Climate change – myth or reality? It was a question that taxed some of the leading minds in the field when they gathered in Birmingham this week, as Shahid Naqvi reports .
When it came to the vexed topic of global warming there was not much the assembled panel of experts agreed upon, except their response to one question.
“Should Birmingham now apologise for the Industrial Revolution?”
It was the last of 10 posers put before the panel of six at a public meeting held by the Lunar Society at Birmingham’s Town Hall chaired by the city council’s former chief executive, Sir Michael Lyons.
The supposition behind the question, of course, was that the city’s legacy as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution means it should accept some responsibility for global warming.
Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, was quick to stand up for the city.
“Of course it shouldn’t apologise,” she said, “but I think it should seize the opportunity to lead the third Industrial Revolution.”
By which she meant green energy innovation.
“The benefits of industrialisation have been enormous,” said climate change sceptic Julian Morris, director of the International Policy Network and strong advocate of free enterprise.
Former Environment Minister Michael Meacher also thought Birmingham had nothing to be sorry about, but agreed its role now was to “lead the way to another and better revolution”.
Dr Kevin Anderson, research director at the Tyndall Centre’s Energy and Climate Change research programme, believed the Industrial Revolution had provided “many benefits”.
On other issues, however, the panellists were not in such firm agreement.
For example, asked whether climate change was a natural planetary or man-made event, Ms McGlade warned: “A hundred and fifty years ago we started the industrial revolution and it is obvious that from that point carbon dioxide started to increase.
“In the last 150 years what we have seen is an unprecedented increase in CO2 emissions. Every observation we bring in tells us we are now outside the most conservative models for CO2 emissions. Even sceptics I meet are becoming more convinced.”
One such sceptic on the panel who remained unconvinced however, was former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for Energy Nigel Lawson whose book An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, dismisses the majority scientific verdict.
“The science is anything but settled,” he told a somewhat incredulous audience.
“There are natural forces at work in the climate, there always has been. The hysteria we have on this issue is totally unwarranted.”
Mr Meacher, however, now a prominent campaigner on environmental and climate change, warned the world was on the brink of some major problems if nations did not act.
“We are getting some extremely unusual weather patterns in terms of hurricanes, flooding, desertification. What is really worrying is that last time we had a major melt on our planet, which was about three million years ago, sea levels rose by 25 metres.
“When they did rise they rose exceedingly fast, by 20 metres over 400 years. Since all our major cities are on the coast and nuclear power plants and waste dumps are on the coast it is extremely worrying.”
Mr Morris insisted it was necessary to “understand better what is causing this change in the climate”.
David Henderson, another of the panellists and former chief economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, urged caution before solely blaming man’s industrial activity for climate change.
“We are dealing here with an extraordinary complex system which is not properly understood. What concerns me is whether the inquiries are sufficiently objective regarding what exactly is happening with climate change and CO2 emissions.”
Mr Henderson warned governments against rushing into expensive and radical action without fully establishing the facts on “both sides”.
The last word, however, went to Dr Anderson.
“Broadly speaking, everyone agrees the greenhouse effect occurs. We know CO2 emissions have gone up since the Industrial Revolution. We know the rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is down to our use of fossil fuels.
“There are uncertainties about how the world will respond to that. But the question you have to ask is are you prepared to take the risk with your children? You would have to be a very keen gambler to take that risk with these odds.”