Give those we love the climate they deserve

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country's civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country’s civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Over the next week I hope to be spending time with those I love the most. But this week I’ve been reading the latest newsletter from Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about the horrible situation in Syria. The country’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011, with a toll that puts the good fortune me and my family enjoy into chilling context.

It’s estimated that there have been 120,000 deaths with over 4.5 million – in a country of just 22.5 million – having to leave their homes. Though that’s a lot of people, I am increasingly numb to the numbers, like many of you might be. But the stories from MSF really hit home. Yes, Syria had serious problems before the war, but it had a comparatively good health system. Now, if you have asthma, diabetes, or appendicitis, it can be life threatening. Ever more children are being born with severe defects, possibly due to the mothers not getting enough folic acid in their diet.

Though there are many factors behind the conflict, an important one is a drought that hit the country’s poorest areas in early 2011. Commentators have highlighted that droughts in Syria have become more common in recent years, linking this to climate change. Earlier this month, US scientists reported that a recent three year drought in Syria was too unusual to be a natural event. All of us who use fossil fuel energy likely bear some responsibility.

While it’s always hard to be certain about such links, they’re backed up by what University of California, Berkeley’s Ted Miguel told me in August. “Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 2°C over the next half century,” Ted told me. “Our findings suggest that global temperature rise of 2°C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions where such conflicts are most common.”

Earlier this month, Jim Hansen from Columbia University in New York and his team warned that even world average temperatures 1°C above pre-industrial levels would be dangerous. The Earth has already warmed 0.8°C in the past 100 years, meaning that threshold is near. And many other researchers I’ve spoken to this year have found evidence that shows the dangers.

Dangers on many fronts

An iceberg calved in the the Jakobshavn fjord in Greenland in 2005. The progress of the Jakobshavn Glacier towards the sea has sped up two-fold in the last decade as the result of melt water lubricating the glacier bed. Credit: Konrad Steffen, University of Colorado at Boulder

An iceberg calved in the the Jakobshavn fjord in Greenland in 2005. The progress of the Jakobshavn Glacier towards the sea has sped up two-fold in the last decade as the result of melt water lubricating the glacier bed. Credit: Konrad Steffen, University of Colorado at Boulder

For example, Jim highlights melting ice sheets raising sea level and submerging global coastlines. He notes that sea level estimates are controversial, as they focus on how much of a rise will have happened by the year 2100. But the speed of the rise would still be increasing, as CO2’s greenhouse gas effects last for centuries. In August Kosuke Heki from Hokkaido University in Japan told me how his new technique confirms that ice loss from Greenland is already accelerating.

Other effects might already be noticeable. Jim’s team also points to predictions that alternating wet and dry zones that occur from the equator to the poles will shift, affecting all species living in those areas. “Humans may adapt to shifting climate zones better than many species,” they write.  “However, political borders can interfere with human migration, and indigenous ways of life already have been adversely affected.”

Because we rely on water, we also need to look at the other ways rainfall shifts can happen. In October Jessica Tierney from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, told me how ocean bed mud showed past abrupt rainfall changes in the Horn of Africa. Understanding and predicting such switches is especially important as the region’s political instability already makes it a breeding ground for terrorism and piracy.

Warming is already showing that it can kill many species, like the seaweed dying off during a record-breaking heat wave in Australia in 2011. That puts us at risk of undermining ecosystem functions like pollination, which is critical for food production, and resilience from losing key species in food chains. Higher temperatures can also directly harm our health, for example raising the risk of flu epidemics.

And we all dislike and fear rainfall and temperature extremes – droughts, floods, heat waves and deep freezes. In February, University of Adelaide’s Seth Westra told me about his massive study that showed extreme rainfall intensifies by around 7% per 1°C warming. Meanwhile, Xiangdong Zhang at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, found that intensified high pressure patterns explain Europe’s recent intensely cold winters, amid increasing average temperatures worldwide.

“Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man”

CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuel use including flaring, burning of unwanted natural gas by oil rigs, and cement manufacture, are continuing to rise dramatically. Image copyright Hansen et al, see reference below, used via Creative Commons license.

CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuel use including flaring, burning of unwanted natural gas by oil rigs, and cement manufacture, are continuing to rise dramatically. Image copyright Hansen et al, see reference below, used via Creative Commons license.

Through factors like this, the changing climate can and does put pressure on our world, edging us all nearer to crises like those in Syria. And Jim Hansen really slams home that these effects are unfair – they will hit our children, grandchildren and unborn descendants far harder than they’ll affect us. To avoid leaving those who follow us to deal with these problems his team concludes that there must be a price on the right to emit CO2. That’s not enough by itself, as the University of East Anglia’s Annela Anger-Kraavi explained last week, so Jim also argues for huge government effort to switch to clean energy.

Yet this year in the UK, where I live, energy suppliers questioned about their prices have often highlighted the country’s carbon price. As a result, the government has said it will roll back requirements for power companies to help make homes more energy efficient. Personally, I think the energy companies are trying to shift blame away from themselves – renewable energy has sent electricity prices tumbling in Germany – but that doesn’t really matter. An army of experts is telling us that a carbon price is our best hope for helping our societies avoid predictable environmentally-linked crises. For that, I actually don’t mind paying a little more for energy – though I’m damned sure I won’t let the suppliers take advantage of that.

It’s easy to argue for the right action, but it can be difficult it to put into practice. Faced with such challenges, doubt can creep in, hope can get lost, and we can stop pushing to make the right things happen. But if we do this we could end up with very different, and much worse, fights on our hands. Jim Hansen reminds us of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 ‘strategy of peace’ speech, which puts the reasons to never give up uniquely well. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable – and we believe they can do it again.”

  • You can donate to the UN’s Syria appeals here and here. You can also join or donate to MSF here.

Journal references:
Solomon M. Hsiang, Marshall Burke, Edward Miguel (2013). Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1235367
James Hansen, Pushker Kharecha, Makiko Sato, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Frank Ackerman, David J. Beerling, Paul J. Hearty, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Shi-Ling Hsu, Camille Parmesan, Johan Rockstrom, Eelco J. Rohling, Jeffrey Sachs, Pete Smith, Konrad Steffen, Lise (2013). Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648
Koji Matsuo, Benjamin F. Chao, Toshimichi Otsubo, Kosuke Heki (2013). Accelerated ice mass depletion revealed by low-degree gravity field from satellite laser ranging: Greenland, 1991-2011 Geophysical Research Letters DOI: 10.1002/grl.50900
Jessica E. Tierney, Peter B. deMenocal (2013). Abrupt Shifts in Horn of Africa Hydroclimate Since the Last Glacial Maximum Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1240411
Westra, S., Alexander, L., & Zwiers, F. (2012). Global increasing trends in annual maximum daily precipitation Journal of Climate DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00502.1
Zhang, X., Lu, C., & Guan, Z. (2012). Weakened cyclones, intensified anticyclones and recent extreme cold winter weather events in Eurasia Environmental Research Letters, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044044
Koji Matsuo, Benjamin F. Chao, Toshimichi Otsubo, Kosuke Heki (2013). Accelerated ice mass depletion revealed by low-degree gravity field from satellite laser ranging: Greenland, 1991-2011 Geophysical Research Letters DOI: 10.1002/grl.50900

One Response to “Give those we love the climate they deserve”

  1. Mike Brown Says:

    Finishing the year on a high with this one Andy – it really makes thought provoking reading MB!


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