Why the long-term forecast is for rain
Our climate is in a state of flux and the long-term consequences could be serious. One man who sheds some light on the matter is Professor Neil Adger (42), climate expert, Ahoghill native and winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Chrissie Russell reports
Climate change has recently been the buzz word on everyone's lips. From concern over carbon footprints to angst about food miles and a new demand for environmentally conscious consumerism, everyone is talking about it and we've all suddenly becoming more aware of our role in the future of the planet.
One of the major reasons for this was a film released in 2006 by the Clinton administration ex-vice president Al Gore, which brought his life's campaign for environmental awareness to the attention of millions around the world.
His efforts were recognised this year when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his double Oscar winning film An Inconvenient Truth and campaign work. But although many people may have been aware of Gore's hands on the trophy, it's less likely that they realised his prize was split with the IPCC, a UN organisation established in 1988 encompassing more than 1,000 scientists, one of whom hailed from Co Antrim.
Professor Neil Adger is a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, where he now lives with his wife and son. Originally from Ahoghill, Adger is one of the key members in the IPCC.
"We were all really stunned," he says of hearing the announcement that the group had been awarded the prestigious prize. "But I was thrilled, as was everyone involved."
Adger has been a member of the IPCC since 2003 when he was nominated for the position after working on environmental science issues with the British government in previous years. "Climate change has been a huge issue for me for about 15 years," he explains. "The IPCC is a very, very authoritive voice on the subject and the report issued earlier this year on climate change was the result of four years' intense assessment."
The report he refers to dominated the news earlier this year as it confirmed the worst suspicions about climate change. "It is unequivocal that climate change is happening, and it's very likely, that is to say there is a more than 9/10 chance, that it's caused by human actions," reveals Adger. "There are still a few people out there who say that climate change is not happening but they are, and I think I can safely use this word, wrong."
Adger's part in the assessment process is to look at how we can best adapt to climate change. He explains: "We know climate will continue to change so an important question is 'can we adapt?' There are plenty of good reasons why we will have to.
"At the moment, if there is half an inch of snow, then the transport system grinds to a halt. With climate change, storms are only going to become more fierce and cause more damage."
To help address this concern, Adger spends much of his time working in zones where people are already feeling the effects of climate change, trying to assess the best way ahead in a landscape that is destined to change.
"People have definitely become more aware of the effects of climate change," agrees Adger. "There are three main reasons for this: Al Gore's movie, the Stern Report from the Government and the report by the IPCC. But another reason is that events consistent with climate change - like the floods this summer - have given the lay public a bit of a wake up call."
And Adger feels that individual responsibility lies central to addressing carbon emissions. "Obviously a small action like switching off one TV from standby to off will only make a very, very marginal difference to the planet but there is the opportunity to make big differences," he says.
"A very significant proportion of journeys taken by car are less than a mile - if we walked or cycled that distance it would be better for our health, better for congestion and save lots of emissions to the atmosphere."
Agder practices what he preaches in regard to making personal adjustments to reduce carbon emissions - he holidays close to home, walks short distances and turns electrics off at source. "My life hasn't suffered as a result of these changes," he asserts. "One thing is that I have to travel a lot for work but, as scientists, we all realise we are part of the problem as well as the solution and try to keep travel to a minimum."
Interestingly Adger is adamant that the scientific community felt no animosity over the fact that Gore received the lion's share of the publicity over this year's Nobel Prize. "The media focus was absolutely right because so many people saw Al Gore's movie and know him and his message," he says. "He's made a huge, huge difference in the field of climate change by raising public understanding. But he has always said he couldn't have done his work without the work by science."
He adds: "I was invited to listen to him give his lecture on climate change earlier this year as part of an audience of 'opinion formers' ... and it was captivating, absolutely amazing. When I heard him speaking it made everything I do worthwhile."
Adger himself gave a lecture at the start of this week, returning home to Northern Ireland for a talk at Stormont. Although he has lived away from the province for more than a decade - studying economics and then environmental sciences at Edinburgh and London universities - he maintains a strong connection.
"My dad comes from a farming background and he was always interested in the weather. I suppose that is what started me in my interest in climate. This week's event marks the launch of the Climate Change Coalition and with talks organised by the Northern Ireland Environmental Link about how climate change will affect Northern Ireland." He continues: "The fact is it's already affecting Northern Ireland. Rainfall intensity has increased. Also, sea levels are rising off the coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland and, with the increased stormy-ness, it means coastal surges and the danger of more flooding."
Worryingly Adger says the wheels of climate change are already irrevocably in motion. He says: "If we don't do something about it the risks really escalate and if we keep on emitting at the rate we are, at some point we are going to cross a critical threshold and we don't know where that tipping point is."
So is a doomsday picture like that painted in the film The Day After Tomorrow actually a conceivably accurate portrait of where we could all end up? Adger is not convinced. "That film is Hollywood and the science of it is like the science in Star Trek - not reflective of how the world works." But nor does he rule it out entirely, he adds: "However, the scenario painted of the northern hemisphere especially western Europe and north America getting colder to the equivalent of an ice age could possibly happen but not in a week or a fortnight. One or two decades at the quickest - and more likely over 100 years. But if we are talking about apocalyptic - tens of thousands of people died in Europe in 2003 because of the heatwave - the effects of climate change are already apocalyptic enough for them."