I have spent most of 2018 following the Brexit negotiations. It looks like being an unmitigated disaster for the UK and the government seem determined to follow through with it no matter what the cost. It is a crisis entirely of the governments own making. It is consuming the attention of government and important policy areas are being ignored.
One area of concern is climate change. I have noticed that there seems to be a correlation between those who are Brexiteers and those who are climate change deniers. Maybe we should simply call them elite disaster capitalists.
Climate change has been nagging at me this year. We are not doing enough. This may be our last chance to get a grip of this crisis, if we have not already passed the point of no return. Climate change is a global issue that needs global solutions, yet our politicians are determined to fight for ideological isolationism because of a perceived exceptionalism. Not since the appeasement policy towards Hitler’s Germany has a British government taken a position that is so dangerous and ill-thought through.
In my opinion 2018 has produced weather events in the UK that can categorically be described as being as a result of climate change. If that is correct these events will only get worse unless we take sustained action to reverse this phenomenon. This action must occur at governmental policy, at business and at personal levels if we are to be successful.
In February and March we were subject to a series of severe winter weather events originating in the east. They were dubbed “The Beast from the East”. Its not unusual to occasionally experience a weather system from the east, but this was sustained. In June, July and August we experienced one of the longest/ hottest heatwaves we have ever had, but it wasn’t just here. It was everywhere. Apart from Iceland and for good reason.
Most of our weather comes from the west as a result of the jet stream, a fast flowing high altitude wind that originates in the tropics and in something of a ‘S’ shape, as it flows around the air masses, delivers weather to the UK and western Europe. This weather tends to be warm and wet. Warm because it originates in the tropics and wet because its picking up water from the Atlantic ocean.
The jet stream is strongly linked to the gulf stream a tidal current that follows the same trajectory in the Atlantic ocean. Together the gulf stream and the jet stream are responsible for our temperate climate. Without it our weather would be much colder.
The gulf stream and the jet stream are caused by the meeting of warm tropical waters and cold arctic waters. The greater the temperature differential the stronger and faster the streams flow. The lesser the temperature differential the weaker and slower the streams flow. Furthermore, the relative strengths of the two bodies of water determine how far north or south the streams flow.
Stay with me, I am getting to the point.
In February this year is was reported that the Arctic temperatures were averaging 15°C warmer than the seasonal norms. There were 60 hours during the same month when the temperature was above 0°C. Previously it had risen above 0°C in February on just two occasions and then only briefly.
Arctic sea ice covered 5.4m sq miles, about 62,000 sq miles smaller than 2017’s record low. All in all, Arctic sea ice has reduced from 100% coverage 30 years ago to just 25% this year. If the reductions continue to increase as seems likely given the temperature information the Arctic could be ice free in around 4 to 6 years.
These factors cause the temperature of the northern Atlantic ocean to rise reducing the temperature differentiation between the warm tropical waters and the colder arctic waters. This has the effect of reducing the strength of the gulf stream and the jet stream.
In the east, cold air masses over the landlocked Siberian plains. As it builds it pushes into Europe. In winter the cold air is halted by the warmer air brought in by the jet stream over central Europe. The warmer wetter air from the Atlantic meets the Siberian air mass and the water vapour cools down, becomes heavy and falls as snow.
In February and March this year the jet stream was not strong enough to push the Siberian air mass back and only resisted its strength over the UK. The snow usually reserved for central Europe fell over the UK.
In the summer we were still under the influence of the considerably warmer Arctic temperatures. As the tropical waters warmed up the North Atlantic ocean this spring the cold Arctic waters offered little resistance having been warmer than usual throughout the winter. The jet stream was pushed north causing Iceland to suffer torrential rains throughout its summer. Meanwhile, south of the jet stream, there was nothing to stop the hot air from Africa and southern Europe encroaching on the UK.
I am sure a geographer or meteorologist could fine tune the points above, but that is how I understand it.
What is not in doubt is that the Arctic is warming up and so is the Antarctic. There is less ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic than there was 30 years ago. There is no evidence that this phenomenon is reversing. As the ice caps melt the temperature of the planet will increase. This is happening and will continue to happen.
The science is inconclusive to what extent this is a man-made phenomenon and to what extent it is a natural phenomenon. This is an irrelevant consideration as if it is partly or even mostly a natural phenomenon it only serves to make the decisions we make about our relationship with the environment and our impact upon it more important.
Greenhouse gases (ghg’s) which are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and tropospheric ozone along with lots of less significant gases absorb and emit radiant energy within the thermal infrared range. Meaning they cause the energy of the sun to heat the atmosphere. Without them there could be no life on this planet. As the amount of ghg’s in the atmosphere increases the average temperature of the planet increases.
Human activities release ghg’s into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, soil erosion and agriculture both livestock and arable. Population growth also need to be considered.
I get irritated by the casual environmentalist who may shout “save the planet”. The planet is big enough and beautiful enough to look after itself. The real question is “do we want there to be human life on this planet in 100 years time?” It doesn’t make quite as good a car sticker though.
Lets make it more personal:
What would we do now for our children or our grand-children to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for their natural lifetime?
If that is not enough to prompt massive change lets see if this is:
What would we do now for ourselves to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for the rest of our natural lifetime?
As things stand we are probably heading for extinction in our lifetime. So says Roger Hallam, an old friend of mine from my Organic Roundabout days. Roger is now a PhD researcher on effective radical campaign design at King’s College in London and he has been an organic farmer for 20 years.
Roger tells us that the historic average global temperature is 12°C. We are already 1.2°C above this historic average. When the northern ice cap disappears in the next 4 – 6 years as we have already discussed temperatures will increase by 0.5°C because the ocean doesn’t reflect heat back to space the way that the ice cap does.
When the full effect on the average global temperature of the carbon already released is realised over the next 10-20 years there will be a further increase of 0.5° C.
That is an average global temperature increase of 2.2°C already locked in and it takes no account of future carbon burning, or the release of methane stored in the permafrost.
When the average global temperature reaches 23°C there will be no difference between the temperature at the poles and the equator. The effect of this is no wind and no ocean currents. When there are no ocean currents the oceans become stagnant. They stop producing oxygen and start producing hydrogen sulphide instead. Hydrogen Sulphide is poisonous, all living creatures will be dead when hydrogen sulphide reaches 200ppm in the atmosphere.
The only question remaining is at what temperature will hydrogen sulphide start to be released from the oceans and how soon will we reach that point.
So I ask the question, “what would we do now for ourselves and for our children and our grand-children to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for the rest of our natural lifetimes?