Belfast Telegraph

We're facing catastrophe

Climate change is one of the great moral questions of our age, journalist Mark Lynas argues. He explains why to rural affairs reporter Linda McKee

So, we'll have more rain, floods and storms when global warming hits? Well, if you're thinking you could deal with that, Mark Lynas has bad news for you - the problem goes a bit deeper.

While the maritime climate we enjoy in Northern Ireland will probably bring stormy winters and rainy summers, the south of England is more likely to suffer heat and drought, according to the environmental journalist.

Meanwhile, temperature rises could eventually result in a mass exodus from the Mediterranean region - and all those people have to go somewhere.

"The Mediterranean area will be so dry that it's difficult to support a large human population so people will be moving north," Mark says.

"Potentially hundreds of millions of people will be on the move from parts of the world that have become uninhabitable to areas like north western Europe, Scandinavia, maybe Canada and Siberia - the large land masses which are closest to the Pole."

Mark's latest book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, outlines how the planet will respond to a global change of temperature of one or two degrees - and all the way up to six. It's now generally accepted that such are the levels of greenhouse gases out there that a two-degree temperature is already inevitable.

Last night Mark related how these scientific projections will pan out in a talk at Belfast's Waterfront Hall in an event organised by the British Council, with the Institute of Civil Engineers who are holding a Climate Change conference today.

This week, the public has a chance to see the internationally acclaimed British Council exhibition, NorthSouthEastWest, at the Waterfront Hall, which has been hailed as a visual wake-up call to the reality of global warming.

Mark has been fighting the good fight on global warming for almost a decade now, and has seen it move from a fringe issue to a mainstream policy area.

After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in modern history and politics, he became an environmental journalist and campaigner.

He says that climate change is one of those issues on which you can't maintain the traditional journalistic neutrality, once you understand what is going on - like slavery and genocide.

Indeed he has criticised his fellow media professionals for their attempts at balance on the issue, which he says often amount to balancing and accommodating the most powerful lobbies and the loudest voices.

True magnitude

"Future historians, assuming that there are any, will have an entertaining time looking back at how today's journalists wriggled when confronted with the great moral question of our age," he said recently following calls for the BBC to 'balance' its climate change coverage.

"Faced with clear evidence of an existential threat to the survival of the planetary biosphere, news correspondents and media organisations not only constantly fail to convey the true magnitude of the story, but also dash for cover every time the going gets tough."

Mark's first book, High Tide, was a travel narrative which came about after he travelled the world looking for the first effects of global warming, some of which are documented in the accompanying exhibition.

Back in 2002, the effects were already fairly clear in Alaska, where the ice was disappearing, he says. At the time, the notion that the planet was heating up was a difficult one for people to take in.

"It's received wisdom now, but back then it was a novelty," Mark says. "With this issue, the atmospheric physics were established decades, even a century ago, but the politics of the issue have really only come alive in the last five years.

"In 2004 when the first book came out I still felt like a voice in the wilderness, saying things which at the time were very radical."

The message he was relaying - that the only answer to the looming threat was no less than a full-scale move away from fossil fuels - is now being promoted by all the main political parties and highlighted around the globe.

"I've gone from being a wild-eyed eco-radical to the establishment within about three years, which is a very strange feeling," Mark says.

However, despite all the good intentions and goodwill this has wrought, it still hasn't translated into a reduction in emissions, he warns. Global emissions need to start falling within the next seven years and that means a huge effort on the part of many of the world's most polluting countries including China and the US.

There is plenty of evidence that the earth is already being damaged by climate change, including the loss of tropical coral reefs and deserts expanding in the US, he says.

"This is probably the most difficult challenge that humanity has ever faced - certainly two degrees of global warming are already in the pipeline because emissions in the past are already in the atmosphere," he says.

"There's still time to act and protect most of what makes this planet so special, but that time is running out."

In addition to his predictions of huge population movements from warmer countries to the far north, Mark warns that we're likely to experience worse flooding and worse droughts around the world. The breadbaskets of the world in places like the US and eastern Europe will come under pressure as never before.

"Snow will be a distant memory - there won't be any snow at all except on the highest mountains," he says.

"Winter storms will be much more severe. In Ireland, there is a maritime climate, so it's going to be a case of worse storms blowing in from the Atlantic and worse rainfall.

"And coastal areas, particularly those vulnerable to storm surges, will be affected by high tides, strong storms and high sea levels, putting them at risk of quite severe flooding in low lying areas."

  • The British Council exhibition NorthSouthEastWest is showing at the Waterfront Hall until October 12.

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