By Steve Connor, Science Editor
07 March 2005
One of Britain's most eminent scientists has attacked President Bush for acting like a latter-day Nero who fiddles while the world burns because of global warming.
Lord May of Oxford, the president of the Royal Society and former chief scientific adviser to the Government, said the Bush administration must accept the case has been made about the link between man-made pollution and climate change. Continuing to deny the impact of human activities on the environment may ultimately have catastrophic consequences for everyone on the planet, he said.
The Royal Society has calculated that the 13 per cent rise in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States since 1990 will dwarf the cuts resulting from all other countries that will follow the Kyoto protocol. In a speech to policy-makers in Berlin today, Lord May will also castigate elements within the British media who promote "misleading" opinions about the true nature of the scientific uncertainties surrounding climate change.
"If the public are misled into thinking climate change does not pose a serious potential threat, some policy-makers could more easily find an excuse not to act. The United States administration has shown that this is the case," Lord May said. "All countries must accept the case has been made ... We need to ensure our own leaders and opinion-formers in the media are not allowed to act as modern-day Neros over climate change, fiddling while the world burns," Lord May said.
"There is a real problem and the solutions aren't easy but it doesn't help at all to have people, for one motive or another, running around misrepresenting what we do and don't know," he told The Independent.
"One thing we do know for sure is we are changing the composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that is going to have effects unless, by some implausible miracle, everything cancels out," he said.
Lord May accused the Bush administration of doing much to undermine the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions the Kyoto treaty aimed to bring about.
"President Clinton signed up to the Kyoto treaty in 1998 and a target of reducing US emissions of greenhouse gases by 8 per cent between 1990 and 2008-2012," Lord May said.
"But President George W Bush indicated in March 2001 that his administration would renege on that commitment and would not ratify the protocol. Although there are inherent problems with the Kyoto treaty it still represents the best way for the world as a whole to stabilise and eventually reduce carbon emissions. It signified a crucial first step in our efforts to avoid dangerous climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
"Small actions now are disproportionately important. They are more important than bigger actions later because of the non-linearity of the process we are talking about," he said.
"We need a whole suite of actions that, in a sense, have to have an underlying embrace that there is a problem, and it is a big problem," he added.
In addition to urging America to ratify the Kyoto agreement, Lord May accused the Daily Mail of waging an undeclared propaganda war against the science of climate change.
He accused the newspaper of misleading its readers with a misinformed campaign.
"It appears to be conducting an undeclared campaign to deny the potential threat from climate change - in the past 15 months the Daily Mail, which attracts six million readers every day, has published six opinion pieces, including four from its science editor, that have used misleading arguments against the scientific evidence on climate change," Lord May said. "It brings to mind the ill-fated and disreputable campaign by The Sunday Times during the early 1990s to deny that HIV causes Aids. It seems that some parts of the media have not learnt the lessons of that unfortunate campaign."
Lord May, winner of the Crafoord Prize, the equivalent of a mathematics Nobel, said climate change was so potentially dangerous to the world that people needed to be fully informed of its future consequences as well as the genuine uncertainties of the science.
"Like The Sunday Times in the early 1990s, the Daily Mail gives undue prominence and support to the views of an extreme fringe, and misleads its readers about the state of our knowledge," Lord May said. "Nuclear power has to be considered as a viable alternative to fossil fuel that can generate sufficient power without adding to greenhouse gases."
"It has to be part of tomorrow's future. I've every sympathy with the attitude that sees it through the emotional haze of a mushroom cloud, and terrorism makes it even more problematic, but you can't approach the things in emotional ways. There are real problems with nuclear but it's hard to see it's not part of the mid-term solution, ultimately one hopes one can move beyond it. We've got to investigate it now because we're on the verge of losing a generation of competence in the area."
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Emissions of carbon dioxide in 1990 (the base year for the Kyoto protocol). All figures are in millions of tons of carbon
United States 1,348.2