Climate change: action is urgent

DESMOND: broke rainfall records, destroyed power supplies and forced people from their homes

by Roz Paterson  • It’s been a hell of a winter. Actually, where the hell was the winter? The official start of spring is nearly upon us, yet it seems that the season which should precede it has failed to really get started. And this feeling is backed up by an alarming rack of statistics. It really was the dullest, wettest, stormiest, most depressing non-winter on record, and that’s really, really bad news.

The winter of 2015-16 kicked off with Storm Desmond in early December, which broke the 24 and 48 hour rainfall records, sweeping away bridges, forcing people from their homes, and destroying power supplies.

Such was its force, the Norwegian Meteorological Office designated it an ‘extreme weather event’. But then, on Christmas Eve, came Storm Eva, a double whammy of wind and rain that saw bridges collapse, gas mains rupture, major evacuations and millions of pounds’ worth of damage.

It was “unprecedented” said UK prime minister David Cameron, though some would argue it wasn’t, as we’d seen something horribly similar only weeks earlier. Then came Frank, when the floods nearly brought down Abergeldie Castle and the Rivers Nith, Tweed and Dee burst their banks on a scale unseen in decades.

Then in January came the rains that saw the town of Whitby almost cut off, the River Don reached its highest level for 45 years, resulting in damage and distress that was, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, “devastating”.

Indeed, by mid-January, it seemed as if the stratosphere intended to rage and rain forever, the planet having caught an alarming fever.

The North Pole clocked up an astonishing 1º Celsius in late December, up from a seasonal average of -28º. It didn’t stay like that, of course, it was just a fleeting moment of warmth in the frigid Arctic, but it happened, and that means it could happen again.

Likewise, in February, where the average temperature was running at 1.15-1.4ºC above average, it hit +2º, albeit briefly. Plus 2º is the point at which we reach—and this is almost a consensus opinion amongst climate scientists—the tipping point, after which climate change runs out of control, becoming irreversible, and catastrophic.

After 2º, negative feedbacks will make matters worse, tipping us towards further warming. Negative feedbacks work like this: global warming causes the Arctic ice to melt beyond its average limits, causing there to be more (dark) sea and less (white) ice, which means more sunlight is absorbed by the (dark) planetary surface and less is reflected back by the (white) ice, causing further global warming.

The Arctic ice is, of course, already melting beyond average limits, so in fact, negative feedbacks are already in motion. As they are in Siberia, where the melting permafrost is releasing long-buried deposits of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas that is, naturally, accelerating global warming, leading to further degradation of the permafrost…hell, are you terrified yet?

Truly, the climate change scenario is paralysing; it is traumatic to face up to the possibility that the doors to the future are closed, that we are already entering the zone of environmental checkmate.

That is why so many people look away, and pretend it isn’t happening; which is easy to do when the storms subside and everything returns to a semblance of normality, a few unseasonably early daffodils notwithstanding. But we mustn’t. One of the most shocking things right now is that, as a species, human beings are taking no action to combat climate change, or even adapt to it.

For example, at a meeting I attended about a planned new school recently, one of the architects answered the inevitable question about parking by saying that we must plan buildings with a view to people walking or cycling to them in future, not driving, and at least half the room looked at him as if he was mad.

In an episode of Countryfile, where the floods were considered in (a little) depth, there was talk of re-creating bends in rivers, but not of what had caused these rivers to flood so disastrously that whole buildings crumbled like wet sand into their midst.

We need to start talking about the elephant in the room. The sooner it becomes the norm to talk about it, and what we need to do to ameliorate it, the sooner we’ll see societal action. We need to give up on the idea that someone, somewhere, will start the ball rolling for us.

On Easter Island, the civilisation that made those haunting monoliths almost certainly collapsed because of an environmental catastrophe caused by the felling of every tree, leading to soil erosion, leading to famine.

What, you wonder, was the person who chopped down the very last tree thinking? Actually, we probably know what he or she was thinking; that surely if it was a problem, someone in authority would do something to stop them.

We, collectively, are thinking the same thing. But really, are we relying on the glossy suits that went to Paris for the big conference to save the day? Or some earnest Hollywood celebrities to turn the tide? Or, God help us, Richard Branson to come up with some wacky geo-engineering fix that will turn down the thermostat so we can all live happily ever after?

In Norway, the Barents Sea is melting in what is traditionally the coldest month of the year. The average temperatures are currently abut 10º above average. Climate change is coming home, and it’s time to talk about it.

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