A holistic view on climate change
There has been much debate about climate change perhaps because we cannot see carbon dioxide when we exhale, or when we burn oil and coal to heat our homes, or use petrol to power our cars or fly planes. We do, however, have scientific instruments that can
accurately measure what we humans produce and the increasing amount of carbon that we are adding to our environment.
The data is irrefutable - carbon dioxide concentrations have been steadily
increasing in our atmosphere as a result of human activity since the earliest
measurements began. We know that on the order of 4.1 billion tons of carbon are being added to and staying in our atmosphere each year. We know that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the principal contributors to the increasing carbon dioxide concentrations
in our atmosphere. We know that increasing CO2 concentrations has the same effect as the glass walls and roof of a greenhouse. It lets the energy from the sun easily penetrate but limits its escape, hence the term greenhouse gas.
Observational and modeling studies have confirmed the association of increasing CO2 concentrations with the change in average global temperatures over the last 120 years. Between 1906 and 2005 the average global temperature has increased 0.74 degrees C.
This may not seem like very much, but it can have profound effects on the strength of storms and the survival of species including coral reefs.
Eleven of the last 12 years rank among the warmest years since 1850. While no one knows for certain the consequences of this continuing unchecked warming, some have argued it could result in catastrophic changes, such as the disruption of the Gulf Steam
which keeps the UK out of the ice age or even the possibility of the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the Atlantic Ocean. Whether or not these devastating changes occur, we are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet. One we need to stop.
The developed world including the United States, England and Europe contribute disproportionately to the environmental carbon, but the developing world is rapidly catching up. As the world population increases from 6.5 billion people to 9 billion over the
next 45 years and countries like India and China continue to industrialise, some estimates indicate that we will be adding over 20 billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere. Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further
warming and induce many changes to the global climate that could be more extreme than those observed to date. This means we can expect more climate change, more ice cap melts, rising sea levels, warmer oceans and therefore greater storms, as well as more droughts
and floods, all which compromise food and fresh water production.
The increase in population coupled with climate change will tax every aspect of our lives. In a world already struggling to keep up with demand, will we be able to provide the basics of food, clean water, shelter and fuel to these new
citizens of Earth? And will governments be able to cope with new emerging
infections, storms, wildfires, and global conflicts?
So is there any way of avoiding these apocalyptic visions of the future coming
true? Many have argued that we simply need to conserve, to alter and regress our standard of living and block the industrialisation of developing countries. In
my view this is extremely naive thinking. Furthermore, even the most optimistic models on climate change show a dramatically altered planet Earth going forward even if we embrace all alternative options such as wind and solar energy, and electric cars. Our
entire world economy and the ability of modern society to provide life’s basics, depend on the very industrialisation that contributes to our possible demise.
Yet, sadly, very little thinking, planning or projections about how to cope
with the carbon problem and climate change have taken into account the
capabilities of modern science to produce what we have long needed to help solve these global threats.
It is clear to me that we need more approaches and creative solutions. We need new disruptive ideas and technologies to solve these critical global issues. This is where, I believe, biology and genomics, come in.
Source: Excerpts from the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC on (Tuesday 4 December 2007) by Dr J Craig Venter