‘Pollution = WMD’ – Lord May

Britain's top scientist was on characteristically forthright form this week, describing the potential impact of pollution and climate change as akin to using weapons of mass destruction.

Australian-born Lord May of Oxford, a former chief scientific advisor to the Government, was giving his last address to the Royal Society as president of the academy on Wednesday, November 30.

The meeting coincided with the gathering of UN scientists and policy makers at the Montreal summit on climate change and Lord May was keen to flag up the importance of getting things right.

Unless the world ups its game on tackling greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, he said, the effects are likely to be as devastating as releasing WMDs, both in terms of human and environmental suffering and the economic cost of rebuilding and recovery.

The straight-talking scientist is dismissive of the American stance on tackling climate change and has impishly suggested the choice of successful lawyer James L Connaughton, rather than a man of science, as chief advisor on the environment to the Whitehouse was necessary to defend such ‘loony’ policies.

And he was in no mood for diplomatically dodging prickly issues in his outgoing speech.

Lord May said: “We need countries [at the Montreal meeting] to initiate a study into the consequences of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at, below, or above twice pre-industrial levels, so that the international community can assess the potential costs of their actions or lack of them.

“Such an analysis could focus the minds of political leaders, currently worried more about the costs to them of acting now than they are by the consequences for the planet of acting too little, too late.”

This reiterates a joint call for such a study made by the national science academies of the G8 nations, along with Brazil, China and India, in June 2005.

Lord May highlighted the increasing incidence of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes and said: “the serious consequences of which are rising to levels which invite comparison with ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

“In particular, recent studies, made before Katrina, suggest that increasing ocean surface temperature (the source of a hurricane’s energy) will have little effect on the frequency of hurricanes, but strong effects on their severity.

“The estimated damage inflicted by Katrina is equivalent to 1.7% of US GDP this year, and it is conceivable that the Gulf Coast of the US could be effectively uninhabitable by the end of the century.”

He warned that, “…countries must recognise the need to sever the link between economic growth and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.

“No country, including the UK and US, has yet managed to achieve this, mainly because growth currently means increased use of energy generated from fossil fuels. Appropriately constructed economic instruments, such as a carbon tax, could help motivate a reappraisal of this perverse message.

“The UK already seems likely to miss its target for the Kyoto Protocol, because emissions have risen for the past two years, owing to the UK not getting to grips with the difficult questions of meeting demand for electricity and transport without burning more and more fossil fuels.

“By the same token, emissions of greenhouse gases by the US are currently 20% higher than in 1990, compared with the target assigned to it in Kyoto of a cut of 7%.

“President George W Bush’s failure to follow through on the commitments his father made on behalf of the US is underlined by his failure even to mention climate change, global warming or greenhouse gases in his 2,700-word speech when welcoming the new US Energy Act in August 2005, just weeks after signing the Gleneagles G8 communique.

“In short, we have here a classic example of the problem or paradox of co-operation referred to at the outset: the science tells us clearly that we need to act now to reduce inputs of greenhouse gases; but unless all countries act in equitable proportions, the virtuous will be economically disadvantaged whilst all suffer the consequences of the sinners’ inaction.”

By Sam Bond

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