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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mercury Rising

Air Date: Week of October 2, 2009

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Dr. Richard Betts, Director of the Climate Impacts Group at the UK's Meteorological Office.

New models by the British government’s Meteorological Office show that if we continue burning fossil fuels at the same high rate, global temperatures may rise more than previously thought. Dr. Richard Betts heads the Climate Impacts Group in the UK. He talks with host Steve Curwood about these findings and what it will mean to live in a significantly warmer world.

Transcript

CURWOOD: And Jeff, to add urgency in this critical time before Copenhagen, the British Government’s scientists have just released some new research. It shows that unless we slash emissions, we could face climate disaster sooner than previously thought—perhaps within 50 years.

Dr. Richard Betts is head of the Climate Impacts Group at the UK Meteorological Office, which has perhaps the best record in global warming modeling. Dr. Betts, now it looks like your report says that world temperatures could shoot up some four degrees Celsius-- that’s seven or so degrees Fahrenheit. Am I reading your graphs correctly?

BETTS: Yes, that's what we say in our report. Our best estimate taking into account all the different models we have available would be that we could reach four degrees warming by the 2070’s, if we continue to be burning fossil fuels at a high rate. It’s important to stress that we still could avoid that if we cut fossil fuel emissions.

Say, if we don’t burn so much coal and oil, but the uncertainties are huge when you’re trying to look so far ahead in such a complex thing as the world’s climate and the absolute worst-case scenario does seem to be reaching four degrees global warming by 2060.

CURWOOD: We’re talking about a four-degree rise, or even a two-degree rise. It doesn’t sound like much, why should people be concerned about this?

BETTS: A four-degree rise globally would actually mean a greater rise in many regions, up to ten degrees in some land regions; so many countries could see a ten-degree rise. The Arctic Ocean could see perhaps a 15-degree rise. And we could see more droughts on the one hand, more floods on the other hand, and implications for food security and human health. So, a very different world, which we may find very difficult to live in.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, rainfall, you project could decrease by as much as 20 percent in certain areas, but it could also go up by as much as 20 percent in other areas. Which areas are you talking about and why such a wide variation?

BETTS: So, in places such as eastern Africa, or India, or parts of southern Asia, we could actually see an increase in rainfall of 20 percent or more. It all depends on the way the global wind patterns change in response to a warming world. So, that’s why you get some areas with increased rainfall, some areas with decreased rainfall.

CURWOOD: Folks in the Philippines recently saw quite a bit of rain – are we likely to see more of this in the future? Is that what you’re saying?

BETTS: We are, and that is because on the whole we expect intense rainfall events to become more intense. The warming of the land surface, all the ocean surface, tends to drive greater thunderstorm activity, for example, which would then mean more intense rainfall. So, a warmer world on the whole means more intense rainfall events.

CURWOOD: Well let’s turn now to the chief Climate negotiator for the Philippines, Senator Heherson Alvarez who’s at the UN Climate talks in Bangkok, right now. Senator Alvarez – we’re sorry for the tragedy of this typhoon season that has been so tough for your land and people.


Dr. Richard Betts Director of the Climate Impacts Group at the UK's Meteorological Office.

ALVAREZ: Many of our people are demoralized because a great part of the island has been, since time in the world as far as they can remember, reachable by typhoons. But, these were gentle typhoons. They blow through towns, but population survived, but this time, they have become very destructive because they bring in massive volume of floodwater.

CURWOOD: What would a warmer world mean for the Philippines?

ALVAREZ: 60 percent of our best cities, or infrastructure, or industries would be under salt water. We may be forced to live on top of mountains. It’s a blessing in disguise that we are here at conference when this hit the country, so the suffering, the ruin, the pain of people and children that perished may not have been in vain because of this. If people all over the world were to understand the destructiveness of nature, I know that humanity would rise. I don’t see any reason why we do not mobilize population to be able to moderate and avert, ultimately, this destructive force.

CURWOOD: Senator Heherson Alvarez is the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines. And now turning back to Richard Betts of the UK Met office – so in the climate negotiations, the Europeans are pushing for cuts in emissions to what – 30 percent below 2005 levels? And, China is hinting that perhaps they could level off their emissions by the year 2030. If that’s the deal, could it avert the scenario that you’ve laid out?

BETTS: If we can peak emissions, say by the 2030’s, then have it decline afterwards, then that still leaves us with a change of avoiding a four-degree warming. Obviously, a lot of people are more concerned with avoiding a two-degree warming; which again we know would have significant impacts. So, to avoid a two-degree warming we need to have a peak in emissions, and cutting emissions after that, within the next ten years.

CURWOOD: So, what do you tell your grandchildren?

BETTS: Well, I don’t have grandchildren myself yet, but I tell my children that the world could be very different, in fact the world already is going to be different because we are already committed to some level of climate change, whatever we do.

CURWOOD: So, what do you ask your children to do in light of this? Do they have to take shorter showers, do they have to walk more, turn down the heat – anything like that?

BETTS: I encourage them to look beyond just individual things. I mean the things you mentioned are all appropriate measures in themselves, but also you need to see the bigger picture and be aware everything you do has some effect through your use of energy in all its forms. Whether it’s where you get your food from, what form of transport you take, how much stuff you buy in the shops – everything you buy need to be made, and that requires energy. Are we using the land in the most efficient way, especially with the growing population? So, thinking about your impact on the world in every part of your life is an important thing to do these days.

CURWOOD: Richard Betts directs the Climate Impacts section of the MET office at the Hadley Center in the UK. Thank you so much, Dr. Betts.

BETTS: Cheers, thank you.

 

Links

Visit the MET Office’s website here

To learn more about the MET Office’s study, view Dr. Betts’ slides here

 

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