Do you remember the floods of summer 2007, when some parts of England suffered more than twice as much rain as the average? On one day alone in London (20 July), Heathrow airport cancelled more than 140 flights, and 25 stations on the London Underground were closed. There was huge disruption affecting millions of people.
Now, fast forward to 2012. The opening ceremony of the London Olympics: 27 July. And just suppose it comes after two solid weeks of unusually heavy rain. Public transport has been disrupted, power supplies are down, in some places, food is running short. Could London cope? Are planners already trying to work out what they would do?
It would be what’s known in the trade as a “low probability, high consequence event”. In other words, it’s not very likely to happen, but if it does, it’ll have very serious consequences. And it is directly relevant to the current debates over climate change, in the run-up to the international climate change conference to be held in Copenhagen next month.
I spent a day discussing all this at a conference earlier this week, organised jointly by The World Tonight, the foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, the journal International Affairs, and the scientific academy The Royal Society. (You may have heard our discussion broadcast on Tuesday evening. If not, you can still hear it via the website.)
It was one of those conferences that leave you with plenty to think about. So here’s some of what I learned:
Planners are already working on “worst case” climate change scenarios. They regard climate change as a “threat multiplier”; in other words, all the other challenges that we may face over the coming decades – food security, access to clean water, increased demand for energy – become even more acute because of climate change.
But traditional planning theory is based on the assumption that certain things will remain constant: rainfall in the future will be more or less the same as in the past; water flow in major rivers will remain pretty much what it was. If constants become variables as a result of climate change, how do you make your plans?
In the Himalayas, average temperatures are already rising much faster than elsewhere. Glaciers are melting rapidly, which means that water flow in the major rivers, which depends on ice melting in the summer, is already down by 60 per cent or more.
One quarter of all humanity depends on that water; and three of the nations in which those people live are nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, and China. Military forces in those countries are “war gaming” how they would deal with a major water crisis.
Black carbon, soot, is one of the major causes of warmer temperatures in the Himalaya region because millions of people heat their homes and cook their food on open fires. But black carbon is not a carbon gas, so it will form no part of the discussions at the Copenhagen conference next month.
The US Department of Energy has set up an Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence to provide detailed analysis of all available data on energy and climate-related issues. The US government regards the possibility of climate change-inspired conflict as a major potential security threat.
Some intelligence officials worry about what they call “organisational adaptive disabilities”; in other words, they fear that governments simply aren’t up to the job of dealing with some of the scenarios under consideration.
By the way, did you hear about the major power cuts that hit much of Brazil this week and left nearly 60 million people in the dark? Unusually strong storms brought down power lines, apparently, and knocked out all electricity supplies to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and several other major cities. (Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Think about it …)
But yes, I did pick up one bit of good news: the global economic slow-down has resulted in a significant reduction in the emission of carbon gases. We’ve got about four more years than would otherwise have been the case.