World a flaming disaster as Earth heats up
Let’s just admit the world is screwed. We’ve exhausted all hyperbole and exclamation-worthy sentences in the quest to capture the extraordinary rate of recent global warming. But here we stand, faced with a planet that keeps getting hotter at an ever-increasing rate of degrees. Picture a caricature of our mostly blue Earth – its once happy face contorted as if crippled by cramps – now blowing out a huge puff of red-hot air.
Yes, you’ve heard it all before. Journalism has shot itself solidly in the foot on this climate change thing, frantically grabbing snappy sayings from the shelf of last resort.
You’re tired of the hysteria, but I need to keep warning you of the danger. This presents a bit of an impasse, so I suggest we ignore the first paragraph. That was a sneaky trick – dangling a squirming worm in front of your hungry eyes so I could reel you in for this. Mea culpa.
Now that you’re here, how about I share some of the stuff that’s been making my curls unfurl and stand on end in the last few months.
You can then use this the next time you’re faced with a circle of vegans talking hemp and ethical consumerism. I figure we both gain from this.
Let’s start 10 000 years ago: an increase of carbon in the atmosphere spawned an agricultural revolution. Maize was king for 9 700 years.
Then some Englishmen figured out that burning coal could drive a piston engine. Mass industrialisation broke out across the world, a process likened to a rash on the earth’s surface by pastoral poets of the day.
This created a truism: the more coal you burn, the more economic units you create. But, in the 1960s, climate scientists started nervously tapping on the shoulders of policy-makers. Turns out burning carbon traps heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet. This was still an abstract conversation at the time.
In the 1990s, the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a warming globe would threaten our survival in the latter stages of the 21st century.
A problem for future us. But then the climate went crazy. Over long periods, record hot years happen once every 150 years. This made 1998 hot, but not exceptional. Then 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015 rudely thrust their way to temperature glory.
The rate of the increases between these years has turned scientists from conservative professionals, speaking verbosely, to humans shredding their political correctness.
American economist Jeffrey Sachs, the usually calm director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said late last year that the Earth’s climate system is having “a complete blowout”.
The shift to relatable words is in no way indicative of a failure in science, but rather in its patience with the intractable global-political structure. The year 2014 was half a degree hotter than the 20th-century average.
Last year was 0.75°C hotter, according to the United Kingdom’s Met Office. Records are usually set by a hundredth of a degree. The northern hemisphere missed out on winter. Its southern counterpart went into a second season of drought. The north pole averaged 0°C in December: 30°C hotter than usual.
Perhaps encouraged by this unfolding catastrophe, world leaders passed the Paris Agreement that month. This set a firm target of keeping global average temperature increases below 2°C.
An aspirational target of 1.5°C was included, mostly to shut up island states who end up underwater in the former scenario. To get there, every country in the world has to rapidly move away from a fossil-fuel-based economy.
But February and March have exposed this plan for its lack of rooting in reality.
Preliminary data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that last month was between 1.15°C and 1.4°C hotter on average than before the Industrial Revolution kicked off. Last Thursday, the northern hemisphere was 2°C hotter than average – the first time in recorded history that this has happened. That sort of increase translates to between a 4°C and 6°C temperature increase across the African continent.
In this southern bit, it means less rainfall coming in more extreme spells, across a small bit of the northeast. Local projections by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research show that this will make the current drought seem pleasant in comparison. Think Mad Max. So, our take-home point here is that it took us 300 years to warm the planet by 1°C and six months to increase it by nearly half as much again.
At this point we enter dangerous territory, where so many of the ecosystems which we rely on start to unravel that our algorithms can’t predict what happens. Heat unlocks heat. This deserves some sort of exclamation mark. But I’ll leave it and end here: facts speak for themselves. Enjoy 2016.