Over the past month we have watched with concern as the North American West has endured extreme high temperatures resulting in many heat related deaths. This week we learnt that in the 2030s we must expect significant flooding caused by extremely high tides triggered by changes in the moon’s orbit referred to as moon wobbles. Then in the last couple of days we watch with concern as Germany, one of the more organized countries struggles to respond to extreme rainfall, with over three times the normal monthly precipitation in just two days, again with significant loss of life.
Each of these events are extreme. By now we should need no reminding of the path we are on to climate disaster. But the fact is, despite 25 COP meetings, the Paris agreement and 18 months of pandemic, our efforts to reduce emissions are reading negative.
This weeks’ events are therefore, sadly a huge wakeup call. But will we listen? We might expect Germany will see some significant shift to the Greens in the upcoming election. But in North America or all of the world’s coastal cities such as London, New York, Singapore, just name a few? Or will we carry on regardless until a climate related catastrophe lands in our own back yard?
I read this week that weather forecasters are focusing on how the increasingly volatile weather systems are making it harder to deliver accurate forecasts. We can all sympathize with this. At the climate gets hotter intense rain showers happen without warning. Prevailing winds that have been stable for decades are no longer reliable. Farmers have been telling me for years they have increasing difficulty in planting and moving livestock because of the unpredictable weather. The forecasters are evidently arguing that they need more sophisticated modeling systems. In essence getting more accuracy of prediction needs many, more frequent data points and this requires huge compute power which comes at significant cost. I would argue attempting to get more accuracy in the 3 – 10 day forecast is a fool’s errand. If any of the impacted populations of North America or Germany had been presented with a dire forecast, would the outcome have been any different? Would it have been believed? Given the (fully understandable) unreliability of conventional weather forecasting it’s unlikely there would be sufficient confidence to implement disaster management actions in preparation for and before the event manifested itself.
Whilst we all understand that weather prediction is inherently imprecise, the same is not true for climate prediction. Future climate is generally going to be more predictable than future weather. And specifically we can model the relationship between future climate and carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. Our confidence in predictions of future climate prediction comes from our knowledge of the past – of glacial and interglacial events over the past millions of years. Analysis of Antarctic ice cores show a correlation between global temperature, carbon dioxide and methane levels. So we can have confidence in modeling the climate with sufficient accuracy for us to plan and implement the necessary infrastructural changes.
Here in Ireland, like many countries, we have sophisticated planning processes and systems that are designed to evolve the major infrastructural systems including transport, water, power etc, and all the local authorities have published their plans and are clearly taking on board the long term needs as major influencing factors in today’s planning systems. In fact, I would have some confidence that in 10 years time, we and similarly advanced countries would be better prepared for extreme events that we have observed this month. Where I really worry is in the developing world. Whether it’s climate, or pandemic, or health, or education, many developing countries are not even at the starting blocks. We all know what this means for the pandemic, and we must expect that nasty variants will continue to emerge from developing nations for some years to some because we haven’t prioritized helping with their vaccination programmes.
But climate disasters are already happening in developing nations and mostly we ignore them.
We need to take on board that climate change is more than just sudden events such as hurricanes, floods, wild fires; it’s gradually changing weather patterns and rising sea levels that are slowly but inexorably causing food shortages, water shortages, pollution and therefore further water shortages and health crises and poverty. These are the immediate effects and they are happening right now. But the second order effects are mass migration, civil and inter country wars. We can already see that many first world countries are embracing right wing governments because of immigration concerns, but this is only the start.
In 2019 I went to a talk by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Climate campaigner. She explained how she had been a latecomer to the climate change issue. But in her UN Human Rights commissioner role she had repeatedly come across climate change as a major problem. And nowhere was worse than Africa.
In her book she highlights climate change impacts already happening. In Mary’s words:
“Farmers in Africa described the erratic nature of their harvests, how they failed to arrive when expected, and how long months of drought would be followed by flash floods that swept away farms and villages. Across the Americas and Asia, people told stories of hurricanes that destroyed homes and hospitals and took out government services, schools and businesses. In the past I had seen images of stranded polar bears and the disappearance of ancient glaciers, but these anecdotal stories from the front lines of climate change suddenly began to match the scientific findings I was reading with increasing concern. . . . While industrial nations continued to build their economies in the backs of fossil fuels, the most disadvantaged across the world were suffering most from the effects of climate change.” Mary Robinson, 2018
In my blog, Happy XMAS (War is Over?),I reviewed Kim Stanley’s masterpiece The Ministry of the Future which described fictional events that caused the world to stop and take notice. The first is a catastrophic heat wave in India, in which the daytime temperature is at least 38 degrees and 65 per cent humidity. People are dying in their thousands. Boiled, poached or roasted, some 20 million die. India is of course very traumatized and there are harsh words spoken about the first worlds’ carbon footprint being responsible for third world disasters. Of course, the whole world is shocked by this event, but as with so many climate events, return to normal happens very swiftly thereafter.
After this there is an event that becomes known as Crash Day. Some sixty passenger jets are downed by drone attacks. Thousands of passengers from all over the world die. Several terrorist groups claim responsibility for the attacks, but in the end no clear responsibility is attributed. Again, the world is very shocked, but very quickly gets over the event and continues to fly just as before. Then just a few months later Crash Day is repeated. And then the message is very clear – do not fly. After this most countries recognize the need to reduce their carbon footprint.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, have the terrible events of this month done sufficient to cause the world to stop, look and listen and then act differently. I would have to say, probably not. But let’s hope there’s sufficient momentum from the newish US administration and the EU to embrace the problem in a meaningful manner. But my last word is about the third world. They are already suffering from the pandemic, and climate is already causing them major grief, but no one cares. And when they have similar climate related disasters the (so called) first world will shed a tear and move on. And when there is mass migration from sub Saharan countries or India/Pakistan, we can expect borders to be firmly shut, if indeed they are not already.
Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018