Experts call for tougher targets on carbon emissions to avoid catastrophe

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 18 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6775
  1. Henry Nicholls
  1. 1London

Rising temperatures, melting ice, swollen seas, and increasingly erratic climatic events will cause water and food shortages that will not only bring a global health catastrophe but “trigger conflict within and between countries,” leading scientific, medical, and military experts warned at a conference in London on 17 October.

“Climate change poses an immediate, growing, and grave threat to the health and security of people in both developed and developing countries around the globe,” says a statement signed at the meeting by, among others, Michael Jay (chairman of the medical aid charity Merlin), Ian Gilmore (former president of the Royal College of Physicians), Anthony Costello (director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London), Fiona Godlee (editor in chief of the BMJ), Richard Horton (editor in chief of the Lancet), and Hege Gjessing (president of the Norwegian Medical Association).

It adds, “Mass migration will also increase, triggered by both environmental stress and conflict, thus leading to serious further security issues.”

The statement was released at the conference on “the health and security perspectives of climate change” hosted by the BMJ and attended by about 300 prominent scientists, experts on environmental health and global security, and public figures.

The signatories call for immediate action on climate change and urge the European Union to make tougher cuts to greenhouse gas emissions than currently planned by bringing levels down by at least 30% of those in 1990 by 2020 rather than the target of 20%.

Lord Jay, former permanent undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Tony Blair’s representative at the G8 summits in 2005 and 2008, said that even in these difficult economic times “we must not fail to take tough measures . . . There is a real need for more commitment and more action at a national, international, and industrial level.”

He added, “We need to recognise and explain the breadth and depth of the climate change challenge, that it will have an effect on the health of populations through much of the globe . . . that can lead to a breakdown in security, of law and order, to kidnappings and in the worst case to war.”

Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, said that in the space of just a century the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen 100 times faster than at any other time in the history of the planet.

“At the rate we’re going . . . it’s not 450 ppm [parts per million] or 650 ppm . . . By the end of the century it could be 1000 ppm,” he said. “That would be 10 times the change between the last ice age and the current interglacial, and you’ve got to be a pretty optimistic individual to believe that that would somehow be fine.”

The statement makes several demands on governments. In the absence of carbon capture and storage, it says that all governments should stop building new coal fired power stations and phase out existing plants. It also calls on developing countries to actively identify the key ways in which climate change threatens health and democratic governance and undertake mitigation and adaptation activities.

Also needed is a global, legally binding agreement that is consistent with the target of restricting the global temperature rise to 2°C, as agreed at the United Nations’ climate change conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancún, Mexico, last year.

Hugh Montgomery, director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, said, “It is not enough for politicians to deal with climate change as some abstract academic concept. The price of complacency will be paid in human lives and suffering—and all will be affected. Tackling climate change can avoid this, while related lifestyle changes independently produce significant health benefits. It is time we saw true leadership from those who would profess to take such a role.”

Neil Morisetti, the UK Ministry of Defence’s head of climate and energy security, said, “This is one of the most complex and challenging scenarios I’ve come across. We have to take ownership of this at a local level [and] at a regional level, and we need to take ownership of this as professional bodies. We have got to talk to people and build that narrative and engage with them in a fashion that they feel comfortable with.”

Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, said, “I don’t think people understand how bad things will be if we don’t tackle emissions. We should be sticking our heads above the parapet.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6775