1 February 2013

Will extreme weather bring climate action?


By Alexis Rowell. First published in Transition Free Press, Spring 2013.

If climate change was the global crisis which drew many into the Transition movement, then 2012 was the year it became almost impossible for the rest of the world to ignore the link between extreme weather events and climate change.

There was of course Hurricane Sandy, the most violent tropical storm since Katrina, which ravaged the Caribbean and the US East Coast, killing more than 250 people, and causing widespread flooding and physical damage. But 2012 was also the worst drought in the US since the dustbowl era of the 1930s. And, with 9.2m acres burnt, it was the third worst wildfire season in US history.

The United Kingdom experienced its wettest summer for 100 years and 2012 as a whole was the second wettest year since records began, just a few millimetres short of the record set in 2000. There was also extreme flooding in Australia, Thailand, Western Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, Argentina and China, plus unusual and devastating temperature lows in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Scientific institutions like the Tyndall Centre in the UK, NASA in the US and the United Nations World Meteorological Organisation (UNWMO) in Geneva fell over themselves to say that the increasing number of extreme weather events was the result of manmade global warming.

In the words of the UNWMO: "Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." Global carbon emissions are now 58% higher than in 1990, the year the international community first started talking about reducing them.

The 2012 UN climate negotiations in Doha are widely agreed to have been a disaster. Teresa Anderson of Transition Town Totnes, who was at the conference, said: “Doha is essentially an agreement to do absolutely nothing.”

Alongside the extreme weather events came climate trends that scientist dared not dream of five years ago. The most terrifying was the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, which reached a new annual minimum in September 2012. Until recently, most scientists thought it would be the second half of this century before the ice started to melt appreciably. Now Arctic experts like Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University say it could all be gone by 2015.

If the ice cover goes, then the sea will soak up the sun’s heat rather than reflecting it back out into space. Prof. Wadhams calculates that the loss of the Arctic sea ice in the summer will have a warming effect roughly equivalent to all human activity to date and could roughly double the rate of warming of the planet as a whole.

But that’s just for starters. Trapped by cold and pressure under the Arctic Ocean are billions of tonnes of frozen methane, which is 40 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. As the Arctic warms up, the risk of catastrophic discharges of methane into the atmosphere increases.

Peter Lipman, Chair of the Transition Network, said: "Looking at the latest climate science can have a terrible and disempowering impact, but the worse it gets, the more I feel I’ve got nothing to lose by having a go at making some positive difference. This is a global challenge, and the more we build Transition into a strong worldwide movement, the more we give ourselves a chance of responding in a proportionate way.”

And there are some hopeful signs. Young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the UN into action. The recently published US National Climate Assessment, compiled by more than 300 scientists, was unequivocal: the US is going to become a lot hotter, drier and more disaster-prone because of manmade climate change.

And at last, opinion polls show Americans now accept the concept of manmade climate change and support action to combat it. Perhaps as a result, President Obama is talking about hosting a climate change summit.

“We in the US Transition movement are hopeful that the time has finally arrived for some actual progress to be made on climate change here,” said Scott McKellan of Transition US. “Transition groups, along with other grass-roots organisations such as 350.org, can play a key role in creating "bottom-up" support for meaningful action,” he added.

It’s been tough over the last year for those of us who have been fighting for action on climate change, especially as more and more unconventional fossil fuel sources are discovered, thereby dashing the hopes of those who thought Peak Oil might ride to the rescue of climate change. But weather is a strange beast. It affects everyone. It brings reality home. It’s impossible to deny that the world’s weather is weirding dramatically.

Maybe this is what will help to move the majority towards the minority like Transition Initiatives who’ve been holding the big picture these last few years. Maybe extreme weather is what will finally join up the dots.

By Alexis Rowell. First published in Transition Free Press, Spring 2013.