July 23, 2015, by Tim Radford
British science and engineering developed the fossil fuels which drove the Industrial Revolution
Image: Phil Sangwell (uploaded by oxyman), York Museum via Wikimedia Commons
The pre-eminent institutions in British science and engineering – some with long records of promoting fossil fuels – say the UK should lead the way to a zero carbon world. LONDON, 23 July, 2015 – Twenty-four of Britain’s most learned scientific societies have joined forces to urge the British government to act now to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They want the UK to take the lead in intergovernmental talks in Paris in December, and keep global warming to an average of 2°C this century. The societies want drastic reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, a shift towards energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy, and other changes to sidestep damaging climate change as a consequence of the atmospheric build-up of carbon dioxide. A joint communiqué agreed by organisations that speak for the most advanced research in the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, science, medicine and engineering urges action by governments, individuals, business, local communities and public institutions, to make the transition to a zero carbon world. That any of the institutions has signed the communiqué is no surprise: many of them have delivered such advice separately, and some of them many times. What is significant about this latest statement is that all sorts of scholarly authorities with quite different origins have been united in one unequivocal statement.
The Geological Society of London, for instance, the oldest such in the world, is backed by the fossil fuel industry and has sponsored petroleum, gas and coal prospecting and exploitation for much of its 200-year history. The Royal Society of Chemistry was an intellectual centre for scientists and industrialists who pioneered the use of hydrocarbons derived from stores of crude oil and seams of coal. The Royal Society provided intellectual support for the scientists who made the Industrial Revolution possible – and then endorsed the conclusions by a new generation that first identified the dangers inherent in atmospheric pollution, and then began systematically measuring the cost to the planet’s environment of such advances. The signatories also include the Institutions of Civil Engineers and Chemical Engineers, members of which played a powerful role in the spread and advance of a fossil-fuel burning economy, as well as the Zoological Society of London, which has been more concerned with protecting the wildlife at risk from human activity, and the Royal Meteorological Society, whose members have identified, measured and projected all the evidence of climate change.
“At or above 4°C, the risks include…fundamental changes to human activities that today are taken for granted”
Calling on the British government to show leadership on climate action, when the world’s nations meet in Paris in December to try once more to reach an enforceable agreement on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Lord Stern, the President of the British Academy, said: “The UK led the world with both the modern scientific revolution and the industrial revolution, and must again lead now on the creation of a safer, cleaner and more prosperous world. “Tackling climate change is a responsibility for the whole world, but the UK has a special position at the forefront of international efforts.” The communiqué points out that while climate change poses far-reaching threats, the ways in which humankind tackles the issue present great opportunity, with vast potential for innovation in low-carbon technologies. But not to take action could be catastrophic. “At or above 4°C, the risks include species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, and fundamental changes to human activities that today are taken for granted,” the communiqué says. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.