Scope of Climate Change

The scope of the climate change debate is complex and includes issues that extend beyond the science and encompasses both the politics and the economics of climate change plus  the self-interest of individuals and nation-states. While it is recognised that this entire discussion cannot hope to address the scope of all this complexity, it might initially attempt to outline some of the issues by way of various linked references. As will be stated on several occasions throughout this entire discussion, the goal is not to deny that climate change is happening or to suggest that man-made greenhouse gases do not contribute to the climate change, but rather provide a general assessment of the scope and causes of climate change. In the initial context of science, it might be said that climate change started out as a relatively one-dimensional debate centred around an increasing realisation that certain gases in the atmosphere could create a greenhouse effect, which might then lead to some degree of global warming. However, growing knowledge of the greenhouse effect was then combined with the history of the industrial revolution to highlight that humanity had been adding increasing amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, primarily in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), for over a century. In the first section of the timeline to follow, we see the growing awareness of the science that supported the idea that greenhouse gases could lead to a global warming.

  • 1824: Physicist Joseph Fourier describes the greenhouse effect.

  • 1861 - Physicist John Tyndall shows that water vapour and certain other gases create the greenhouse effect.

  • 1896: Chemist Svante Arrhenius concludes that industrial-age coal burning has increased the natural greenhouse effect, although he also suggested that this might be beneficial for future generations.

  • 1900: Physicist Knut Angstrom discovers that small concentrations of CO2 strongly absorb parts of the infrared spectrum and that even a trace gas can produce greenhouse warming.

  • 1938: Engineer Guy Callendar uses records from 147 weather stations around the world to show that temperatures had risen over the previous century. He also shows that CO2 concentrations had increased over the same period and suggested this caused the warming.

  • 1955: Physicist Gilbert Plass analyses the infrared absorption of various gases and concluded that doubling CO2 concentrations would increase temperatures by 3-4C.

  • 1957: Oceanographer Roger Revelle and chemist Hans Suess showed that seawater will not absorb all the additional CO2 entering the atmosphere, as many had assumed.

Of course, these were early days in the developing climate change debate, before the problem of claim and counter-claims of scientists, economists, politicians and all manner of lobbyists possibly added confusion rather than clarity to the debate. Today, based on hindsight, we might realise that the science of climate change was initially limited in scope, such that before moving onto the next section of the timeline, we possibly need to consider the developing perception of climate change in the minds of the public and politicians, who would come to frame the debate. From the 1960’s onwards, the notion of climate change, or global warming at it was initially presented, started to become an increasing issue of public concern. However, it might be argued that initial public concern over the greenhouse effect was also entwined with the wider issue of environmental pollution, which also included an obvious concern about nuclear war at that time. A growing anti-nuclear lobby would then expand the nuclear concern to encompass nuclear proliferation of any description, i.e. inclusive of nuclear energy, especially after the accidents at 3-Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. However, it is possible that the public did not initially consider global warming as an immediate threat, simply a longer-term concern mixed up with the idea of growing environmental pollution. This said, the initial public concern and increasing lobbying by environmental groups was sufficient to put the issue of global warming on the political agenda, which would eventually be transformed into the climate change debate that continues to this day.

  • 1965: US advisory committee warns that the greenhouse effect is a matter of real concern.

  • 1972: First UN environment conference after which the United Nations Environment Programme is formed.

  • 1975: Scientist Wallace Broecker introduces the term ‘ global warming in the title of a scientific paper.

  • 1987: Montreal Protocol agrees to restrict chemicals that damage the ozone layer, although not directly linked to climate change at that time.

  • 1988: The IPCC is formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change.

  • 1989: UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calls for a global treaty on climate change. However, some suspected that her support of nuclear energy was a way to curtail the power of the National Union of Miners . In this context, her initial support of the climate change argument might be seen in terms of the fact that nuclear energy also has a small CO2 footprint.

  • 1990: IPCC first assessment report concluded that temperatures had risen by 0.3-0.6C over the last century and that humanity's emissions were adding to the greenhouse effect leading to global warming.

  • 1992: Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro agree the United Framework Convention on Climate Change . Its key objective was to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Developed countries agree, in principle, to return their emissions to 1990 levels, although history suggests this never happened.

  • 1995: IPCC second assessment report concluded that the evidence highlighted a human influence on the Earth's climate.

  • 1997: Kyoto Protocol agreed a ‘pledge’ for developed nations to reduce emissions by an average of 5% by the period 2008-12, but with wide variations on targets for individual countries. US Senate immediately declares it will not ratify the treaty. Again, history suggests that this agreement had little effect on CO2 emissions.

  • 1998: Publication of the controversial ‘hockey stick’ graph indicating that modern-day temperature rise in the northern hemisphere is unusual compared with the last 1,000 years. The controversy over the graph would later be the subject of two enquiries instigated by the US Congress.

  • 2001: US President George W Bush removes the US from the Kyoto process.

  • 2001: IPCC third assessment report finds new and stronger evidence that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the warming seen in the second half of the 20th Century.

  • 2005: Kyoto Protocol becomes international law. However, US, China and India are not bound by this protocol.

  • 2006: The Stern Review concludes that climate change could damage global GDP by up to 20% if left unchecked, but prevention would cost about 1% of global GDP. This review has subsequently been questioned .

  • 2007: IPCC fourth assessment report concluded that it is more than 90% likely that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change.

  • 2007: IPCC and former US vice-president Al Gore receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change. See ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and criticisms.

  • 2007: ‘Bali roadmap’ aimed to agree a new global treaty on climate change by the end of 2009, although the text did not specify or mandate emissions targets and was not legally binding.

  • 2008: The Keeling project showed CO2 concentrations rising from 315pmm in 1958 to 380ppm in 2008.

  • 2009: China overtakes the US as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter , although the US remains well ahead on a per-capita basis.

  • 2009: Computer hackers download a huge tranche of emails from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and release some on the internet, leading to the ‘Climate-Gate affair’ .

  • 2009: 192 governments convene for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen with expectations of a new global agreement, but leave only with a controversial political declaration known as the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ .

  • 2010: Developed countries begin contributing to a $30bn, three-year deal on ‘Fast Start Finance’ to help them ‘green’ their economies and adapt to climate impacts.

  • 2010: A series of reviews into ‘Climate-Gate’ and the IPCC ask for more openness, but clear scientists of malpractice.

  • 2011: New analysis of the Earth's temperature record by scientists concerned over the ‘Climate-Gate’ allegations prove the planet's land surface has warmed over the last century.

  • 2011: Data shows concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising faster than in previous years.

  • 2012: Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum extent of 3.41 million square kilometres, a record for the lowest summer cover since satellite measurements began in 1979. Antarctic sea ice is questioned.

  • 2013: The Mauna Loa Observatory reports that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has surpassed 400ppm for the first time since measurements began in 1958.

By 2016, the Paris climate accord had outlined its plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions in terms of mitigation, adaptation and finance to start in 2020 to which 195 members signed up to support. The goal of this plan was to limit the global temperature rise in the 21st century to 2oC below pre-industrial levels, although there was no agreement or mechanism to force a nation-state to comply with any specific target by any given date. Later, in 2017, newly elected US President, Donald Trump, announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on the grounds that it would undermine the US economy.

Note: Today, we might realise that the climate change debate is not just about the science, although this will be the main focus of the following discussions, as it is compounded by global and national economics that can directly affect public opinion and politics. We might also realise that the climate change debate now encompasses many competing interests of ‘big business’ from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but which may also impact the public by threating job security in many sectors of the economy and may include wider national security concerns.

We might consider the suggestion in the note above in terms of the projected energy consumption of the US, China and India, where China has now become the world’s largest energy consumer, as well as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, where coal consumption is up 157% since 2002, such that they now consume over 50% of the world’s coal, while oil consumption has also doubled over the same time period.

Therefore, it may not be entirely cynical to question the difference between what politicians say and what politicians do, especially in terms of global politics. In addition to the chart above, it might be worth highlighting that just 6 nation-states are responsible for over 60% of global CO2 emissions with China and the US accounting for more than 40%. However, China alone accounts for ~30% of global CO2 emissions, which is nearly twice the amount of the US, although much less on a per capita basis. So, despite China’s support of the Paris accord, it is estimated that China will double its CO2 emissions by 2040, barring any major change in its energy policy, which might then have knock-on effects on its economic growth. For China’s economy is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its electricity supplies, which is critical to many of its key industries, e.g. steel production, such that it may be reluctant to set any firm targets for CO2 emissions. However, while much attention might rightly be focused on China and the US, India also ranks third in global CO2 emissions table , even though 300 million of its people still live without electricity. Today, India is one of the world’s fastest-growing coal consumers, despite its stated ambition to increase electricity production from renewable source to 40% by 2030.

So what about the developing economies?

Today, many developing economies cannot sustain themselves, let alone initiate growth, without relying heavily on fossil fuels. As such, the issue of climate change might be considered as a case where the most urgent and immediate issues will be prioritised over other important, but possibly longer-term issues. If so, the developing economies may continue to prioritise their struggle to simply feed, house and provide employment for their growing populations. In this context, many of the developing economies may continue to view fossil fuels as the cheapest and most reliable energy resources available to them for many years to come. In the case of India with a population of 1.2 billion, it is estimated that 400 million people have insufficient food or shelter. So, while India may hope to transition to renewable energy depending on economic growth, the investment needed to meet its renewable energy goals is over four times its annual defence spending and over ten times its annual spending on health and education. Therefore, unless other changes occur within the global economy and the politics that often seeks to manipulate it, economies like India may not perceive climate change as their top priority in the face of the growing aspiration of its population for a better life. Equally, while China may now be perceived to be a major economy, a large percentage of its population are still poor by western standards, but may also aspire to a better life that may only be achieved by increasing energy consumption as suggested in the previous chart. As such, the scope of the climate change debate has to be considered in a much wider context than science in isolation. Therefore, the current IPCC projections, primarily based on climate models, have not only to be scrutinised in terms of their accuracy, but also in terms of the impact on both developed and developing nation-states.