Europe: global warming preview?

Severe storms hit Britain and France last week, adding new urgency to the climate-change debate.

Shortly before a conference on climate change is due to convene at The Hague, Netherlands, Western Europe is receiving what some view as an early taste of global warming.

Britain, parts of which have been hit by torrential rains for the past month, is bracing for still more bad weather as the government scrambles to cope. Severe storms last week claimed at least nine lives in Britain, Ireland, and France.

French authorities continue to monitor a leaking Italian tanker that sank in gale-force winds on Tuesday, 40 miles west of Cherbourg, France. The Iveoli Sun was carrying chemicals including styrene, a substance considered carcinogenic.

While scientists say it's too soon to definitively blame the recent bout of severe weather on global warming, a new United Nations report says the storms are a preview of what coming decades may hold.

Historic York saw the worst flooding in 400 years as the River Ouse surged 18 feet above normal. Some 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes.

Wading up to his waist in the rising waters, John Prescott, deputy prime minister and the government's point man on the environment, declared: "We are getting a wakeup call to the serious threat posed by global climate change."

On Saturday, Mr. Prescott and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged 51 million ($74 million) to fund short-term measures to improve flood defenses across the country. They also promised to pay local authorities for the total cost of current storm damage. Insurance companies predict the final bill could reach 1 billion ($1.45 billion).

The storms left many here wondering what is happening to Shakespeare's "green and pleasant land."

Floods and debris paralyzed much of Britain's decaying rail network, just as a major repair effort was under way.

In London's West End, entire shopping streets were deep in water. A hundred miles away in the coastal resort of Bognor Regis, a tornado ripped through the town's business center.

Some 6,000 passengers aboard cross-channel ferries were tossed by huge waves for 17 hours off England' s south coast after high winds closed the port of Dover. Across huge swaths of low-lying England and Wales, tens of thousands of houses were inundated, with more rain in the forecast.

Britain is notorious for unreliable weather. But the latest deluge has brought a new sense of urgency to warnings about the future impact of climate change. Virtually on the eve of an international conference at The Hague designed to strengthen the 1997 Kyoto climate-change treaty, a draft report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the earth could become as much as 10 degrees F. warmer over the next century.

It said the increase would be caused substantially by greenhouse-gas emissions. The next day, 30 leading climate scientists painted a grim pattern of future weather patterns in Europe.

Their report for the 15-nation European Union, billed as the first comprehensive assessment of the effects of climate change on Europe as a whole, predicted that in a few decades the islands of Greece would be far too hot for holidaymakers.

Southern Spain would be like a desert. In France, Atlantic salmon would disappear from the River Loire. Other areas, including Britain and Scandinavia, could expect increasingly heavy rain and much more severe flooding.

A 20 percent increase in peak flows in the River Thames, which flows through London, would put landmarks such as Tower Bridge and other parts of the British capital at severe risk. In alpine Europe, there would be 20 percent more floods.

Professor Martin Parry of the University of East Anglia, who edited the EU report, says the consequence of weather change would be most significant for water. "In the north of Europe, we shall have too much water, while in southern countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain there won't be enough," he says. "Not only agriculture will be affected. For example, power stations in Southern Europe that use river water to generate electricity may have to shut down when flows diminish."

The EU report says over the coming century, a sea-level rise of 8 to 12 inches would flood 100 percent of the intertidal habitat for wading birds in the Mediterranean. From 50 to 90 percent of Europe's glaciers could disappear by the end of the 21st century, if current trends continue.

Mr. Blair reportedly instructed British representatives attending The Hague conference to press doubly hard for the Kyoto protocols to be implemented, and to cite the latest storms as evidence of the need to take action.

Not everyone agrees with the climate-change fervor, however. In "The Climate Revealed," William Burroughs argues that worse floods hit southern England in 1968. In 1947, the whole of Britain suffered the coldest February in 300 years. "Back in 1947, nobody talked about global warming," Mr. Burroughs says. "While the latest events are pretty awful, they are not really far out of line with past experience."

Evidence that the latest storms are the result of global warming, he adds, is "unconvincing."

For the Blair government, the threat of massive expenditure on long-term flood controls comes at an awkward time. Truck drivers and other motorists threaten a new round of demonstrations next week unless the government lowers fuel taxes, the highest in Europe. The high tax is part of an environmental policy designed to encourage fuel efficiency and is a major source of revenue for social programs.

In September, blockades of oil depots and refineries virtually shut down the country. While protesters have said they do not plan to target oil supplies, in the past few days long lines formed at gas stations as panic buying gripped the nation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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