Climate 'meltdown', yet fusion lags
The UK government's projections of climate impacts, released on Thursday, claim to paint a probabilistic picture of the country's future climate in unprecedented detail.
In principle, the project allows you to select any part of the country and obtain projections in 25 sq km blocks of how temperatures and rainfall may change at various points in the future, with probabilities assigned to various outcomes based on uncertainties in the modelling process, imperfections in how well we understand the mechanisms behind weather and climate, and guesswork about what the future holds in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Each of these three areas are sources of considerable uncertainty - and as my colleague Palllab Ghosh detailed, not all scientists are sure it's yet reasonable to try to make projections at this level of spatial detail.
The uncertainties are certainly big enough to open questions over how local authorities, businesses and ordinary citizens will use the projections.
In the south-east of England - already the hottest UK region - the projections are that summer temperatures may rise by between 2C and 6C if the world stays on a "medium emissions scenario". If greenhouse emissions rise faster than that trajectory, 12C is a possibility.
For health services, water boards, railway companies, fire services, farmers - even for you and me - there is a heck of a difference between planning for 2C and planning for 12C.
Despite these caveats, I would suggest UKCP09 is a useful exercise, in two ways.
The first is that some of the "clients", as the government calls them - "users" might be a better term - may find the projections useful; and if it does help them make better planning decisions, that should prove beneficial for communities and the economy.
The second is that by going down this route, the UK (and especially the Met Office that led the climate modelling) has taken a major step along a path that other developed countries are sure to follow in the next few years.
(By comparing the level of detail in UKCP09 with the report just issued by the US administration on US impacts, you can see just how far the Met Office is trying to push ahead of the game.)
Projecting local and regional climate impacts is a nascent science but it is exactly the logical thing to do if you want to a) forecast climate impacts on your own society and b) develop plans to protect against those impacts.
There are of course concerns about the whole issue of projecting the climate through computer models - concerns that flood into my inbox every time I write about the issue - but I would just raise three simple arguments against those criticisms:
•With time machines in short supply, how else is humankind to gain insights into what the future holds?
•Modellers always these days attach uncertainties and limitations to their projections
•Current models may have their flaws, but I know of no way to make a perfect model other than to build imperfect ones, look for the problem areas and use that information to build progressively better ones
As other countries and other groups of climate modellers attempt local projections, they will be taking positives and negatives from the Met Office approach and trying to improve on it - which should, in time, lead to more refined and more accurate projections.
One irony of the project, though, is that the UK is one of the countries where the exercise is probably needed least.
A report last month from the Global Humanitarian Forum - the body chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - named the UK as one of the 12 countries least at risk from climate change.
The places where something like UKCP09 is most needed are just those parts of the world where weather and climate data is most lacking, notably Africa - although Mr Annan took some cheer this week from being able to launch a novel, low-tech project that will mount automatic weather stations on mobile phone masts across the continent.
Perhaps the greater irony lay in the yawning gulf between London and and Mito, Japan.
As UK environment secretary Hilary Benn was introducing the impact projections in terms that are by now very familiar - "Climate change is the greatest challenge that we face as a world", "we have got to respond, we've got to act", "this is the future we don't want to happen" - Mito was hosting a meeting that went a long way to slowing the progress of the one technology that might solve the world's energy problems (and therefore significantly mitigate its climate problems) in a single hit.
As my colleague Matt McGrath reported earlier this week, escalating costs and questions over the technology are now plaguing the ITER project, the international attempt to prove that nuclear fusion could work on a commercial basis.
The Mito meeting of ITER's council endorsed a "phased approach" that will push back the date for starting fusion in plasmas involving the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium - needed for anything approaching commercial operation - until 2026.
Building ITER is expensive, no doubt - calculated at $6bn originally, now perhaps as high as $16bn - and some experts charge that the international behemoth has pushed research on other designs to the sidelines.
But if Hilary Benn is right - and his words reflect those of just about every other developed country politician these days - why would a few billion dollars hold you back from researching such a prize?
From the US government to straitened banks, $700bn; from the European Central Bank, $500bn; to rescue insurance giant AIG, $85bn... I could go on.
Yet ITER governments feel squeezed by cost overruns amounting to just a few paltry billions on a technology with such potential?
They are happy to see the deadline slip back to 2026 - just about the date by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends global greenhouse gas emissions should have peaked and begun to decline?
Nuclear fusion was never going to be a short-term solution to climate change but it could have an absolutely huge role to play in the longer term.
As with local climate modelling, you won't know how well it works unless you invest the money and try.
"We've got to respond, we've got to act"? Hmmm...