The UK government has long seen itself as a world leader in tackling climate change

The UK government has long seen itself as a world leader in tackling climate change, and on 13 March it unveiled a unique bill that laid down a legal framework for cutting the country’s carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. The ambitious bill, as previewed late last year (see Chemistry World, December 2006, p8), is likely to become law in 2008 - the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Some critics have pointed out that an earlier manifesto commitment - reducing carbon output by 20 per cent by 2010 - is just as far away as it was at the turn of the century. So is the bill all hot air? It is certainly long on rhetoric, but it’s clear enough that as well as improving energy efficiency, a mix of different technologies - carbon sequestration, using hydrogen as an energy carrier, and second generation biofuels, to name but three - are all likely to play a vital role.

I’m sometimes asked why Chemistry World devotes the space it does to climate change and energy. The answer is simple: chemistry is at the heart of these issues. They also give chemists yet another opportunity to shape our planet’s future, from developing new enzymes to make cellulosic ethanol to making catalysts that can further exploit carbon dioxide as a feedstock chemical. But there are still many who question whether the globe really is warming, or, if it is, whether mankind has anything to do with it. A letter in this month’s issue is typical of many received by Chemistry World in recent months that have raised these questions. Why should chemists respond to what might turn out to be a phantom menace?

A television documentary which aired in the UK on 8 March also puts climate change science in the dock. Thanks to the power of YouTube, The Great Global Warming Swindle has truly gone global, giving succour to climate change sceptics the world over. The programme’s premise is that we have been hoodwinked, and that rising carbon dioxide levels are a consequence, rather than a cause, of global temperature rises.

Yet after some rigorous questioning by journalists and scientists, the programme-maker has now admitted that graphs shown on the programme used data that were either incorrect or 20 years out of date, or were manipulated to make some of the lines ’less wiggly’. Debate is an important part of science. But this is not debate - it is a distortion of the evidence. 

While chemists have an important role to play in coming up with scientific solutions to global warming, few of us know the finer details of ice core records, climate model projections and the like. To some extent, we must use the same rules of thumb available to anyone else outside the field in judging the work: Was the science peer reviewed? Has it been replicated? How much consensus is there within science on the topic? Who stands to gain from promoting that view? 

In one corner, I give you the overwhelming majority of climate science favouring anthropogenic global warming. In the other, a discredited television programme. 

The bottom line is that just a few degrees increase in global average temperatures is likely to have a severe impact on human life. The silver lining of anthropogenic climate change is that, being man-made, at least we stand a chance of doing something about it. 

Mark Peplow, editor