forms.

At times humans co-operate in structured and rational ways – the IPCC itself is an example of this. Sometimes they are organised into ruthless armies, to oppress others. Sometimes they work together to help each other and sometimes they let the weakest go to the wall whilst the rich and powerful survive. In the macro scale, what form actually prevails depends entirely on social and economic circumstances, and the nature of the states that determine the laws within which people act.

This is why, within our existing capitalist framework, millions of householders are losing their homes in the US, whilst fund managers rake in big bonuses. Why British soldiers invaded Iraq though the majority opposed it. Why many of the 70,000 small UK businesses flooded last year now find they can’t afford insurance. Why millions are spent maintaining the Thames barrier, whilst for the Norfolk and Dorset coastline and other less valuable real estate – the watchwords are “adaptive management” and “planned withdrawal”. Why people across the globe are protesting against food price rises, while Lawson tells the rich how to get thinner. And why the developed economies are passing the buck on carbon emissions, making a new international agreement much less likely.

The IPCC report confirms that an entirely new set of social, economic and political conditions are needed to push through both an emergency response and a longer-term plan to tackle climate change.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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