The country should assume climate change is not reversible and prepare to live with its consequences, John Houghton, the former director general of UK Meteorological Office has warned.
However, this does not excuse inaction to tackle the phenomenon, but should instead, prompt us to adapt our energy uses to minimise its increase.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Sir John explained its future impact on weather patterns and low-lying regions such as Bangladesh.
“The effects of climate change, such as warming seas and rising sea levels, represent a serious threat to countries such as Bangladesh and other poor countries in the Pacific rim where, potentially, millions of people could be displaced,” said Sir John.
But he warned that areas such as East Anglia, much of which is below sea level, is also at risk from rising tides and more extreme weather patterns.
He also put in to context just how significant a two to three degree Celsius rise in the average temperature is in historical terms.
“It normally takes half an ice age for the earth’s temperature to increase by this much.” This rapid acceleration in global warming will lead to more droughts, increased flooding and the further desertification of already arid areas, he added.
But even if we were able to cease emitting greenhouse gases in to the atmosphere today we are already committed to climate change for the next 40 years due to the time lag associated with warming the seas and rising sea levels. Consequently, he estimated sea levels will increase by half a metre this century and a further half metre next century.
And it is reducing carbon dioxide emissions that is the key to addressing climate. “Methane, although far more potent, does not remain in the atmosphere for as long and is in far less quantity than carbon disxide,” said Sir John.
He also used his speech to criticise the leading energy companies for peddling a campaign of misinformation intent on smearing the work and reputation of the scientists warning of climate change. This has not helped the debate he said, and may have hindered progress towards securing agreement on how it could be tackled.
But there are measures that could be taken now to help tackle its effects. Energy use by businesses and individuals could be reduced by half without any negative effects, new housing developments should use current technologies to greater affect in improving energy efficiency and government should make significant investment in researching renewable energy technologies such as tidal power, he said.
And farming can make a valuable contribution too, he said. If Britain to grow a million hectares of miscanthus, equivalent to 9% of its land mass, then enough energy could be produced to meet 3% of our domestic energy needs.
Energy produced from waste could also make a small, but important, contribution, and both have the benefit of being local sources of energy, he said.
However, he considered the most important contribution Britain could make to the debate would be to lead the international community, in particular the developing nations, on the overriding need to tackle climate change.
“The action needed is urgent.We need to lead on climate change. China has already stated that it will not take the lead, but it is well aware of the impact climate change will have on its environment,” he said.
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