Academics: Climate science has spoken, it is time now for climate action

The mixed response to the outcome of the COP26 climate conference should not detract from the importance of science informing how we respond to the planetary crisis.

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 6:25 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th November 2021, 6:31 pm
The Glasgow Climate Pact, the title given to the document agreed at COP26 by world leaders, seen above, demonstrates a worrying gap between what the science tells us and what (some) countries are willing to do in climate action

Just as in the pandemic when politicians and citizens were urged to ‘listen to the science’, it is the same with the ecological and climate emergency.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most recent report in August this year. The summary for policy makers alone runs to 26 pages.

To measure that change is actually happening, it uses a mixture of scientific measurements from the environment, like temperature, the composition of gases in our atmosphere, and the frequency of severe storms and heatwaves.

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John Barry is professor of Green Political Economy at Queen’s University in Belfast

Using a mixture of state of the art models different scenarios are explored to model the climate that has been observed historically. These sophisticated models take into account both human sources of warming and natural sources of warming.

When the contribution of humans to warming is built into these models then they can better predict the way our climate has warmed. Human sources of warming include emissions of gases like Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide, called Green House Gases.

These gases when released at a massive scale influence atmospheric composition and create a greenhouse effect that leads to global heating. In contrast, natural sources of known warming include solar radiation (heat from the sun) and volcanic activity.

When the models include natural sources of warming alone, they cannot capture the change in temperatures that we see happening now. It is only when human and natural sources of warming are built into the models that they capture past warming trends. This is a summary of the scientific evidence for human induced global heating and climate change.

Mark Emmerson is a professor in the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University in Belfast

However, the Glasgow Climate Pact, the title given to the document agreed at COP26, demonstrates a worrying gap between what the science tells us and what (some) leaders and countries are willing to do in terms of climate action.

Reading the Pact there is a stark contrast between the language used in the scientific sections and the rest of the document.

In those scientific sections, we find language that is not usual in such diplomatically negotiated documents, including terms like ‘Science and urgency’, ‘Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date’, ‘Notes with serious concern’.

In disciplines with staid standards of scientific writing, this is the equivalent of scientists shouting at the top of their voices that humanity is not on the right path to recognising the dangers ahead, and that a serious course correction is desperately needed.

This is why many were bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the conference – its failure to ‘phase out’ coal, oil and gas – the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Arguably, this was because the single biggest delegation to the conference was not a country, but rather the fossil fuel industry.

Given that the science is clear, that we need to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, the lobbying power of the coal, oil and gas sector was evident in the outcome. Let’s not also forget the role played by major carbon energy exporting countries such as Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and major coal users such as China and India.

It has been argued that the 2020s need to be a decade of action, of innovation in research, allowing for nature to recover to play a role in mitigating carbon emissions, whilst creating a sustainable economic recovery following the pandemic. COP26 make the efforts to decarbonise our economies much harder.

Finally, we need to recognise climate deniers, refusing to accept that climate change is the result of human activity. As the countries and fossil fuel lobby mentioned above, they will have to account for themselves in the eyes of people facing the immediate impacts of climate change and future generations.

Those in the global south, whose voices were so eloquently heard at COP26, face suffering and death (termed ‘loss and damage’ in the polite language of international diplomacy) in the years ahead. As academics and scientists, we have not used those terms lightly.

Equally, we see ‘climate delayers’ who caution against urgent action now and support must less ambitious climate action. This is the equivalent of finding one’s house on fire but allowing it to burn brighter so you can better see what you are (not) doing. Climate delay is perhaps the new climate denial.

Climate science has spoken, but so too have the people, those protesting outside the conference demanding ambitious climate action, and indeed history may record that it was those outside the negotiations not inside that had both science on their side and were on the right side of history.

• John Barry is professor of Green Political Economy at Queen’s University in Belfast and Mark Emmerson is a professor in QUB’s Institute for Global Food Security

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