February 16, 2014 3:03 pm

John Kerry warns on catastrophic climate change

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) talks with reporters on a plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland before departing for South Korea February 12, 2014.©Reuters

US secretary of state, John Kerry, has issued a dramatic plea for action on global warming, saying it was as big a threat as terrorism and “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction”.

Speaking in Jakarta shortly after the US and China announced fresh strides on jointly tackling climate change before a global summit next year, Mr Kerry lashed out at what he said were “a tiny minority of shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” trying to hijack the climate debate.

His comments came amid extreme weather events around the world, from heavy weekend snowfalls that killed a dozen people in Japan, to relentless US snow and ice storms; the hottest January on record in parts of Brazil and the wettest winter in some areas of the UK in 248 years.

The savage weather has galvanised debate about the influence of global warming, with political figures such as UK Labour leader Ed Miliband saying it has become a national security issue. Climate sceptics continue to question the science – and sometimes the existence – of global warming.

Mr Kerry, who has spent much of his long career in the US Senate pushing for climate action, likened such views to those held by people who used to insist that the earth was flat.

“The science is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand,” he said.

The debate comes as countries prepare to negotiate a firm global deal to curb global warming at UN talks in Paris at the end of next year.

World leaders failed to achieve such an agreement at the last big UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and there is widespread uncertainty about whether next year’s talks will succeed.

However, there is no doubt that the US and China will play a decisive role in the outcome because they account for about 40 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming global temperatures.

Mr Kerry, who is eager to play a leading role in pushing the Paris talks to a meaningful conclusion, told reporters during a stop in Beijing that the US and China had made progress on climate measures first announced last year.

These include reducing heavy duty vehicle emissions; capturing and storing carbon emissions, and collecting greenhouse gas data.

While precise details of the agreement remain unclear, Mr Kerry said: “I’m pleased to tell you that the leaders of China agree that it is time to pursue a cleaner path forward.”

He added: “We have hopes that it will help to set an example for global leadership and global seriousness on the issue of next year’s climate change negotiation.”

In depth

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Mr Kerry’s comments came as scientists said the bad weather that has battered the US and UK this winter may persist for longer in patterns lasting weeks or months in future.The prediction comes from new research into the jet stream, a driver of weather in these regions, developed by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in New Jersey and presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

The jet stream, a high-speed atmospheric current blowing very fast from west to east across temperate latitudes, is fuelled partly by temperature differences between the cold Arctic and warmer areas further south.

As the Arctic warms, this temperature differential is reducing and the jet stream weakening. Like a river flowing down a gentler slope, a weaker jet stream tends to meander up and down more – and to get stuck in particular patterns.

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The pattern in which the weather gets stuck seems to vary almost at random from year to year, Professor Francis said. “This winter has been particularly wet and stormy in the UK,” she said, “but it could be completely reversed next year, with a cold dry winter.” In the US the weather patterns of 2013 were the opposite of 2012.

Separately, another prominent scientist in Chicago said human activities had already caused global warming to proceed faster over the past century than at any time in the past 55 million years.

Christopher Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s global ecology department at Stanford University, said the climate debate focused on the expected rise in temperature, without putting the rate of change into historical perspective.

“The speed of change over the coming century is likely to be at least 10 times faster than at any time since the age of dinosaurs,” Professor Field said.

Many people have the erroneous impression that temperature changes occurred very fast in the past because of natural climate fluctuations – for example rapid warming at the end of the ice ages – but Prof Field said his research showed that at a global level nothing matched the 0.9C temperature rise between 1880 and now, let alone the 2C to 4C projected for the 21st century.

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Letter in response to this report:

Developing countries lead the field in climate legislation / From Lord Deben, Senator Edward Markey and Mr Cedric Frolick

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