Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Warming up the crystal ball: climate change predictions

On Tuesday the National Academy of Sciences released ‘the most detailed report yet’ outlining the effect that a rise in global temperatures of less than 2, 2-3 or over 3 degrees Celsius would have on the planet’s plant life, sea levels and rainfall.

The main scientist, Dr. Scholze reckons that at least a two degree rise in global temperatures is inevitable which he believes will cause a world wide loss of forests, increased flooding and a significant reduction in fresh water supplies. The UK Hadley centre, a leader in climate change research estimates that a 3 degree rise would put 400m people at risk of hunger, and half the world population at risk of flooding.

These studies stick to changes in the natural world, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to make an educated guess on what changes of a 2-3 degree rise by the middle of the century would mean for us living in the UK. I’ve tried to steer clear of being alarmist and these are just guesses so I’d be interested in your predictions.

In 2050 I think that:

1) We will live in fortress Britain. Climate change is going to create numbers of refugees unprecedented in world history. Millions will be forced to leave land that has become inhabitable because of drought, salination of water supplies or wars over ever more limited fresh water. In constant fear of tens of millions coming to the UK we will close our borders to all but the luckiest of refugees and enforce military defence measures to put off would be illegal entrants.

2) Thousands of older people will have died in summer heat waves. In the summer of 2003 in France, tens of thousands of older people died as a direct result of the heat wave. By 2050 thousands will of older people will die in more frequent and more intense heat waves in the UK.

3) Hundreds of thousands of homes in the south and east will be uninsurable and unsellable. A 3 degree rise would increase risk of flooding by 17 times in South and East and the Thames Barrier is already being raised significantly more often than 10 years ago. Nobody (or very few people) would die, but dealing with flood damage will be a reoccurring problem.

4) Progress in the developing economies will have been wiped out. Developing economies will struggle to maintain growth went hit by more frequent and intense problems. Our ability to promote sustainable development will vanish as we try to deal with crisis after crisis.

5) Our financial affluence will have been severely dented. The economy won’t have crashed into unending depression – no one individual shock would be big enough to precipitate this. Our economic patterns will adapt and evolve and there will still be plenty of work around to deal with the effects of climate change. Some jobs may have moved back to the UK because the world will be a more dangerous and uncertain place. Supply of goods to our kitchens and living rooms from around the world will be inconsistent and regularly disrupted.

I'm in my mid 20s: I don’t expect to witness the worst of the effects of climate change. I believe I will see extremely serious flooding, drought that will kill hundreds of thousands and create millions of environmental refugees, but not on the scale of the second half of the 21st century could produce. It will be the next generation that has to deal with those catastrophes – something that’s worth bearing in mind for those of us considering having children.

To read about how I think we can alleviate climate change see my post from late June here.

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