Antarctica, Nicholas Stern, climate change and Copenhagen

As you will have read over the past three weeks, I have had the huge privilege of visiting the continent of Antarctica.

First of all, two acknowledgements, to Robert Swan at 2041 for asking me to come on his expedition and talk about climate change and to Shell for supporting me.

David and Robert Swan on the Antarctic Peninsula

David and Robert Swan on the Antarctic Peninsula


Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica is not a place to really see the effects of climate change, at least not yet. There is strong anecdotal evidence of changes on the Antarctic Peninsula and there have been some spectacular break ups of big ice shelves over the last few years, but despite recent findings published earlier this year in Nature, the science is not yet clear on the fate of this continent and its vast ice coverage as the world warms – but it is hard to rationalise that nothing will happen there.

Visiting Antarctica is quite an overwhelming experience. Standing on the rugged shore (no docks here) in a remote bay watching penguins go about their business and whales feed in the icy water, it makes you think about what the world was once like, before humans shaped it for our own use. We have “geo-engineered” the planet and its atmosphere in just 1000 years, with the bulk of it happening in the last 100 years.

There is little true land-based wilderness left, just pockets here and there, but even they are usually inhabited or used by man.

Mankind has also changed the composition of the atmosphere. First it was local air pollution, then regional impacts and now it is global. We have already seen that global change in the atmosphere does have an impact. The ozone layer thinned following a build-up of Chloro-Fluoro-Carbons (CFCs), perhaps the most telling aspect of our presence on this planet for a long-term visitor to the Antarctic. But we have also demonstrated that these local, regional and even global issues can be addressed and that a balance can eventually be restored.

Now humans are altering the quantity of greenhouse gas components in the atmosphere with scant collective thought about what it really means for the future. The issue is highlighted again in the Guardian today with an article about Nicholas Stern . Lord Stern has shown us very clearly that there is an economic rationale for addressing the build-up of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere, yet as the article discusses we persist in an endless debate on the issue itself.

As a person with a science and engineering background, the issue is very simple and it astonishes me that the simple physics behind what is happening in the atmosphere is so disputed. The facts are clear:

  • Humans are raising the level of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere through the huge level of global industrial activity.
  • We all know and have known for over 100 years that GHGs, in particular CO2, are key regulators of our long-term global environment.

Given this, we shouldn’t be surprised to expect a change if we double or triple the level of these gases in the atmosphere or (like CFCs) we introduce them in significant quantities for the very first time.

Despite the fact that we have enormous regard for science and take it for granted in devices we use every day (such as the computer you are reading this blog on), we seem bent on not believing our atmospheric chemists and others like them who have worked just as hard at establishing their base of knowledge as those who led the way for transistors, semi-conductors and now nanotechnology. It’s a bit like being given some very bad health news by a world leading oncologist then visiting 99 other doctors with various qualifications until one tells us that we will probably be OK and then deciding that this is the one that must be right – and it turns out his specialty isn’t oncology and he might not be a doctor at all – but we believe him anyway.

We can even measure the change in infrared absorption over the last 30 years yet still we argue the point.

Changes in outgoing long-wave radiation 1970-1997 (satellite)

Changes in outgoing long-wave radiation 1970-1997 (satellite)





Nicholas Stern has also outlined the key elements of a global deal. It’s not complicated, but it will require an unprecedented level of global cooperation to agree and implement. But as I saw on my Antarctic expedition, attended by people from over 20 countries, that level of cooperation is possible.

So now I am back in the real world of politics and self-interest (and e-mail) and today the first round of international talks (for 2009) in the lead-up to Copenhagen starts in Bonn.


There is much to do !