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Q&A: "We're Running the Risk of Unstoppable Climate Change"

Interview with marine scientist Chris Reid

GIJON, Spain, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - Warming seawater, melting sea ice and glaciers, sea level rise, storm intensification, changes in ocean currents, growing "dead zones", and ocean acidification are just some of the signs that the oceans that cover 71 percent of our watery planet are changing.

Chris Reid Credit:

Chris Reid Credit:

Changes in the oceans also means major impacts on the land and the atmosphere. "Policy makers and the public do not realize that the oceans are the drivers of the climate system," says Chris Reid, recently retired professor of oceanography at the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, England.

Reid will be producing a report this summer on the impacts the altered oceans are having and will have on the global climate.

IPS environment correspondent Stephen Leahy spoke to Reid at an international scientific symposium held late last month in Gijon, Spain on the effects of climate change on the world's oceans.

IPS: What is happening in the oceans that will affect the global climate?

CR: The oceans have absorbed 30 percent of all human emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) since the start of the industrial age. There is now good evidence that the oceans are absorbing less carbon as a result of climate change. The warming of surface waters, glacial and sea ice meltwater, acidification and so on are inhibiting or slowing a number of the oceans' mechanisms for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and safely storing them in the deep ocean.

IPS: How will that affect us?

CR: It means the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will rise much faster than has been previously projected by climate scientists. Human carbon emissions are already on pace for the worst case scenario as envisioned by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). These changes in the oceans means the rate of warming will increase, bringing even more severe hurricanes and cyclones, flooding events and so on.

IPS: Cyclones like the one that recently devastated Burma?

CR: Yes. Research presented at this meeting shows that South Korea and Japan are experiencing more powerful cyclones. While a single event can't be precisely connected to climate change, the Burma cyclone fits what is expected with climate change.

IPS: What is the scale of the changes in the oceans from climate change?

CR: The sub-tropical zones in the North Atlantic and North Pacific have shifted northward 10 degrees latitude (approximately 1,000 kilometres). That's an enormous change in the last 30 to 40 years. Water temperatures in the North Sea have warmed by 0.5 [degrees] C and we're seeing a major shift in the biology of the region with a 70-percent decline in cold water plankton.

In 70 to 100 years, temperatures above 60 degrees north latitude (Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia and Russia) are projected to increase by an average of 6 [degrees] C. That's the average, it will be even warmer in some areas.

IPS: Won't temperatures that high release massive amounts of carbon and methane stored in the northern region's permafrost?

CR: Yes. We are running the risk of catastrophic, unstoppable climate change. And with the changes we're observing in the oceans such temperatures could come sooner.

IPS: How do we prevent this from happening?

CR: We need to shift to a no-growth society. Our resources are largely depleted and are being used unsustainably so it makes sense to recycle and reuse what resources we have and redesign our lives and economies on this basis. For instance, with the proper insulation and ventilation our bodies alone could heat our homes. But rather than investing in research and development that could make this possible and affordable, governments are subsiding the use of fossil fuels. If solar energy was subsidised in the same way, solar panels would be far cheaper and better.

IPS: What will it take to make this major shift?

CR: Strong leadership from governments, especially the U.S. and Canada. The lack of leadership on climate change is a major problem. All governments can do simple things such as taxing motor vehicles so that people will only buy the smallest, most efficient. I'm afraid it is going to take a major catastrophe in the developed world to get that kind of leadership. And that could come too late when we're already in a runaway climate change situation.

IPS: What keeps you so busy even though you're retired?

CR: I want my children and grandchildren to have a world that's comfortable to live in.

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