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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 15:15 GMT
Science takes a back seat
Campaign at climate conference to remind delegates of the possibility of rising tides
"Don't let us drown" is the environmentalists' plea
BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby spent a week in The Hague with delegates from more than 150 countries who toiled in vain to finalise the Kyoto Protocol treaty on tackling climate change.

If you'd been wanting to learn more about the science of climate change, then The Hague was certainly not the place to be.

One leading climatologist welcomed the fact that he and his colleagues had had hardly a look-in.

That meant, he said, that all the world's governments now accepted the science and were not going to argue any longer about humanity's impact on the atmosphere.

So science kept its head down. But what the conference did provide was plenty of throw-away one-liners.

Pain in the pocket

One of the best one-liners came from the delegate from Guyana who bemoaned the parsimony of the developed countries: "Those people have one-way pockets."

This is my last clean suit - If you have anything to throw, aim it at him

US negotiator Frank Loy, pointing at his neighbour
A Jamaican delegate declared that his country's beaches and the tourists they attracted were its equivalent of Fort Knox - and every square metre of golden sand sunk by rising sea levels was a loss to the Jamaican Exchequer.

One old trouper never stuck for a disarming response was the chief US negotiator, Frank Loy.

US negotiator Frank Loy
Mr Loy's penultimate clean suit got a pasting on Wednesday
On Wednesday he had a cream cake thrust in his face by a protestor.

At Thursday's press briefing he announced from the platform: "This is my last clean suit. If you have anything to throw, aim it at him" - indicating his neighbour, a balding and inoffensive man who escaped unscathed despite Mr Loy's invitation.

There were moments of incomprehension at the Byzantine jargon the negotiators dealt in, and there were moments of all-consuming boredom.

One British journalist found so little to do early on that he flew home for an overnight conjugal visit, confident he'd be back in the morning without having missed anything - And he was.

Art of the possible

Perhaps the most abiding impression of the conference, though, is of almost total unreality.

It has been an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where words acquire meanings they were never designed for, and serious men and women believe numerous impossible things for days on end with straight faces.

And that's because conferences like this are about what's diplomatically possible, not what's scientifically certain.

In that, the people who attend them are probably quite like the rest of us.

'So much for global warming'

British speakers here have been among those stressing how the recent floods have reminded everyone of the growing threat of climate change.

Banner: Industry lobbyists and the government officials who do their bidding... How will our grandchildren forgive you?
Campaigners' voices have been heard inside the hall
So they have, but memories are short, and you can be certain that the first cold snap of winter will prompt a rerun of a request I've had many times from different newsdesks.

It goes something like this: "Snowing again in Muckle Flugga, I see. So much for all this global warming nonsense. Can you do us a piece saying the next Ice Age is almost upon us?"

If climate change has been one of the main news stories this week, I guess it will have a longish wait before its turn comes round again.

If you double the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide content over 70 years, the sea level continues to rise for the next 1,000 years

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change head Robert Watson
And few of us are very good at looking far ahead, and then acting on what we see there: Present priorities are usually too urgent for that.

Yet one of the key messages from the scientists here, when they've been able to make themselves heard at all, is that policymakers have to recognise the long timescales inherent in climate change.

That came from Dr Robert Watson, who chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global scientific group which has established what is happening, and what may happen.

He told a startled group of journalists: "We have found from computer modelling that if you double the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content over 70 years, the sea level continues to rise not for 10 more years, not for a century, but for the next 1,000 years."

And a doubling of carbon dioxide by 2070 is perfectly possible.

Blowing hot and cold

What has bothered many of the delegates themselves, as well as the protestors, is the contrast between the simplicity of the message from people like Dr Watson and the labyrinthine efforts to agree a way of doing something about it.

In the course of the 21st Century the global temperature is expected to increase by somewhere between 1.5 and six degrees Celsius.

President Chirac of France and Queen Beatrix of Netherlands
President Chirac and Queen Beatrix at the start of week two in The Hague
That may not sound very much. But only four degrees separate us from the last Ice Age.

The effects will be variable, with some places warming and others cooling. And although Dr Watson and his team can go some way in predicting and modelling what is likely to happen, there are limits.

They can't predict surprises. Yet they think there will be surprises - probably not the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, or the turning off of the Gulf Stream, but quite possibly the thawing of quite a lot of the Siberian permafrost.

If that does happen, it will release quantities of methane into the atmosphere, and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, will worsen the warming which has caused it.

The message in The Hague was clear and simple. The response was anything but.

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See also:

26 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Dismay at climate summit failure
23 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Scramble to save climate treaty
23 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Climate treaty 'almost irrelevant'
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