noctilucent clouds
© Mark Humpage/SWNSThe sky near Leicester after midnight. The 'noctilucent' cloud is reflecting light from the Sun over the horizon.

It is August 2084 and in the olive groves of Bedfordshire, the temperature has just topped 41C for the fourth day running.

Luton's silk industry may be thriving, but on the radio, there are reports of wildfires raging across the Yorkshire moors. Hospitals are overflowing with elderly victims of the heat wave, some stricken with tropical diseases.

It may sound far-fetched but it is one possible future as laid out yesterday by the Met Office, where Britain is still recognisable - but only just.

Across the Home Counties, the rolling lawns and herbaceous borders have been edged aside by palms and pistachio trees.

To the west and north, recurrent winter flooding and erosion have left whole swaths of the Severn Estuary and Norfolk virtually abandoned but for a few hardy souls.

UK Climate Projections 2009 from the Met Office is packed with caveats about the uncertainties of the science and the probability of the different scenarios presented. Nevertheless, the message is clear. Without concerted action to tackle climate change, Britain is facing a much hotter, wetter future in which volatile and intense weather will be increasingly frequent, with wideranging implications for ordinary people, business and government.

The European Union wants average global temperatures not to exceed 2C above pre-industrial levels, but the report raised serious questions about the chances of that target being met, at least in Britain.

Yesterday scientists expressed guarded support for the study.

"Whichever way you look at it this report represents the best-informed view of what the future might be like," said Bob Spicer, Professor of Earth Sciences at the Open University. "To ignore it, and encourage others to ignore it, and refuse to take wise preparatory action, is to invite misery for those who are likely to be adversely affected."

Paul Williams, climate scientist at the University of Reading, said: "Sceptics will no doubt question how scientists can confidently predict the climate of 2080, when we cannot even forecast next week's weather with any skill. But climate prediction and weather forecasting are completely different problems."

However, Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and Environment at the LSE, offered a slightly more cautious judgment, particularly on the likelihood of some of the more extreme scenarios set out in the report.

"We are slightly cautious about some of the claims being made about what is going to happen in 2080," he said. "It's difficult to be that specific with any real confidence."

He said that it was important to distinguish between two distinct periods under analysis.

In the first, over the next two or three decades, we are faced with changes that are already in train and we cannot do anything about because of the lag between our historic emissions of carbon dioxide and their impact on the climate. During this first phase, there is some uncertainty inherent to climate models.

But beyond that the uncertainty becomes far greater because the climate will also be dependent on what actions are taken now.

"This is why the Met Office has given three scenarios: business as usual, one in which we curb our emissions somewhat, and one in which we do a good job or curbing our emissions," Mr Ward said. "The predictions are grim whichever scenario we are talking about."