There are rapid changes in the Arctic and Antarctica but a stalemate on limits to greenhouse gases. The need for decisive action is urgent, says David Shukman
I see it in their faces: the puzzled look from friends, family and colleagues as they ask why I keep subjecting myself to the coldest, most remote, least hospitable corners of the planet to report on global warming - seven times, at the last count.
The answer is simple: some years ago scientists predicted that the climate would change fastest in the polar regions and that is exactly what's happening. The Arctic and parts of Antarctica have warmed more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth and we could all feel the consequences.
The great white continent
But a team of Nasa scientists was on board and, using lasers and radar imaging to see through the mile-thick ice, they made a crucial discovery: that the ice is far more flexible, more responsive to change than previously thought. This matters. Even a slight warming could trigger a rush of ice towards the ocean. And the more ice melts, the more the sea-level rises, and the more the world's great coastal cities will be threatened.
And if you really want to scare yourself, look at past climate records. One feature stands out: changes can occur very rapidly. Clearly there are thresholds or tipping points which, when crossed, could unleash even faster warming.
These risks, and others, have been detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its last report in 2001 has, until now, been the benchmark for all discussions about global warming. Its new, definitive guide to the latest science has resulted in an inevitable surge in concern about the future weather.
Last year saw climate change shoot up the agenda like never before. But we're witnessing a curious paradox. Internationally, progress on securing agreement for a new round of limits on greenhouse gases is painfully slow. I was one of the journalists at the last round of UN talks on climate change in Nairobi last November. The words 'stalemate' and 'deadlock' appeared in all our reports.
Changing the future
dismissive of global warming as just another green bandwagon are changing their approach. Investment in green energy technologies has never been so intense.
And all that brings us closer to the trickiest question of all: whether any of us, wherever we are, is prepared to change our lifestyle for the sake of minimising global warming.
Acknowledging that climate change is a threat is the easy part. Choosing what we do about it is far harder. But this year the need for decisions will become all the more urgent.
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