The world is warming up. As we burn up the planet’s coal, oil and gas reserves, and cut down its remaining forests, greenhouse gases are pouring into the atmosphere. The delicate balance of atmospheric gases that sustains life is thickening, trapping more and more heat and irreversibly changing our world.
For all the technological gloss of the 21st century, the UK is still living in an industrial era, pumping out emissions from coal, oil and gas. Worse, our energy is supplied through a criminally wasteful, centralised energy system; two thirds of all energy generated in UK power stations is lost as waste heat – up the chimney and along transmission lines. But there are clean, affordable and proven solutions for the most polluting sectors: electricity, transport, industry and domestic.
This massive and rapid change to our climate is like nothing humankind has seen before. As such, the science around it has been cautious and careful in reaching consensus over time. But a strong consensus has finally been reached; the scientific community now agrees that climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity and it’s already happening.
The 0.6 degree rise we’ve experienced already kills 150,000 people every year. Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice are disappearing. Sea levels are rising, seasons changing and extreme weather becoming more extreme. As temperatures increase further, there will almost inevitably be more flooding, more drought, more disease, more famine and more war, creating hundreds of millions of refugees and causing the destruction of entire ecosystems and species.
How much climate change can we bear?
An average temperature rise of around 1.3 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels is already inevitable and will bring with it some terrible impacts worldwide. If that figure hits two degrees, many scientists say that not only will the impacts be much greater, but the probability of feedback mechanisms kicking in will be much higher; climate change could spiral completely out of control. Some studies say we have 10 years or less to tackle emissions if we are to stay below that temperature threshold.
The politics (UK)
So why do we keep burning fossil fuels? The problem isn't a scientific one but a political one. Despite the rhetoric, political cowardice and industry lobbying are preventing meaningful action. New Labour has overseen a rise in overall carbon emissions and is now set to miss its own emissions targets. And if the UK doesn’t deliver at home, how can it put pressure on other governments internationally?
The politics (international)
Carbon emissions don't respect borders and the sad fact is that the world's most vulnerable people are the ones that are suffering most from its impacts. With countries like China and India in the middle of their own industrial revolutions, it's clear we need a global framework and global cooperation to address the problem. The Kyoto Protocol is a crucial first step but far, far more needs to be done.
The nuclear distraction
While the government claims to care about the climate, in practice it has bowed to the demands of big business. The government has fallen for the nuclear industry's spin and decided that the UK needs 10 new nuclear power stations. Nuclear power can't stop climate change or ensure energy security. We need to start reducing emissions within a decade to avoid catastrophic climate change; the first new nuclear power stations won't produce a watt of energy before 2018.