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On the panel: those who shall inherit the earth


Thirty-six pupils from six countries were invited to spend two days at the famous Meteorological Centre in Reading (UK). They saw some of the world's most powerful computers modelling weather forecasts for the whole of the European continent. They listened to explanations by climatologists on global warming and the role played by human activity. And they held group discussions on the possible implications of these questions for their future and on the response to adopt. RTD info reports from the Reading meeting.



Memories of the Reading Eurovisions.

The need to react to global warming is confronting society with problems as crucial as they are new. It involves responding to a threat - and no doubt a very serious one - on the basis of forecasts characterised by uncertainty. What is certain, on the other hand, is that the inhabitants of the planet are far from equal in the face of this threat and that some will suffer more than others. We also know that the measures to be taken will require radical changes to the way we use energy, with implications which will affect the very bases of society and transform the way we live.

A generation takes the initiative
Climate change thus requires a wide-ranging democratic debate. Investigating every possible alternative to protect ourselves and/or to adapt requires the effort and participation of us all. Although the debate must engage all society's players, it is of particular pertinence to younger generations who will bear the full brunt of the phenomenon.

It was this desire by young Europeans to take the initiative that lay behind the Eurovisions for the Future - Climate Change meeting held in the United Kingdom, during 'Week 2000', at the initiative of the British Association (BA). The Reading meeting was more than a year in the making. It was in the summer of 1999 that the BA first sent out invitations to secondary school teachers from all over Europe asking them to submit essays from their pupils on global warming. The work of six schools in six countries (Italy, Spain, France, Poland, United Kingdom, Austria) was finally selected, each of them being invited to send six delegates to the meeting.

Finding out
First of all, four experts working in the United Kingdom provided scientific explanations. Pierre Philippe Mathieu, a climatologist at the Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling at Reading University, repeated the point that the greenhouse effect is primarily a natural phenomenon without which life on earth would not be possible. It is the result of an extraordinarily complex balance created by the interactions between the sun's rays, the atmosphere, the ocean, the cryosphere (glaciers and ice floes) and the biosphere. However, greenhouse gases produced by human activity have had an adverse effect on the biosphere over the past 150 years and have upset the balance of the climate machine. 'All the many scientific observations confirm an average increase in temperature of the earth's surface of around 0.6C over the past 130 years. What is more, the present rate of increase is more marked than at any time during the past 10 000 years.'


From north to south, on the coast and in the interior, the effects of climate warming will be very different depending on the region. The various regions must anticipate and avert the impact of these changes from both a socio-economic and environmental point of view.

But how are scientists able to predict that the earth will heat up by x or y degrees over the coming decades? 'Our tool is the models we can run on our computers, and on the basis of which we can make forecasts,' explains Howard Oliver of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford. Citing the well-known maxim among computer experts of garbage in - garbage out, Dr Oliver explained how research by climatologists needs to be increasingly precise if it is going to understand the vast quantity of interactions and data which must be taken into account. He gave the example of the many projects undertaken by the British programme entitled Terrestrial Initiative in Global Environmental Research (TIGER), also making the point in passing that this field of research has created many new jobs for young scientists.

But what exactly will happen in Europe if the earth's global climate heats up? Julia Vowles, of the Climate Impacts Programme (Oxford), explained the principal conclusions of the major ACACIA study(1), carried out by a network of European researchers with EU support. 'On our continent, the effects of climate warming, of between 1C and 4C during this century, will be felt very differently depending on whether you live at the coast (with the threat of a rise in sea-levels of between 13 cm and 68 cm), the southern regions or the north-east plains (with very hot summers and increasingly severe drought), or northern Europe (with increased rainfall). Each region must therefore anticipate the specific impact this will have on its society, economy and environment.'

But is it possible to change the course of events? Irne Lorenzoni, of the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) of East Anglia University, believes the way our activities influence the environment must be analysed. This means projecting the impact of various actions (such as reducing greenhouse emissions and optimising the rational use of resources) on the scenarios with a view to ultimately changing our behaviour. 'All the measures taken in response to the threat of climate change will also have positive effects at other levels, on the quality of the air we breathe or transport mobility, for example.'


'All the measures taken in response to the threat of climate change will also have positive effects at other levels, for example on the quality of the air we breathe and transport mobility.'

After this first day, which provided them with the materials with which to understand the climate issue, the young people divided into three discussion groups to debate and exchange opinions among themselves. 'We now have a lot of new information and scientific arguments, but that does not mean that we interpret them in the same way, or that we will draw the same conclusions,' explains Malgosia Minta, a student from Wroclaw (Poland). 'The aircraft which brought me here to Reading emitted a quantity of greenhouse gases which amounts to all the energy I can save in several years of energy-saving measures in my day-to-day activities. But of course you can't replace an aircraft with a bicycle. So how can all these contradictions be resolved?'

The discussions went well. Everyone tried to place the significance of climate warming in the geographical context of their own country or region. The Polish and Italian students, for example, are concerned by the catastrophic floods that have hit their countries on repeated occasions during recent years. The young Austrians and Spaniards spoke of the possible effects of climate change on tourism, an essential driver for their national economies. Someone also pointed out, very pragmatically, that climate warming in a region such as Scotland could boost agricultural activity and reduce heating costs, while Maiwand Halaimzai, who lives in London, argued for an alternative future: 'The ecosystem provides infinite hydrogen resources and there must be major investment in research so that this combustible and non-polluting gas can be used in the service of man.'

The Reading meeting ended with a discussion entitled What must be done? Citing the bargaining inspired by short-term national interests as displayed during the difficult negotiations on the Kyoyo protocol, this panel of young Europeans defended the idea that, when faced with these problems, humanity must have 'the firm individual and collective desire' to respond to them. Whatever the case, the Reading meeting showed that if such a desire is to be acted on, then education - of young people in particular - must become a priority component of strategies designed to deal with the threat of climate change.

(1) See RTD info n27.


Jill Nelson,
British Association
Fax : +44 171 973 3051

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