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The elements of destruction

Scotland is facing more than 100 serious threats to our way of life because of rising pollution that is affecting the climate, according to a series of new assessments by the Scottish Government.

As well extreme weather including floods, snow, storms and droughts, there could be plagues of pests, ravaging diseases and toxic algal blooms. Power cuts, food shortages, wildfires, mass travel disruptions and wildlife extinctions are all forecast.

As if that were not enough, the list of potential problems caused by global warming also includes more sewer overflows, soil erosion and landslides. More deaths and illness are likely during heatwaves, while air and water pollution could worsen and fogs intensify.

Without any announcement, Scottish ministers have released four reports with the latest analysis of the multiple threats Scotland is facing, and moves to combat them. They are part of the government's climate adaptation programme, required under climate change legislation. Last week, the UN's World Meteorological Organisation warned of the escalating risk to human life of wild weather spurred on by climate change.

The Scottish Government reports make clear that every sector of society will be affected, including householders, businesses and farmers. But they suggest the most vulnerable – the poor, elderly and disabled – are likely to suffer the most.

Anna Beswick, manager of the Government-backed Adaptation Scotland partnership formed to try to mitigate the impact of climate change, pointed out that the country's climate has already changed considerably over the last 50 years.

She said: "Average temperatures have increased, autumn and winters have become wetter and we are having more heavy rainfall events.

"This has consequences right across Scotland for businesses, communities and individuals. We are already seeing new pests and diseases becoming a problem for agriculture production, and impacts such as flooding and landslides have affected our transport and energy networks, as well as causing damage and distress to communities and individuals."

The four reports list more than 130 major affects of climate change, the vast majority of them negative. Homes, roads, railway lines, power stations and sub-stations are all at significant risk of flooding, the reports say.

The worst case scenarios would risk coastal farms, golf courses and revered ancient monuments such as the prehistoric village at Skara Brae in Orkney being drowned under rising sea levels. Some crops could suffer, some animal species could leave, and people could migrate north to Scotland from elsewhere in Europe to escape unbearably high temperatures.

Mould growth could blossom in damp buildings, causing more respiratory problems, while food poisoning could increase. The escalating disruptions to daily life are likely to cause stress and mental health problems.

Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: "Our climate affects people's health, our road and rail services, water supplies, energy demands, tourism – the list is almost endless. Although the aggregate impacts of climate change in Scotland might be less severe than in many other parts of the world, the impacts for individuals, businesses and communities can be distressing and damaging and it is important that Scotland is well prepared and resilient to change."

Professor Pete Smith, a leading climate expert from the University of Aberdeen, suggested climate change was no longer just an environmental issue.

He said: "It cuts across economy, society and the environment. As global temperatures keep rising, Scotland must take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help prevent the extent of climate change, but also plan for a future with unknown risks."

According to Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, the government reports are "dire warnings of what is to come if the world does not get serious about reducing climate emissions".

He stressed that the highest priority was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible. "We face massive disruption to our lives and problems for all sectors of society, with many of the worst consequences felt first by people in poorer countries," he said. "Whether you think of what might be available in the shops, or how daily life may be made harder, or how farmers will cope, or the risks of increased flooding – no-one will escape the consequences of a warming climate. The only question is how bad we will let it get."

Green MSP Patrick Harvie accused ministers of "burying" the adaptation reports by putting them out at the start of the Scottish Parliament's summer recess to avoid proper scrutiny.

He pointed out that Scotland had missed its first two statutory annual targets to cut climate pollution in 2010 and 2011. The Scottish Government's long-awaited plans to reduce emissions, published on June 27, were fiercely criticised by environmental groups for failing to do enough.

"It's hard to have any confidence in a government that failed to listen to the many voices calling for greater ambition to reduce emissions," said Harvie.

The critical climate challenges Scotland faces require "real leadership", he argued.

He added: "It's hard to see how this fits with ministers' predilection for environmentally damaging policies such as continued oil and gas extraction, multi-billion-pound road-building schemes and the growth of aviation."

The government, however, insisted it was showing leadership by developing Scotland's first climate-change adaptation programme.

"A public consultation on the draft programme has been published, prior to a final version being laid before the Scottish Parliament," said a government spokesman.

"We are raising awareness through a range of stakeholder communications to ensure that everyone will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on this important issue. The consultation document was also published on the Scottish Government website."

More than 370,000 people around the world have been killed by heatwaves, floods, storms and other extreme weather over the last 10 years, according to the latest report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

A heatwave across much of Europe in 2003 caused more than 66,000 deaths.

Between 2001 and 2010 there were also devastating floods in Eastern Europe, Africa, India, Pakistan and Australia, and long-term droughts in East Africa, the Amazon basin and Australia. There were a record number of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic, including Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1800 in the US in 2005.

Overall, the global death rate from extreme weather in 2001-10 was 20% higher than in the previous decade.

The WMO, a United Nations agency, described the climate extremes the world was suffering as unprecedented. The last decade was the warmest since measurements began in 1850, it said.

The global mean sea level has risen by 3mm a year, twice as fast as during the last century, as ice sheets and sea ice melt.

Global warming is definitely happening and it is speeding up, said WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud. He added: "On a long-term basis the underlying trend is clearly in an upward direction, more so in recent times."

The WMO's new 100-page assessment incorporates findings from a unique survey of 139 national meteorological agencies. Nine out of every 10 countries experienced their warmest decade on record.

Temperatures were particularly high in the north of the northern hemisphere, with Greenland recording temperatures in 2010 more than 3C higher than average. Globally, 2010 was also the wettest year since records began.

High on Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii, history is being made. In a weather observatory run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists are recording concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere higher than they've been for at least three million years.

The concentrations are now verging on the symbolically important level of 400 parts per million. That compares with 317ppm in 1958 and about 280ppm at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1780.

Further back, concentrations varied naturally between about 200ppm during ice ages and about 300ppm during the warmer periods between those ice ages. But according to scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, you have to go a very long way back to find levels comparable to those being recorded today.

Geochemical detective work suggests the last time carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than 400ppm was in the Pliocene Epoch. That, the scientists point out, was three to five million years ago, before humans roamed the Earth.

The Pliocene was also a time when there was no ice in the Arctic and sea levels were perhaps 40 metres higher than today. Global average temperatures were also 3C-4C higher.

The evidence of humanity's recent influence on the climate is, in other words, overwhelming. In the 230 years since we started burning fossil fuels in earnest, carbon dioxide levels have risen by more than 40%.

The measurements made at Mauna Loa are important because they make up the world's longest unbroken record of carbon dioxide concentrations. They were started by Dave Keeling in 1958, and have resulted in the "Keeling Curve" showing the steady increase in concentrations over the decades.

The centre's location, high up in a relatively unpolluted area, is crucial to ensuring the results are not skewed by local influences. And they are backed up by observations at other monitoring stations around the globe.

"We are creating a prehistoric climate in which human societies will face huge and potentially catastrophic risks," said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics. "Only by urgently reducing global emissions will we be able to avoid the full consequences of turning back the clock by three million years."

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