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Newsletter, January 2013 (Issue 190)

Puzzled


Griff Rhys Jones' talk on 12 October was both enlightened and thought provoking but was there not an elephant in the atrium? The future direction for all planning and building design, including in Ipswich, must adjust to any anticipated future changes, such as the climate, yet no mention as far as I recollect was made of this. Are we not fiddling while Rome burns, or now more likely, floods?

Flood damage claims are already increasing significantly year on year. It seems unlikely that the predicted sea level rise of less than a metre this century is realistic, bearing in mind that the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on which it is based made no allowance at all for ice melt. Now we are experiencing ice loss in the Arctic and West Antarctic which exceeds the most pessimistic of the models, due to the dreaded tipping points which are already kicking in. Last year we experienced the wettest spring since records began some 150 years ago, the autumn rains caused widespread flooding and hurricanes are apparently beginning to encroach on areas previously thought to be safe.

The Environment Agency now has the power to restrict residential development in flood areas, but it needs to go much further and faster on all fronts. We have to dramatically cut energy consumption if we are to keep carbon levels down to a figure which will prevent a catastrophic irreversible temperature rise. It's estimated that some 60% of the saving will have to come from a reduction in heat loss from buildings. However, our relatively puny new building regulations don't come into full force until 2016, and we are still giving awards to buildings with no solar collectors at all. In Germany, as from next year, all new buildings must be capable of producing 40% of the energy they consume themselves. What I wonder are Griff's thoughts on this?

Am I being irresponsibly alarmist? We almost certainly won't know until it's too late. but surveys indicate that well over 90% of those scientists who have been actively involved in the research (and there are literally thousands of them; the Met Office alone has some 200) now accept that not only is global warming happening, but that man is largely responsible. Bearing in mind what a disputatious lot scientists are, this is probably a higher consensus than Newton enjoyed, and nobody has messed with him for over 200 years now. Amazingly, the first laboratory experiment to demonstrate the greenhouse effect was carried out by an Englishman back in 1836, and the investigations have continued ever since, so an extraordinary amount of work has been done on the path to our present understanding: far too much to sweep under the carpet.

But little seems to be happening. Why are we not galvanised into action? What is happening to the proposals for large wind turbines in the area? Is anyone investigating local suitable sites for river turbines which are proving so popular, and in many cases profitable, in Europe?

Griff referred to the damage done to our infrastructure and housing stock by the Luftwaffe, but this will prove a mere pinprick compared with any future world conflict. Am I being unjustifiably alarmist again? A largely ignored Pentagon paper in 1997 proposed that climate change will be a greater threat to world peace than terrorism. Pakistan for instance gets nearly all its water through the rivers that first flow through its old rival India, which itself has serious water shortages, and like Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

It is my generation that must take most of the blame for the carbon level increase. (Incidentally I am 70.) We were the first to heat the whole of our houses at the same time as we cooled local areas of them with fridges and freezers, one energy source fighting the other. Also there was little attempt at conserving all the extra heat within the area for which it was intended. Wherever you look, the energy consumption of our generation became profligate. We were the first to drive or fly everywhere. If one looks at the graphs showing atmospheric levels of carbon, it was precisely at this time that they started to take off so dramatically, to a level not experienced for some 4 million years, when temperatures were a catastrophic 4 degrees higher. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that humans only flourish when temperatures are within just 1 degree of the present level: a sobering thought. As we drove the short distance home after the meeting (I could have walked, but thought it might rain) 1 recollected sitting in the atrium, pleasantly warmed in an attractive space probably three times the volume of space needed, absorbing Griff's thoughts, and eating unsustainable quantities of red meat (I have to confess to the consumption of at least three sausage rolls) and with my feet probably little more than a couple of metres above sea level.

I found myself increasingly puzzled by the complete lack of curiosity about these problems, either by Griff or by me and other members during question time. I would love to learn if there are other members of the Society (as well as Mike Brain, of course) who share any of the same anxiety, and who like me are having increasing pangs of guilt.

Jo Stokes

    Front cover of issue 190 Cover, issue 190

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