by Roz Paterson • Global temperatures in 2017 will, probably, not exceed those of 2016. That’s the good news. In full. Happy new year.
Last year and the year before broke all records in terms of global temperatures, clocking up between +0.63-0.87 degrees centigrade above long-term averages.
This year shouldn’t see another climb, but only because the El Nino cycle, which amplifies global warming trends, won’t be a factor. Other than that, there is little respite. Especially with all the hot air blowing from America’s White House, following Donald Trump’s inauguration on 20 January.
Last Christmas, for instance, was the warmest we’ve had, with temperatures in the Arctic up 10 degrees above average at times, to the extent of peaking above freezing point, which in the middle of the northern winter, is crazy stuff.
Arctic ice cover has been consistently lower than average in seven of the last 11 months, and the gap between polar temperatures and those of the mid-latitudes, that is between 30 and 60 degrees either side of the Equator, is shrinking.
This is not just worrying in itself, it is suspected of triggering a feedback loop, whereby the more it happens, the more it makes it happen.
Here’s how it goes. When ice melts, it increases the water vapour in the air. Water vapour sounds benign but actually functions as a greenhouse gas, as it forms clouds which trap heat in the atmosphere. This, in turn, causes further ice melt, which causes increased water vapour.
Not only that, but Arctic warming appears to interfere with the workings of the Jet Stream—a ribbon-like wind system that shifts weather across the surface of the globe—making it meander in ever bigger loops, transporting warm air north and cold air south. Hence the currently warm Arctic and the almost unheard of snowfall in Greece. This, of course, causes more Arctic ice to melt.
Climate scientists have not—quite—joined all the dots on this. They cannot absolutely, definitely, 100 per cent, gold standard prove that the six year-long California drought is caused by global warming. But they have a pretty good idea, and so do we.
But it is that margin of doubt, that small gap of proof, that those who profit by fossil fuels and business-as-usual, will exploit to the full. Just as cigarette manufacturers did during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when the lung cancer link was known about, but not proven beyond all doubt.
In fact, CO2-driven climate change has been known about for a lot longer than cigarette-induced lung cancer. Back in 1896, a Swedish chemist called Svante Arrhenius published his calculations of what would happen to global temperatures if CO2 levels in the atmosphere increased.
“On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon Temperatures of the Ground” saw the light of day via the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, published in London, Edinburgh and Dublin.
Arrhenius was actually looking at the cause of ice ages, realising there was more to such a dramatic climatic shift than merely the variations in solar radiation, but he stumbled upon a very inconvenient truth for a world in the throes of an industrial revolution. In short, that the higher the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the higher the overall, average global temperatures.
For US President Trump therefore to declare that “nobody really knows” is disingenuous at best, but more certainly calculated to send a signal to his oil and coal industry supporters that the small matter of the end of human life is not gonna get in the way of profits.
It also sends a message to climate change scientists that their already stifled findings are about to be suffocated.
For instance, Bob Walker—one of Trump’s advisers—said in November that NASA should not be funded to do “politically correct environmental monitoring”, but stick to blasting pointy bits of metal into deep space instead. Climate scientists rely on NASA satellites to monitor global environmental changes.
“I think we’re aghast, honestly, that we would even politicize the observations of Earth or that we would differentiate it from planetary science because climate science is planetary science,” commented Sarah Myhre, oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Aghast they may be, but getting more pro-active by the minute. Worried that the Trump administration will wipe out climate change data by pulling funding, meteorologist and writer (slate.com) Eric Holthaus is leading the effort to archive governmental climate data in non-governmental servers… just in case it all goes down.
“We live in an extraordinary moment,” he (under)states. But Holthaus warns against despair: “While defeatism may feel like the only option right now, with something as important as the planet, you can never give up.
“For the next four years, we must constantly remember that a small number of victories are better than none. And now, if we give up, we’ll have none.”
Trump’s presidency may last four years (it may not!), but four years is not such a long time, and he won’t get it all his own way.
The Paris Accord on Climate Change is already in force and underway; Trump can cancel the USA’s participation, but he cannot cancel the Accord.
Likewise, US legislation such as the Clean Power Act, which seeks to cut emissions from power stations, and which is being challenged by Scott Pruitt, a Trump ally and now head of the US EPA, is already up and running in many states, meaning it’s too late to cancel.
“The momentum on climate is depressingly slow, but it’s in the right direction,” says Holthaus, “Trump is a big setback, but it’s not game over.”