Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, suggested in 1936 that carbon dioxide from burning coal could create an atmospheric greenhouse effect and warm the planet.

In 1979 the American National Academy of Sciences warned that a wait-and-see policy on global warming “may mean waiting until it is too late”.

In 1988 delegates from 46 countries to a Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto called for a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2005. In February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol established an international binding agreement to cut carbon-dioxide emissions.

In October 2007, I can now reveal the net outcome of all this science. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. CO2 emissions, now approaching 30 billion tonnes a year, have continued to rise inexorably. “In spite of all the rhetoric,” says Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, “we sit perfectly on or just above the business-as-usual curve.”

Green Europe is actually doing worse than the sceptical United States. European emissions continue to rise while, last year, American emissions fell by 1.6%. In fairness, this may be because America has outsourced much of its manufacturing to China, so the US’s net effect on global emissions will probably still be negative. And, of course, India and China are both on rapid growth curves – economically and politically – and won’t take lectures from western greens. So even if we switched to windmills and electric cars tomorrow, total emissions would be unlikely to fall.

So here’s the big picture. The huge economic growth of the past 150 years has been built on fossil fuels – oil and coal. This has resulted in the emission of 500 gigatonnes of CO2, most of it in the past 40 years. Atmospheric CO2 is now at 385 parts per million (ppm), a third higher than it was before industrialisation. Whatever we do now, it will rise to at least 450ppm, but since we appear to be doing nothing, it may rise far higher. The best guess is that this will cause temperatures to rise 2C over the next century, but there is evidence that there may be a tipping point. The whole process may accelerate uncontrollably, creating far higher temperatures and reducing the amount of land habitable by humans either by flooding or desertification.


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