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Speech - Climate change: too true to be good

Speech - Climate change: too true to be good

Say “climate change” and see how most people react. I find it’s a bit like “sustainable development”: a phrase at which many people quietly glaze over and switch off. So here’s the first point: Don’t switch off. Climate change isn’t just words. It is a real Thing. And man-made climate change is a very scary real thing.

The rise in global temperature over the last several decades is a matter of public record. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that it can only be explained by one thing: the rise in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

Some people say that climate change is natural and we shouldn’t worry. The answer to that is that we have indeed had naturally-occurring climate change since the Earth was formed. But none of the natural causes of climate variation, from the Sun’s output, the tilt of the Earth, volcanic activity or emissions from rotting vegetation, can account for the warming we observe today. There is only one thing that can: the emissions from fossil fuels caused by human activities over the last two hundred years. The concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere have increased by nearly 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

It’s not as bad as you think – it’s worse

Here’s another inconvenient truth. Not only is global warming happening, it may be speeding up. The 20 warmest years on record have all come since 1995. The five warmest years have all been in this decade, the 2010s. 2016 was the hottest year since records began.

And this year the UK had the joint hottest summer on record. It was extremely dry too – the driest across England since 1921. The Environment Agency’s hydrologists recorded exceptionally low river flows for five weeks in a row, reservoir stocks were at historic lows and soils in the North West were the driest on record.

The environment suffered badly: numerous species, habitats, birds, trees and aquatic life were affected by the hot conditions and high demand for water. The Environment Agency responded to a 330% increase in drought-related incidents as our teams acted to protect wildlife and rescue fish struggling due to low river flows and low oxygen. This kind of thing won’t happen every year. But it will happen more frequently, and it will happen worse. Most of us enjoyed this summer’s exceptional weather. But by 2040 it is likely there won’t be anything exceptional about summers like the one we have just had. The records will keep tumbling. Exceptional may be the new normal.

And just as the rate of temperature rise looks to be accelerating, so too does one of its main consequences: the rise in sea level. Over the last 20 years sea levels have risen at roughly twice the speed of the preceding 80 years.

It gets worse. While the international community has pledged to avoid a rise of more than 2°C in the average global temperature by 2100 compared with pre-industrial levels, many scientists think that the figure will be higher. The central scientific estimate now is that by 2100 global temperature will have risen by nearly twice the 2 degree figure - by around 3.5 °C.

Climate change has bad consequences

Second big point, and one that bears constant repetition: if we don’t tackle climate change, very bad things will happen.

“Global warming” is another of those deceptive phrases. It doesn’t sound that threatening. Indeed to cold Brits shivering on our chilly northern island it sounds rather appealing. Who wouldn’t want a bit more sun and the weather a few degrees warmer? But the phrase is misleading because it doesn’t identify what will actually happen as the globe warms.
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