Environment Agency boss hits back at climate sceptics

One or two scientific scandals should not be allowed to detract from the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and must be addressed, says Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith

In a speech at the Henley Business School, Lord Smith said the ongoing media storm about the reliability of data did not alter the fact that the climate is changing.

He said the international community must take action to combat the consequences that would inevitably follow this rapid climate change.

"Recent challenges to one or two points in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) reports do not mean that we do not need to worry anymore," he said.

"Sloppily expressed emails at the University of East Anglia were irresponsible and very damaging. A blithe assumption that the Himalayan glaciers may melt by 2035 - when they won't - should never have been inserted in the IPCC report.

"But let's not allow one or two errors to undermine the overwhelming strength of evidence that has been painstakingly accumulated, peer reviewed, tested and tested again, and that shows overwhelmingly that our emissions of greenhouse gases are having a serious impact on the earth's atmosphere, and that as a result climate change is happening and will accelerate.

"We should not underestimate the damage that has been done by the glee with which the sceptics have seized on the one or two scientific mistakes and used them to undermine the whole consensus about the evidence and the conclusions we need to draw from it.

"Gradually, the public here in the UK, and across much of Europe, had come to accept the reality and the urgency of climate change. There were still debates about what precisely to do to counter it, but at least the fundamental recognition was there. I think that is probably less true now than it was three months ago. And that is a tragedy. We need to take the argument back to the sceptics, and make the powerful, convincing and necessary case for climate change much clearer to everyone."

"The evidence of change is indeed there. The glaciers of the Alps and the Himalayas are retreating. Weather patterns around the world are becoming more erratic and more extreme. The most intensive rainfall ever experienced in one location over a 24 hour period in England fell on Cumbria last November, and caused the tragic consequences of the severe flooding that we saw in Cockermouth, Keswick and Workington.

"We can't say for certain that these things - or indeed the intense heat recently experienced in Australia, or the droughts in Kenya - are caused by climate change. But we can see with our own eyes that the climatic, weather and temperature trends are changing, and we know that these hitherto exceptional events are likely to become more frequent over coming years.

"We know that if we can hold the average global air temperature increase to 2 degrees we have a chance of surviving more or less intact. But if it ends up being 4 degrees or more, the impact on population, on water resources, on sea levels, on agriculture, on weather patterns, on biodiversity, and on the quality of human life across the world, will be severe.

"That is why the international discussions on climate change at Copenhagen were so important. And why the outcome was so disappointing. We always knew that we wouldn't emerge from Copenhagen with a full signed-and-sealed treaty with firm commitments for specific emissions reductions from everyone around the world. But I did hope that we might emerge with rather more than we did, with at least a set of in-principle commitments and some target dates and a map charting where we were going to go from here.

"Instead, we have the Copenhagen Accord, drawn up by the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, with some aspirations and agreements, and an earnest of intent to build on this during the coming year. And build on it we must.

"The worst response to Copenhagen would be to throw up our hands in horror and say nothing was achieved and therefore we should give up on the search for international commitments and agreement.

"We need to continue the drive for an international treaty. And do so with renewed urgency. There are some useful fundamentals in the Copenhagen Accord - the aim of a 2 degree limit to temperature increase; the principle of north-south flows of aid and support in order to ensure that the developing world can grow more sustainably than those of us who have largely caused the problem up to now; and commitments to help combat deforestation. We should now work as hard as we can to build these up into more specific commitments over the next 11 months."

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