Welcome to a warmer world

Feature story - 6 August, 2003
Last year parts of Europe were experiencing the worst flooding for hundreds of years. Now Europe is sweltering in a continent-wide heat wave and fatal forest fires. This extreme weather is set to become more common as climate change gathers pace.

Flames consume huge areas of forest in Montalvao, Portugal. Portugal has declared a national disaster after the worst forest fires in more than two decades killed nine people, torched thousands of hectares of forest and destroyed homes.

In August last year southern parts of Germany were under water after the worst flooding for centuries. One year later, drought is devastating this year's harvest. The river Elbe in Dresden was at a nine meter high in August 2002. One year later, it is a 60cm deep trickle.

Counting the cost

While governments are still making compensation payments for the floods of 2002, the estimated damages to crops from this year's drought are already running into billions of Euros. Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, France and Portugal have been among the worst hit by the weeks of low rainfall and scorching sunshine. In Italy alone, crop damage is estimated at E5 billion and rising. The drought also means consumers are facing higher prices for produce in the shops. The heat and fires have resulted in a Europe-wide death toll that is rising daily. Extreme weather events have also claimed many lives in Asia and the Americas this year.

The evidence stacks up

While no one weather event can be directly linked to climate change, a warmer climate means more storms, floods and droughts. The events in recent weeks in Europe were actually foreseen by scientists a few years ago: "Climate change will bring warm, wet weather, which will encourage plants to grow, followed by long periods of drought, during which they will burn," -noted Meinrat Andreae, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in August 2001.

In June the UN's World Meteorological Organisation warned that extreme weather events would become more frequent due to climate change. Leading atmospheric scientists from the UK and Germany this week said that the current hot spell could be a sign of things to come. The world's climate is sending a clear signal that our pollution is warming the world and causing more extreme weather.

The cost of inaction

While most people are aware of the problem, these warning signs have jolted most governments into the first tentative steps to tackle it. The one country defiantly proceeding with business as usual is the world's biggest global warming polluter by far: the US. The state of Texas produces more of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change than France. If counted as countries, 25 US states would be in the top 60 polluting nations.

The Bush administration has withdrawn from the only measure to tackle climate change, the Kyoto Protocol. George W. Bush claimed it would cost the US too much money to solve a 'possible' problem. In reality the oil industries and big business that bankrolled Bush into office are getting their rewards. Oil giant Exxonmobil/Esso is one of the biggest backers of Bush and fiercely against any action on climate change. Tackling the problem will mean switching from oil to cleaner, greener forms of renewable energy.

Where leadership is needed to confront this global threat, Bush is pushing voluntary 'action' plans hatched with oil industry and big business, advocating many years of further research. As the world warms and the costs stack up in lost lives, crops, businesses and land this 'do nothing and hope for the best' approach from the country most at fault will increasing look like the thinking of the last century. Whether we are around to see in the next century depends on the decisions being taken now.

What can you do about it?

While governments need to act you can also make a difference. Here are 3 things you can do now:

Join our campaign to stop ExxonMobil/Esso from frying the planet for profit

Calculate your global warming emissions and see if you can reduce your impact.

See if your country has green energy suppliers who sell renewable energy to households.