A 1.2°F (0.7°C) rise in temperature in the course of a century seems little enough: da-to-day fluctuations in temperature are often much greater. In fact, however, this represents a very significant increase, partly because it is measured on a global scale, and partly because it is a sign of even bigger changes to come.
These will have major repercussions on many levels, which is why the term “climate change” is now generally preferred to “global warming.”
Until recently, there were those who doubted that the phenomenon of climate change even existed. True, the facts have emerged in a piecemeal fashion, and it is only a few decades since experts were forecasting not global warming but a new ice age. Today, however, the debate is closed. Thousands of experts from more than 130 countries have rallied in support of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by the United Nations Environment Program. Through the efforts of the IPCC, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the existence of global warming is beyond doubt, as is its cause, which is principally linked to greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.
There are still a number of details that need clarification and the experts envisage a variety of different scenarios for the end of the century, with temperature increases of between 3.6°F (2°C) and 10.8°F (6°C). But the greatest uncertainty has nothing to do with science. It is political and social: will we manage to react quickly and will it be enough?
Under the Kyoto Protocol, 38 industrialized countries pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.8% against 1990 levels. The pledge is a modest one, and inadequate, but there are still countries that fail to respect it. The protocol expires in 2012 and the challenge then will be to reach a new, more ambitious agreement and to enlist the support of the USA as well as newly industrial nations such as China and Brazil, which are not yet on board.
But governments are not the only ones who can take action. Local environmental groups, businesses and private individuals may all play a part at their own level. And with sufficient public support, policies can be influenced and pressure brought to bear on critical international negotiations in the future.