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Climate change Friday, 10 November, 2000, 17:44 GMT
Living with climate change
Spring comes earlier as the climate changes
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Climate change is like a supertanker: it is very hard to slow it down.

Partly that is because it is so complex, with impacts on one area having consequences on another thousands of miles away, or a long time into the future.

And partly it is because of the simple laws of physics.

Floods in the UK almost brought the country to its knees
The seas and oceans are gradually warming up, more slowly than the atmosphere, and even if we stopped pouring greenhouse gases into the air tomorrow, the water would still go on heating for decades ahead, if not centuries.

Many scientists are therefore now saying we should think not only about mitigation, but about adaptation as well.

In other words, we should try not just to slow down our influence on the climate, but also to live with its consequences.

Drastic changes in Europe

A recent report from the University of East Anglia for the European Union said that Europe could expect drastic climate changes by 2100.

Many farmers in Europe may have to rethink what crops to grow
But apart from trying to reverse them, it said, Europe could to some degree learn to adapt.

The report's editor, Professor Martin Parry, of the Jackson Environment Institute at the university, said climate change was already measurable, and the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would usher in a warmer, stormier world.

"It is imperative that we take the first steps to adapting to climate change now by factoring the coming effects into environmental and regional policies," he said.

Arguing that we should adapt to climate change is not popular with some campaigning conservationists.

They point out that it is an option which only rich countries can afford, and which other species cannot even consider.

Even so, it will probably play a growing part in the world's attempts to come to terms with warming.

Energy saving

There are other strategies as well. There is the option of doing things more carefully than we do today, notably by using energy more frugally.

And the more wasteful a country or an individual is, the more scope for improvement there will be.

computer
New technology could be used to save fuel
An American campaigner told me recently: "The US could meet between 10 and 20% of its Kyoto Protocol target to reduce greenhouse gases simply by improving the efficiency with which American power stations burn coal, and by making our airlines 10% more fuel-efficient."

There is the option of doing things differently, which means mainly producing energy in different ways: moving away from reliance on the fossil fuel trinity, coal, oil and gas, and towards cleaner energy sources.

Some of these will be renewables like solar power, wind and wave energy, and crops grown specifically as fuel.

Others may include fuel cells and hydrogen-powered cars.

And we do not need to wait for the fossil fuels to become prohibitively expensive before we try this.

Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US, is fond of telling audiences: "The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stone, and it will be the same with the oil age."

And there is the option of doing without things. There is a growing move towards teleworking - exchanging the gruelling daily commute for a home-based work-station with an e-link to the office.

Not everything the global economy offers us actually makes us appreciably happier, whether gadgets, leisure or mobility.

We shall probably have to learn to live with quite a lot of climate change for a long time before our descendants can reduce it to limits the planet will find bearable.

But that does not mean that they (or we) are doomed to return to a medieval lifestyle.

Almost all the adaptations we shall need to make will bring other benefits - financial savings, cleaner air, healthier lives. The clouds of carbon dioxide do have a silver lining.


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