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News : International Last Updated: Dec 19th, 2007 - 13:17:15

Ireland and Northern European countries to benefit from global warming if Gulf Stream doesn't slow; Ryanair's Michael O'Leary wins war of words with UK minister
By Michael Hennigan, Editor and Founder of Finfacts
Jan 6, 2007, 18:06

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2005 was the warmest year since the late 1800s, according to NASA scientists. 1998, 2002 and 2003 and 2004 followed as the next four warmest years. Credit: NASA

Chilly northern Europe could reap big benefits from global warming, while the Mediterranean faces crippling shortages of both water and tourists by the middle of the century, according to the first comprehensive study of its effects on the continent. Meanwhile, Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary zapped the UK's minister for climate change who had branded the Irish airline as "the irresponsible face of capitalism" but on Friday stayed well clear of the broadsides launched by the best-known Irishman on the world stage.

Last October, former World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern said in a report on climate change prepared for the UK Government, that the last Ice Age was the result of a dip in global temperatures of around 4°C-5° Celsius  (32° Fahrenheit = 0° Celsius; incremental 5° Celsius = 9° Fahrenheit).

It's not new news that climate change will bring winners and losers but the issue is still a very fluid one.

A unit of the US National Parks Service says in relation to the land bridge that enabled humans to move from Asia to North America, that the sea fell to its lowest level about 18,000 years ago, and the land bridge was a plain more than 1,000 km wide north to south and connecting the two land masses. Unglaciated zones across Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon formed a corridor with a high degree of biotic exchange. Extensive glaciers isolated the areas. Animals included the mammoth, bison, horse, caribou, mountain sheep, saiga, and musk ox. The land was almost treeless.

An abrupt climate change starting about 13,500 years ago resulted in a rapidly rising sea level that drowned the continental shelves of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Dwarf birch proliferated, cottonwood trees grew in areas where they no longer grow, and aquatic plants and animals extended their ranges. The climate was characterized by snowy winters, a rapid spring snowmelt with floods, mudflows, and gully washouts, and warm, dry summers. The mammoth, horse, and bison disappeared. Grasses and herbs gave way to mosses and sedges, and the landscape assumed its present appearance.

Key to graph:
  • Red bars represent the global temperature value for each year.
  • The blue line is the 10-year running average.
  • The green bar is the 2006 value (still provisional at this stage).
Source: UK Met Office

The Financial Times says that a paper on climate change to be approved by the European Commission next week, says that fewer in the north would die of cold, crops there would boom and the North Sea coast could become the new Riviera. But the annual migration of rich northern Europeans to the south could stop – with dramatic consequences for the economies of Spain, Greece and Italy.

However, this debate can be confusing as global warming could make countries in northern Europe such as Ireland colder.

In December 2005, the magazine Nature reported that the North Atlantic's natural heating system, which brings clement weather to western Europe, is showing signs of decline. Scientists report that warm Atlantic Ocean currents, which carry heat from the tropics to high latitudes, have substantially weakened over the past 50 years.

Could the Gulf Stream shut down?

Dr Tony Haymet, chief of Australia's CSIRO Marine Research, says most computer models show the warm currents such as the Gulf Stream weaken by 2100, but do not shut down. However, beyond 2100, the models show the the ocean conveyors could completely shut down — if warming is large enough for long enough — possibly irreversibly, in both southern and northern either hemispheres.

Abrupt climate change triggered by a Gulf Stream shutdown may seem like an issue best reserved for Hollywood, however, the scenario has been recently analysed by the US Pentagon. Analysts took a worst-case-scenario modelled on an event 8200 years ago, when the conveyor belt of deep ocean currents collapsed, causing abrupt cooling.

The report, Imagining the Unthinkable, says such an event is not likely to happen, but is nonetheless plausible. The report's authors, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, from the California-based consulting firm Global Business Network, recommended that the risk of abrupt climate change be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.

The climate change scenario outlined in the report is modeled on a century-long climate event that records from an ice core in Greenland indicate occurred 8,200 years ago. Immediately following an extended period of warming, much like the phase we appear to be in today, there was a sudden cooling . Average annual temperatures in Greenland dropped by roughly Fahrenheit (-2.8° Celsius), and temperature decreases nearly this large are likely to have occurred throughout the North Atlantic region. During the 8,200 event severe winters in Europe and some other areas caused glaciers to advance, rivers to freeze, and agricultural lands to be less productive. Scientific evidence suggests that this event was associated with, and perhaps caused by, a collapse of the ocean’s conveyor following a period of gradual warming.

Longer ice core and oceanic records suggest that there may have been as many as eight rapid cooling episodes in the past 730,000 years, and sharp reductions in the ocean conveyer--a phenomenon that may well be on the horizon – are a likely suspect in causing such shifts in climate.

The Younger Dryas

Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall say that about 12,700 years ago, also associated with an apparent collapse of what is termed the  thermohaline circulation, there was a cooling of at least 27° Fahrenheit (-15° Celsius) in Greenland, and substantial change throughout the North Atlantic region as well, this time lasting 1,300 years. The remarkable feature of the Younger Dryas event was that it happened in a series of decadal drops of around degrees, and then the cold, dry weather persisted for over 1,000 years. While this event had an enormous effect on the ocean and land surrounding Europe (causing icebergs to be found as far south as the coast of Portugal), its impact would be more severe today – in our densely populated society. It is the more recent periods of cooling that appear to be intimately connected with changes to civilization, unrest, inhabitability of once desirable land, and even the demise of certain populations.

The Little Ice Age

Schwartz/Randall write that beginning in the 14th century, the North Atlantic region experienced a cooling that lasted until the mid-19th century. This cooling may have been caused by a significant slowing of the ocean conveyor, although it is more generally thought that reduced solar output and/or volcanic eruptions may have prompted the oceanic changes.

This period, often referred to as the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1300 to 1850, brought severe winters, sudden climatic shifts, and profound agricultural, economic, and political impacts to Europe.

The report warns the Bush Administration that such abrupt climate change could cause a "significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth's environment", sparking wars, riots, famine and global insecurity.

Under the scenario, temperatures drop over Asia, North America and northern Europe, while rising over Australia, South America and southern Africa. Mega-drought persists in critical farming regions, and water becomes scarce for big population centres in Europe and the eastern part of North America. Winter storms and winds intensify.

Europe is hardest hit, with the climate getting colder, drier and windier, making it more like Siberia. The US suffers loss of food productivity and rising sea levels, and "turns inward, committed to feeding its own population, shoring up its borders and managing increasing global tension". China is hit by widespread famine and Bangladesh becomes almost uninhabitable.

"Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves," the report says. "Less fortunate nations, especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbours, may initiate struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy.

"Unlikely alliances could be formed as defence priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honour."

European Commission Report: Crop yields would rise by up to 70 per cent in northern Europe but fall by up to a fifth in the south

The Financial Times reports that a dire set of predictions of the consequences of global warming in Europe is contained in a report for the European Commission. It forecasts that by 2071 climate change will cause droughts and floods that will kill 90,000 people a year while damage from rising sea levels will cost tens of billions of euros.

The FT says that the Commission will endorse the report next week and use it to back its case for action to limit the rise in the world’s average temperature to 2 degrees centigrade above 1990 levels. Ironically, those countries most committed to combating climate change, such as the UK and Sweden, would gain, with warmer temperatures bringing bigger crop yields and fewer deaths from cold.

Those around the Mediterranean who have been slow to act to curb greenhouse gas emissions, such as Italy and Spain, would suffer most from “drought, reduced soil fertility, fire and other climate-change driven factors,” according to the study, a copy of which has been obtained by the Financial Times.

The report, which draws on existing material and new information from the Commission’s Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security satellite mapping project, posits two scenarios. One envisages a 2.2 degree temperature rise, the other a 3 degree rise.

Crop yields would rise by up to 70 per cent in northern Europe but fall by up to a fifth in the south, depending on the temperature increase.

“Plants and animals associated with certain geographic regions are moving – or dying,” the report says.

The sea level could rise by up to a metre. As soon as 2020 the total cost would be €4.4bn under the first scenario, €5.9bn under the more extreme one, rising to €42.5bn by 2080. Shoring up coastal defences and rebuilding beaches would save two-thirds of the money in the long run, reducing the cost to €2.2bn a year under the rosy scenario.

The ocean would acidify, hitting fish stocks. Fish would also migrate northwards. Droughts and floods would be more severe. The cost of a flood in the Danube basin, as suffered by Hungary a few years ago, could rise 19 per cent. An extra 240,000 people would be affected.

With 2.2 per cent warming, almost 29,000 extra people would die annually in southern Europe from 2071-2100. In the north, 27,000 would die from heat but 20,000 lives would be saved from the cold.

Northern Europeans would be able to holiday at home as the North and Baltic seas warmed. This would jeopardise the €100bn a year spent on holidays in southern Europe. “The annual migration…in search of ‘sun, sand and sea’ is the single largest flow of tourists across the globe, accounting for a sixth of all tourist trips in 2000,” the report says.

2007 - forecast to be the warmest year yet

2007 is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, beating the current record set in 1998, say climate-change experts at the UK Met Office.

Each January the Met Office, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia, issues a forecast of the global surface temperature for the coming year. The forecast takes into account known contributing factors, such as solar effects, El Niño, greenhouse gases concentrations and other multi-decadal influences. Over the previous seven years, the Met Office forecast of annual global temperature has proved remarkably accurate, with a mean forecast error size of just 0.06 °C.

Met Office global forecast for 2007
  • Global temperature for 2007 is expected to be 0.54 °C above the long-term (1961-1990) average of 14.0 °C;
  • There is a 60% probability that 2007 will be as warm or warmer than the current warmest year (1998 was +0.52 °C above the long-term 1961-1990 average).

The potential for a record 2007 arises partly from a moderate-strength El Niño already established in the Pacific, which is expected to persist through the first few months of 2007. (El Niño was originally recognized by fisherman off the coast of South America as the appearance of unusually warm water in the Pacific ocean, occurring near the beginning of the year. El Niño means The Little Boy or Christ child in Spanish. This name was used for the tendency of the phenomenon to arrive around Christmas.) A moderate to strong El Niño typically brings mild winters to the northern US.  The lag between El Niño and the full global surface temperature response means that the warming effect of El Niño is extended and therefore has a greater influence the global temperatures during the year.

Katie Hopkins from Met Office Consulting said: "This new information represents another warning that climate change is happening around the world. Our work in the climate change consultancy team applies Met Office research to help businesses mitigate against risk and adapt at a strategic level for success in the new environment."

Review of 2006 in the UK

This startling forecast follows hard on the heels of news that 2006 was the warmest year on record across the UK.

For 2006, all UK data have now been gathered, revealing a similar story to that of Central England Temperature already announced last month.

For the whole of the UK, 2006 was the warmest year on record with a mean temperature of 9.7 °C, 1.1 °C above the 1971-2000 long-term average. Ranked warmest years in the series going back to 1914 are:

  • 2006 9.73 °C
  • 2003 9.51 °C
  • 2004 9.48 °C
  • 2002 9.48 °C
  • 2005 9.46 °C

UK minister for climate change told to get "back in your box"

Ian Pearson, the UK minister for climate change, branded Ryanair, Europe’s leading budget airline, as “the irresponsible face of capitalism” in an echo of former Prime Minster Edward Heath's famous remarks about businessman Tiny Rowland in the early 1970's, because Ryanair refuses to believe that air travel is a significant contributor to global warming,

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary borrowed from labour politician Denis Healey who famously said that being attacked by Tory politician Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep.”

The FT reports that Pearson was also rebuked by furious colleagues, who said his outburst contradicted the policy of the government of Tony Blair, prime minister, of working with industry to curb emissions.

A senior official in the environment department said Pearson had been told: “Get back in your box and stay there.”

“We want to be at the centre of government decision-making not an arm of Greenpeace.”

Michael O'Leary is reported to have got under Pearson's skin but the lesson for people who attack O'Leary is be prepared to stand ground with heavy credible ordinance if available. 

Environmentalists say urgent action is needed to slow the growth of air travel, which is now the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the UK economy. Mr Blair’s government has set a goal of cutting carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

Laughing off Pearson’s attack, Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary said:

"Being attacked by Minister Pearson (reminds me of Denis Healy’s famous quip) .... is like "being savaged by a dead sheep". It is clear that Minister Pearson hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about.

1. The recent Stern Report confirmed that the airline industry accounts for just 1.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Airlines are neither the cause nor the solution to climate change.

2. Mr Pearson has nothing to say about road transport, which accounts for 18%, or the power generation industry which accounts for over 25% of CO2 emissions, despite the UK Government’s abysmal record on tackling polluting power stations, many of which his own Government owns.

3. Ryanair is Europe’s greenest airline. We have spent in excess of $10bn. over the last five years in acquiring a fleet of brand new Boeing aircraft which have reduced our fuel consumption by 45%, and our noise and CO2 emissions by 50% per seat.

Ryanair's Green Credentials

As Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has hit back at criticism from the climate change minister and claims his airline is the greenest in Europe, CNBC's Dan Mann speak to Jos Dings, Director of European Federation for Transport and Environment, for analysis.

Michael O'Leary made his pitch on several broadcasts on Friday with Minister Pearson out of sight and on one, got in a mention of Ryanair's 5 million New Year seat sale!

O'Leary was first interviewed on the CNBC business television channel and he returned to contribute in the following video:


© Copyright 2007 by Finfacts.com

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