The heat of the matter

Observations on climate change

When I took over the ITV News hot seat from the legend that is Sir Trevor McDonald, I suggested we should get out more and take the programme to the story. But I didn't have in mind the forbidding nether regions of our planet.

Yet television news increasingly runs on the Everest principle: we'll do it because we can. And so I find myself in the Antarctic, presenting the evening news . . . from the coldest, windiest, remotest, most beguiling and surely most beautiful continent on earth.

From Punta Arenas in Chile we flew across the Southern Ocean in a Dash-7 belonging to the British Antarctic Survey. After four and a half hours the cloud gave way to a glorious sight: rising magnificently from the sea, snow-covered mountains surrounded by a flotilla of sunlit blue icebergs.

It was a spectacular first glimpse of Antarctica, and the frozen debris of the shattered ice shelves provided stunning and immediate visual evidence of the story here.

Quite a story it is, too. Parts of the Antarctic peninsula are melting at a speed that is alarming scientists. Given that this continent as a whole contains 90 per cent of the world's ice, understanding how rapidly it is melting is crucial to predicting future sea-level changes.

Two things happen as soon as you arrive at the British Antarctic Survey base at Rothera. First, you're driven up a glacier, then sent sliding down a crevasse and taught how to climb out - a welcome lesson in polar self-preservation. Second, you quickly become aware that nothing is straightforward. In the vast interior of Antarctica the ice sheet is actually thickening, one glaciologist, Dr Mike Bentley, told me. But so fast are temperatures rising in western Antarctica that there is an imbalance which is threatening to get out of hand. "It's a staggering rate of change and we ignore it at our peril," said Bentley.

And I can vouch for the perilous nature of life here. On a trip through the icebergs, one of them collapsed about 30 feet from our rigid inflatable boat as I recorded a report on camera. We were saved by the skill of our boatman, Bernard. It was much too close for comfort.

Before we headed to Antarctica, there was some required viewing. Al Gore's climate-change polemic An Inconvenient Truth is compelling, an apocalyptic view of a future in which uncontrolled CO2 emissions wreak havoc on the planet. He predicts increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels, threatening tens of millions of people in heavily populated low-lying areas. Not only Holland and Bangladesh, but also - and this he delivers in a tone suggesting that here is the reason Americans should really care - a substantial area of Florida and New York.

It is a damning indictment of White House policy (or lack of policy) and a call to arms to governments and individuals around the world.

But my question for Gore is this: Why, if he's been worried about global warming since high school, was he not doing more to curb CO2 emissions when he was vice-president of the most gas-guzzling country in the world? No answer in his film . . . but then, in the hanging-chad cliffhanger of an election he fought, why risk votes? It's not climate change, stupid.

The scientists here wanted to see An Inconvenient Truth, so I brought along the DVD. Like Gore, they believe much of the recent global warming is man-made. "There's no question about that," Bentley said. "The only debate now is how bad it will get, and that's what we are trying to find out."

In a sense, a new age of discovery is taking place in Antarctica. And looking across the white, glistening expanse towards the South Pole it is impossible not to think of Cook, Scott, Amundsen and the utterly heroic Shackleton. Incidentally, it was the modern-day Endurance, the ice-patrol vessel of the Royal Navy, that brought our satellite equipment on its last leg from the Falklands - her part in a little piece of broadcasting history.

There is a more sanguine approach to what's happening in the Antarctic than that taken by the scientists and Al Gore. It is articulated most frequently and forcefully in Austin family conversation by my sister-in-law, a professor of geography at Oxford - to risk paraphrasing her crudely: "Chill out." She believes the planet is constantly changing and that we'd better get used to it. It has been changing for millions of years and will continue to change for millions more. A hundred and fifty million years ago, conifer forests grew in Antarctica. Yes, the ice caps are melting, sea levels will rise, probably by a metre or more by the end of this century, and we can't do much to stop it. Any cuts in emissions now won't be felt for at least 200 years. The priority, she insists, is planning the evacuation of vulnerable coastal populations.

In 1992 I was reporting from Bangladesh after 250,000 people died in flooding in the Cox's Bazaar area. A quarter of a million people dead in a day. They didn't know it was coming.

But this time we do. Tens of millions of people in vulnerable regions of the world - in Asia, in Europe, in the Pacific and in the US - may need to be moved to higher ground. A huge movement of humanity. New homes in new towns and cities. I see no evidence that such planning has started.

The scientists monitoring climate change at Rothera are writing a journal, to be placed in a time capsule until 2107. One said he's going to start his entry: "As you sit reading this under a palm tree . . ." I think he was joking.

Mark Austin was writing from Antarctica, where he has been presenting ITV News's "The Big Melt" series

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics