Climate change FAQs

If you want to understand more about Climate Change then please see the following FAQs, as provided by UKCIP

1. What is climate change?

Climate refers to the average weather experienced in a region over a long period, typically 30 years. This includes temperature, wind and rainfall patterns. The climate of the Earth is not static, and has changed many times in the past in response to a variety of natural causes. The term ‘climate change' usually refers to recent changes in climate which have been observed since the early 1900's. The earth is kept warm by the greenhouse effect. Certain gases in the atmosphere (so-called greenhouse gases) absorb energy that is radiated from the Earth's surface, and so warm the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon without which life on Earth as we know it would not be possible, as the Earth would be 30°C cooler. However, our modern lifestyles have resulted in us releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases - like carbon dioxide and methane - into the atmosphere, enhancing the greenhouse effect and so pushing up temperatures globally.

2. What evidence is there that climate change is happening?

Most climate scientists agree that the world is going to get warmer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988 to assess scientific and socio-economic information on climate change and its impacts and to advise the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In its Third Assessment Report it projects that global temperatures could rise by between 1.4 and 5.8°C by the end of this century. The range of temperatures reflects a number of uncertainties, as many aspects of the weather are not fully understood, such as the impact of clouds, which can have both warming and cooling effects. Also unclear is the role of ocean currents, and role of the carbon cycle in oceans and forests. Central England has one of the longest temperature records dating back to 1659. This record shows that temperatures have increased by 0.7°C in the UK since 1659. Of that, a rise of 0.5°C occurred in the 20th century. Globally, average temperatures have increased by 0.6°C since 1860.

3. Can we prevent climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?

Experiments run on global climate models show us that when we reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, we reduce the rate of rise of average global temperatures and so lessen the rate and impacts of climate change. We can therefore slow the rate of warming by changing our behaviour. However, once released into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide remains there for about 100 years. So even if we were to reduce emissions, we are committed to a certain amount of warming and are likely to see a global rise in temperature of 2°C by the end of the century owing to greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. We may need to reduce emissions by 60-70% to stabilise the climate completely.

4. What's the difference between global warming and climate change?

Global warming refers to the increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere. Climate change refers to the changes in climate that might accompany the warming of the atmosphere, such as changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and sea level rise. Many people use these expressions interchangeably. However, the word ‘warming' may be misleading, as it doesn't suggest the range of changes that could result.

5. Isn't there a chance that Northern Europe could get much colder?

The UK's climate is affected by the Gulf Stream, which brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean to north west Europe. This warm water keeps the climate of the UK warmer than continental locations at similar latitudes. Some scenarios of climate change suggest that with further climate change, the North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation (THC), of which the Gulf Stream is a part, could ‘shut down'. If this were to happen, average temperatures in the UK would drop by some 4°C. Research at the Met Office shows that global warming could reduce the strength of the THC circulation by 25% by 2100. However, the direct heating of global warming would be greater than any cooling effect from reduced activity of the THC. A cold future is therefore very unlikely. For further information see the current guidance note on slowing of THC.

6. What are greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere that have the capacity to absorb long-wave radiation emanating from the Earth's surface. By absorbing this energy and re-radiating it, the gases cause the temperature of the Earth's lower atmosphere and surface to increase. The most common greenhouse gases are water vapour and carbon dioxide. Others include methane and nitrous oxide. Man's activities have increased concentrations of all of these gases and have also introduced new ones, such as CFCs.

7. Why would sea levels rise if it gets warmer?

Oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere. As the atmosphere warms, so too do the oceans. When water is warmed, it expands, causing sea levels to rise. In addition, as the temperature of the oceans and atmosphere increases, so glaciers and small ice sheets melt, releasing water into the oceans and contributing to sea level rise. In addition, the UK and northern Europe are still responding to the melting of ice sheets that covered the land during the last Ice Age. Mainland Britain is slowly tilting, with South and East England slowly sinking into the sea and the North West and Scotland rising.Sea level rises around the UK would increase the risk of flooding and coastal erosion.

8. Will it become more stormy?

With more energy in the climate system, it is possible that storms could become more severe in future, but the climate models do not give consistent findings.

9. Where can we get more information about climate science?

The UK Climate Impacts Programme works closely with the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research at the Met Office, the Climatic Research Unit and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

10. Why should we think about how climate change will affect us now, when its effects won't be felt for many years?

The earlier you find out the likely impacts, the more options you have for adapting, including taking advantage of opportunities. This is particularly important when it comes to major investment decisions and decisions that may affect whole sectors, or communities. In addition, the sooner we take action to reduce emissions, the greater the chance of stabilising the climate.

11. Isn't the UK a winner in terms of climate change? If so, why worry so much?

The UK will be warmer and this will certainly bring advantages. However, we are also likely to experience more extreme weather and we need to start planning now to deal with the consequences, such as additional flooding, drought and sea level rise. There are also likely to be serious implications for other parts of the world, for example, our trading partners, that will have effects for the UK. It's in our interest to be prepared.

12. Where can my organisation find funding for research?

To date, most research into the impacts of climate change have been undertaken in partnership, with each organisation contributing according to their budget. Please contact us for advice if you are interested in undertaking research.

13. How will my business by affected by climate change?

UKCIP's role is to help organisations find out how they will be affected by climate change. In 2003, UKCIP began a pilot project to engage business sectors in the process of building capacity within the sector on climate change impacts and adaptation called ‘A changing climate for business'. For information about how organisations of all kinds can assess their vulnerability and develop an appropriate response, go to our resources section. Information about ‘A changing climate for business', is available here.

14. Where can I find out about international negotiations to reduce emissions?

The negotiation process was set up by the United Nations. For more information visit the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) web site.

15. How can I find out more about flooding?

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is responsible for the operation of flood warning schemes in partnership with local authorities in Scotland, including operation of ‘Floodline'. SEPA also provides advice to local authorities on flood risk for planning purposes and flood prevention and information in response to public queries on flood risk areas and properties. Link to http://www.sepa.org.uk/flooding/index.htmSEPA's Floodline number is 0845 988 1188.

SEPA has also recently published New 'Indicative river and coastal flood map (Scotland)'. The new flood map can show you if the area where you live could be prone to flooding. It is important to note that the map has been developed to give an indication of whether a general area, not individual properties, may be affected by flooding. Further information and access to the map is available at http://www.sepa.org.uk/flooding/mapping/index.htm

Further information on the legislative framework, roles and responsibilities and relevant research and publications is available on the RISE website at www.sniffer.org.uk/rise

Scottish local authorities have a duty to assess and maintain watercourses to ensure they are reasonably clear of obstructions, in order to reduce the risk of flooding to non-agricultural land affecting more than one property. Although it is not the local authorities’ duty to protect people’s property’s from flooding (this is responsibility of the owner of the property), local authorities will urgently respond in emergency situations to provide assistance in partnership with the emergency services and other bodies. In addition, local authorities have a power (not a duty) to promote flood prevention schemes by developing and submitting an economic case to the Scottish Executive for Ministerial approval and funding. For further information visit the flooding section of your local authority’s website.