Leader comment: The global warming conundrum

The idea that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming was predicted all of 121 years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Svante Arrhenius.

Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius (1859 to 1927) won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1903.   (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius (1859 to 1927) won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1903. (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The passage of time has seen the evidence for his then-startling forecast grow to the point that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has compared denial of climate science to denial of the theory of gravity.

It is a fact demonstrated by thermometers that the world has warmed by an average of about one degree Celsius since the 1880s; it is a fact demonstrated by a fairly simple scientific experiment – first carried out years before Arrhenius’s landmark scientific paper – that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; and it is a fact that humans have pumped large amounts of the gas into the atmosphere. Even the so-called ‘sceptics’ at Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation accept this is true.

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However, for all the hot air about the apparent success of Paris Agreement on climate change, it would appear the world is struggling to respond to the challenge set by the scientists to avoid “dangerous” global warming, regarded as likely to start happening at some point between 1.5 to two degrees Celsius of warming. Doing so is predicated on moving from an economy built on coal, oil and gas to one powered mostly by the sun, wind and sea.

After three years in which global carbon emissions had flat-lined, some hoped they had finally peaked and would start to fall. But today we report that emissions are expected to hit a record high this year, driven by increased use of coal in China.

And, in Scotland, Burntisland Fabrication (BiFab), which builds equipment for the oil industry as well as platforms for offshore wind turbines, appears to be in some trouble with the company giving notice that it intends to appoint administrators. There may be specific reasons for its problems, but few straddle the transition to a zero-carbon world more obviously.

Scotland is similarly positioned. The discovery of North Sea oil in the late 1960s was a godsend to our economy and, happily, this country is also blessed with copious amounts of wind, tidal and wave energy.

The trick will be managing the change from one to the other over the coming years and decades in as smooth a way as possible.

This may prove difficult to pull off but still we must try.