Climate change threatens perfect storm

Gordon James says the Welsh Government’s forthcoming Sustainable Development Bill offers a timid, shuffling step in the right direction

Guests arriving at the IWA Inspire Wales Awards at Cardiff’s City Hall could have been forgiven for believing that this splendid event was taking place in November rather than in June. A few days afterwards the heavens had opened to dump, in 24 hours, twice the average June rainfall onto villages near Aberystwyth.

Tomorrow: Let’s hope Rio+20 inspired John Griffiths

Anne Meikle says the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Development Bill, due to be published this autumn, must be strengthened

Such abnormal and extreme weather is becoming more frequent locally and globally, confirming the predictions of climate scientists. Although scientists are careful not to link specific events to climate change in the absence of hard evidence, the evidence is mounting.

Research, led by Myles Allen of Oxford University, indicates that global warming made the floods that devastated England and Wales in the autumn of 2000 twice as likely to happen (see here). And last November, a United Nations-backed report confirmed the link between climate change and current trends in extreme weather (here).

These extremes could become the norm because of the widespread failure, despite commitments made 20 years ago at the first Earth Summit at Rio, to tackle the causes of climate change.

Our present predicament has been well articulated by the normally conservative International Energy Agency (IEA). Speaking in April, its deputy director, Richard Jones, warned that, “the current trend of increasing emissions is unbroken”, and if this continues, “long-term temperature rise is likely to be at least 6C.”

Climate scientists have estimated that global warming of 2C above preindustrial levels marks the limit of safety beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. Mr Jones said the world could still hold temperature rise to 2C, but only if nations co-operated urgently on clean technology.

Factor into this scenario population growth, rapidly growing demand for food and water, and the over-exploitation of dwindling resources and we are creating what the U.K. Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof John Beddington, has called “a perfect storm” of global events by 2030.

You would think that world governments would respond by striving to implement solutions, such as developing exciting new low-carbon technologies that boost the green economy, and use the Rio +20 Summit as a launch-pad. Some at Rio tried, but for the powerful nations of the world, unduly influenced by large corporations, short-term economic interests still dominate.

The first Earth Summit raised hopes by producing two important legally binding agreements on climate change and biological biodiversity. Although the outcomes of these agreements have been disappointing with, for instance, greenhouse gas emissions rising by almost 50% in the intervening years, the situation would have been even worse without them. The Convention on Climate Change has persuaded many governments, including ours in Wales, to take the issue more seriously and to set challenging targets to cut emissions. Rio +20 offers almost nothing.

Its main outcome is to set Sustainable Development Goals by 2015, provided squabbling between poor and rich nations about the meaning of such goals can be overcome. Nations only agreed to ‘think about’ alternatives to GDP and ways to place a higher value on nature and the services it provides, and failed to reduce the huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuels.

The failure of yet another international summit should not come as a surprise. Shortly before it began, the UN published its latest Global Environmental Outlook, which pointed out (here) that, “the world continues to speed down an unsustainable path despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives… significant progress has been made in just four out of 90 environmental goals”.

If we are to successfully meet the immense challenges we now face we are going have to rely far more on initiatives at local, regional and national government levels. And here in Wales we have a government which is positioning itself to take a lead role by making sustainable development its central organising principle.

On 18 May the IWA took a closer look at this at its conference, Putting Wales at the heart of Rio+20. It got off to a rather embarrassing start when Alun Davies AM popped up in a film enthusiastically promoting sustainable development. This was the AM who has also enthusiastically supported the environmentally damaging, wasteful and very unsustainable new gas-fired power station at Pembroke.

His appearance perhaps revealed more than was intended about the Welsh Government’s ambitions. These are outlined in its consultation document on the Sustainable Development Bill. Some initial responses have been critical because, for instance, it speaks of simply wanting to “encourage sustainable development behaviours’ and for focusing on ‘thinking and behaviour’ rather than ‘actions and outcomes”.

The Sustainable Development Act will help to shuffle Wales forward in the right direction but the steps taken are likely to be short, timid and inadequate. The whole consultation process is also likely, once again, to divert environmental organisations away from campaigning onto safer and less productive ground.

If we are not to bequeath to our children a ‘perfect storm’ we are going to have to take far more responsibility as individuals to, in Gandhi’s words, “be the change we want to see in the world”, to create greater awareness, to lobby and to campaign. We are going far too gently into the night. We should be raging.

Gordon James is an environment activist. He was winner of the environmentalist category in this year’s IWA Inspire Wales Awards.

3 thoughts on “Climate change threatens perfect storm

  1. For heaven’s sake. The Welsh government’s talk of sustainability is just rhetoric. The first time it conflicts with jobs or income they will forget it. And here’s why: If Wales completely eliminated all carbon emissions it would cancel about a third of just one year’s growth in Chinese emissions. Yes each year China adds three Wales’ to its carbon emissions. Just China, don’t talk of the US, Australia, Canada, Brazil etc. As for setting a good example, how can we when those folks have never heard of Wales, don’t know we exist. Wales is utterly, utterly insignificant. For the global climate it just doesn’t matter what we do. So what democratic government is going to sacrifice the immediate prosperity of Welsh people in a quixotic display? If the world arrived at an agreement, of course we should be good citizens and comply but meanwhile it makes sense to balance prosperity against sustainability since we can’t affect the latter anyway at a global level. The first thing we should do is get on with fracking our large reserves of natural gas to finance better education and healthcare in our country and stop pussyfooting about.

  2. Gordon has been an inspirational campaigner for our environment for as long as I can remember. His warnings on global warming are not wild assumptions, but opinions based on the very best independent research. It scares me when politicians talk about global warming but either set targets with no explanation on how to achieve them, or set no targets and throw the word ‘sustainable’ in the mix for no apparent reason.

    I welcome the fact that a Welsh Government Minister visited the Rio summit, but our nation needs to do more than just shuffle towards real action. I hope that the Labour Government listen very carefully to people like Gordon James and choose to be seen as leaders in saving our planet instead of just being followers.

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