Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Gaia's Slap

Atmosfear In The 21st Century

For years the world's big polluters poured scorn on the existance of global warming. But with sixty one British meteorological records broken over the last 20 years, climate change and global warming are now an officially acknowledged cause for major concern. In an extensive new investigation, Neil Goodwin unearths the raw truths which compromise our planets' future habitability.

Shortened version appeared in Squall Download 4, May-June 2000, pg. 20.

Red sky at night, so the saying goes, is a shepherd's delight. But ask any gardener or farmer and they'll probably tell you that the ancient folklore which has underlined our expectations of the Great British weather for centuries is looking increasingly dodgy. Throughout the past twenty years every conceivable meteorological record, from warmest November to wettest June, highest temperature to fastest wind, has been broken. In fact, 61 major records have been broken between 1980 and 1999 (see Appendix 1). How many times have we overheard conversations about late frosts and early blooms, or discovered strange exotic insects hiking across our windowsills?

The world is now experiencing the early symptoms of climate change, a process that is set to transform the world's weather beyond all recognition during the next century, and one that will test the human race's ability to adapt and survive to the limit. The Met Office has predicted an increase in Britain's average temperature of up to 3ºC by the end of the next century, and a sea level rise of between two and ten centimetres.

'It doesn't seem that much of a difference when you compare it to day to day weather variability,' says Prof. Phil Jones from the Climate Research Unit. 'But our estimates of how cold it was during the last Ice Age - that it was about somewhere between 5-6ºC colder than today, means we're talking about a rise that will have occurred between 1900 and 2100 of about nearly 3ºC, which is half way to an Ice Age but in the opposite direction.'

Natural disasters are increasing at a terrifying rate, both here and abroad. In 1998 the world suffered more than twice as much environmental damage as during the entire decade of the 1980's, at a cost of £3142.4 billion. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 54 countries suffered from floods and 45 from severe drought.

The polar ice caps, which are particularly sensitive to global climate change, are melting at an alarming rate. In Antarctica, which has experienced a rapid temperature rise of 2.5ºC over the last 50 years, the ice shelf known as Larson A has already collapsed into the sea, while huge cracks have begun to appear in Larson B. Almost 2,000 square miles of Antarctica's southeastern tip has melted throughout the past year, and an consequential iceberg larger than London is currently drifting towards the Argentinian coast.

SOME SCIENTISTS ARE WARNING THAT CLIMATE CHANGE COULD PLUNGE NORTHERN EUROPE INTO A MINI ICE AGE. MELT WATER FROM THE ARCTIC COULD, THEY SAY, WEAKEN AND EVENTUALLY SHUT DOWN THE GULF STREAM WHICH DRAWS UP WARM SALTY WATER FROM THE TROPICS.

Like its European neighbours, Britain has experienced its fair share of floods, droughts, coastal erosion and gales (see Appendix 2). The total cost of weather claims in Britain for 1998 was £3663 million, with some sections of the Midlands being hit by severe flooding three times. 1999 began with the worst floods to hit North Yorkshire in 68 years, and continued to throw up extraordinary natural anomalies such as invasions of jellyfish, and plankton blooms the size of Cornwall. Mini tornadoes are occurring so frequently that our weather forecasts have adopted a whirlwind symbol onto their maps.

Throughout the past ten years Britain has endured four out of five of the hottest years ever recorded over a 330-year period. Scientists from the University of East Anglia have observed that this warmer weather has radically altered the migratory habits of birds such as swallows. Trees are coming into leaf much earlier. Increasing numbers of 'alien' insects and spiders have colonised southern England. These include termites in north Devon, which feed in huge numbers on timber and can cause havoc to homes, the Median Wasp, and the rotund, black and brown spider (one of the "False Widow spiders"), a bite from which can cause considerable pain.

Even the great British cod'n'chips is under threat. A 4ºC rise in winter North Sea temperatures during the past six years has disrupted the breeding patterns of cod and whiting, causing stocks to plummet and prompting the EU to slash catch quotas for the year 2000. At the same time, exotic species such as red mullet, octopus, even Great White sharks have begun arriving in British waters.

Far from lending our climate a pleasant Mediterranean feel - a misconception based on the prediction that Southern England will become frost-free by the end of the next century - some scientists are warning that climate change could plunge Northern Europe into a mini Ice Age. Melt water from the Arctic could, they say, weaken and eventually shut down the Gulf Stream which draws up warm salty water from the tropics. A testament to the present effectiveness of the Gulf Stream in warming British waters comes from a comparison between Britain and Newfoundland on the Canadian coast. Mercifully, although we share the same latitude, we do not share the same icy winters.

The idea of Global cooling may seem decidedly unhelpful to those of us still grappling with the concept of Global warming, but whatever its final manifestation climate change is set to transform every aspect of British life, from how we travel to what we wear, from where we live to what we eat. Business as usual, the politicians are now saying, will not be an option.

"I would say that we are being hit by five related issues," says Sir Crispin Tickell, a Government advisor on the environment. "The first is human population increase, which, in spite of figures starting to come down in certain places, is a major hazard. The second is degradation of land surfaces. The third is shortages of water and the pollution of water. The fourth is the destruction of bio-diversity, so that we no longer have the natural services that we have hitherto enjoyed for free. And the last is climate change."

THE ENVIRONMENT AGENCY REPORT ON THE NORTH WEST OF THE UK IS THE FIRST REGION IN EUROPE TO COMPLETE SUCH A STUDY. IT RECOGNISED CLIMATE CHANGE IS ALREADY A FACT OF LIFE

Despite the best efforts of a diminishing but noisy minority of climate sceptics such as Richard North and Dennis Avery, who continue to muddy the waters by suggesting there is no climate change threat, the government now accepts "the very real threat" that climate change will represent in the 21st Century and has begun to face up to what it describes as "difficult choices".

Last October, the Environment Agency, which estimates that 1.3 million British homes are currently at risk from flooding, launched a £32 million flood awareness campaign called FloodLine. Speaking at the launch was the Rev. Graham St. John, who was one of ten thousand people affected by Britain's most devastating flood which hit Northampton in 1998 killing two people and destroying 2,500 homes and businesses. "What can you say to the couple I was only speaking to last week?" he asked the assembled media. "Aged 80, they'd spent eight and half-hours perched on top of their kitchen work surfaces waiting to be rescued. She was sitting on the cooker. Her husband was sitting there with his legs dangling in sewerage-strewn freezing cold water. There was no escape from it." (see Appendix 3)

The Government has also initiated a number of studies into the effects of climate change on a regional basis across all sectors. These include Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, East Anglia, the Northwest, and the Southeast. As their findings emerge, our understanding of the extent to which climate change will transform Britain during the coming century will become more sophisticated.

The North West became the first region in Europe to complete such a study and recognised climate change as a fact of life. Sea levels at Liverpool, it said, have been rising by one centimetre per decade and average temperatures have been increasing consistently since the 1960s.

It pinpointed potential benefits from 'global warming' such as lower winter heating bills and higher incomes from tourism ('cafe society'), as well as detrimental effects such as coastal erosion ('managed retreat is a serious policy option, but will be controversial'), the increased likelihood of flood and storm damage, and a possible future difficulty in obtaining re-insurance cover. It underlined "the very real need to prepare for an uncertain future as climate change continues." A £325 million government advertising campaign was launched to encourage us to 'do our bit' by car sharing, recycling household waste, and taking a shower instead of a bath. In stark contrast to the scare tactics employed by the Tories over Aids awareness, New Labour's approach seems to be to tickle us into a more responsible attitude towards the environment. In one advert a woman careers down stairs on a death slide and proceeds to turn down her central heating.

AMERICAN CARS AND INDUSTRY CURRENTLY BELCH OUT 25% OF THE GREENHOUSE GASSES THAT CAUSE GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE, YET AMERICAN SOCIETY ONLY AMOUNTS TO 4% OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION

Last March, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced Britain's greenest budget, with 17 measures designed to tackle our over-dependency on the car, a major source of carbon dioxide and an essential nut to crack if Britain is to meet its target of a 20 percent reduction in Carbon Dioxide emissions by 2010.

Of these measures, the introduction of a six percent road fuel duty has proved the most controversial, whipping up the full fury of the Road Haulage Association, and bringing hundreds of blockading lorry drivers onto the streets of London.

On the carrot front, the Chancellor announced subsidies for public transport, bikes and safety equipment and workplace bike parking. But environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth have criticised the Government for failing to invest the estimated £38.4 billion they are expected to raise through their green taxes over the next five years into essential environmental infrastructure and services.

"Government action on renewable energy has virtually ground to a halt," says FoE's Mark Johnson. "The Department of the Environment has let the land-use planning system obstruct the building of new renewable power stations, whilst the Department of Trade and Industry has dragged its feet over providing the real support that's needed to turn renewable energy policies and targets into practical reality." Last November Greenpeace blew a hole in the government's green credentials when it won a High Court action against them and ten oil companies over their failure to protect whales, dolphins and other marine species from the impacts of oil exploration on the Atlantic Frontier.

"We exposed the contradiction at the heart of Government policy," says Lord Melchett, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK. "Their environmental policy says we should cut down the use of fossil fuels to protect the climate and wildlife, while their energy policy tells the fossil fuel industry to go and dig as much oil as they can regardless of the consequences."

THE CARBON DIOXIDE THAT SOCIETY EMITS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE TODAY WILL ONLY ACT ON CLIMATE 50 TO 80 YEARS IN THE FUTURE. THE CLIMATIC CHANGES WE ARE EXPERIENCING TODAY ARE OCCURRING IN RESPONSE TO THE CARBON DIOXIDE WE EMITTED DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

In October 1999 the Met Office issued a grave prediction that if the international community failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, large parts of South America and southern Africa could lose their tropical forests by the 2080's. Eighty million people, they say, could be flooded each year due to rising sea levels, and some three billion people could suffer from increased water stress.

However, according to Peter Bunyard, author of Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, "the radiative thermodynamic physics of the greenhouse effect [The what?! - Ed.] are such as to cause a long delay between the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the time when the effects on the climate actually manifest themselves. Hence, the carbon dioxide that society emits into the atmosphere today will only manifest its influence on the climate 50 to 80 years in the future. Conversely, the climatic changes that we are experiencing today are occurring in response to the carbon dioxide we emitted during the Second World War." Therefore, measures to prevent severe ongoing climatic disruption cannot be taken soon enough.

American cars and industry currently belch out 25 per cent of the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, yet American society only amounts to four per cent of the world's population. Perhaps it's no surprise therefore, to learn that the American government is the vociferous opposser to international agreements designed to limit the level of greenhouse gas emissions.

So, as the world wakes up to the realities of climate change, a key question emerges: Do the politicians of the rich North have the will to risk political suicide by forcing their populations to curb lifestyles based on selfishness and greed?

"The Age of Consumerism has lead us to Climate Change," observes Sir Sonny Ramphel, former Commonwealth Secretary General. "To roll back the dangers, we have got to undo some of the worst aspects of consumerism. And that means a change in lifestyles. The politicians who, in democratic societies, go to the polls promising the moon and the stars, conscious that they cannot fulfil them, are not about to turn around and say 'What I promise you is less of the same'. Until we develop the moral stature at the political level to the people of the rich world, we really will not be facing up to the challenges of Climate Change."

BRITISH MEDIA HAS TENDED TO EXPLOIT EXTREME IMAGES OF CLIMATIC DISRUPTION FOR ITS ENTERTAINMENT VALUE. PROGRAMMES SUCH AS STORM ALERT (BBC) AND EYE OF THE STORM (ITV) EITHER FUDGE OR COMPLETELY IGNORE THE CENTRAL ISSUE OF WHY THESE EVENTS ARE OCCURING

On the surface, the challenge of ending society's love of the open road may seem insurmountable, but it's worth remembering that back in the 1950's and early 1960's a string of man-made natural disasters eventually ended our love of the open fire in cities. Throughout the early part of the 20th Century, Londoner's were caked in approximately 75,000 tonnes of soot per year as factories, power stations and millions of domestic coal fires tore into the country's coal reserves. Those children unfortunate enough to live under the collective shadow of London's three principle power stations (Battersea, Kingston and Bank Side) were plagued by breathing disorders, their growth stunted by a lack of sunshine. An impenetrable cloak of smog dislocated everyday life with public transport grinding to a halt. In the West End the smog sometimes got so bad that audiences could no longer see the stage. With strong echoes of the 'go-hang' attitude of many of today's motorists, the conservative MP Storry Dean told the commons in 1936: "Although I may be told that the smoke from my coal fire assists in poisoning people outside, I prefer that very much to be poisoning myself by a gas fire in my own home."

The killer smog that gripped London for four days in December 1952 eventually claimed 12,000 lives, making it one of the world's worst peacetime disasters. In the aftermath, the government refused to recognise society's contribution to the tragedy. "Members can't blame my colleagues for the weather", Harold Macmillan, the Minister in charge of the government's response, told the House of Commons in January 1953. "I am not satisfied that further general legislation is necessary at present. We do what we can. But the Honourable Gentleman must realise the enormous numbers of broad economic considerations that have to be taken into account". Familiar objections.

In the 1950's Britain was £31/2 billion in debt. Economic imperatives (what today's politicians like to refer to as 'The Real World') far-outweighed environmental concerns. Exploiting the country's coal reserves by selling the best quality stocks to American industry, whilst encouraging the population to burn substandard varieties, was the preferred option. At the same time, calls for Smokeless Zones were strongly resisted.

However, in response to a report calculating that nearly six million Britons were at risk, the government had to be seen to be doing something. In a recently released confidential memo from 1953 (written three years before another killer London smog extinguished a further 1,000 lives in March 1956), Macmillan remarked "Ridiculous as it appears, I suggest we form a committee. We cannot do very much, but we can be seen to be very busy, and that's half the battle nowadays". He went on to say "There are some short term things which we can do. We can gain popularity by them. The masks etc.'

Macmillan knew that flimsy strips of cloth (masks) offered no protection against deadly levels of pollution but he nevertheless ordered the NHS to divert scarce funds towards the distribution of three million of the useless items. By the time London suffered from its last killer smog in 1961, the government's policy of "be[ing] seen to be very busy" had failed to save an estimated 100,000 lives.

The 1956 Clean Air Act did, however, spell the beginning of the end for the domestic open fire in British cities. A ruthless economic system, one heavily reliant on the coal industry and scandalously disregarding of public safety, could no longer sustain the barrage of man-made tragedies. Back then, of course, fashionable green-wash phrases such as 'sustainability' formed no part of the political vocabulary. But Macmillan arguably became one of the first modern day politicians to realise, that no amount of political manoeuvrings can prevent a society run on unsustainable practices from ultimately hitting the environmental buffers.

There lies the lesson for Britain's present car economy. Today, exhausts have replaced chimneys; public transport still grinds to a halt, and inner city kids have swapped rickets for asthma. Traffic pollution now kills up to 24,000 people in Britain every year. During the summer of 1991, in circumstances very similar to those that occurred in 1952, traffic smog killed 180 Londoners. Add to these grim statistics the effects we are now experiencing from climate change, and it can only be a matter of time before the economic benefits to be reaped from the car are completely negated by the cost of dealing with the environmental fallout. The question is, how long? And in the meantime, we will know soon enough whether recent government initiatives to curb car dependency are anything other than a process of "be[ing] seen to be very busy", by a marked drop in traffic levels.

AS HURRICANE MITCH, THE ORISSA CYCLONE AND, MORE RECENTLY, THE VENEZUALAN AND MOZAMBIQUEN FLOODS HAVE SO RUTHLESSLY DEMONSTRATED, MANY THOUSANDS WILL UNDOUBTEDLY LOSE THEIR HOMES AND LIVES.

Like Sir Sonny Ramphel, Dr. Mick Kelly, from the Climate Research Unit, senses the need for 'a new kind of politician - a politician that's concerned about the next generation. How our children will fair as we move into the 21st Century.'

But as society moves beyond a purely preventative approach to climate change and steps up the process of actually dealing with the symptoms, there is, he recognises, the potential for an entirely new set of political challenges: "The challenge now is can we actually protect the whole population, even though that may prove very costly? Do we have to take difficult decisions about levels of protection which may mean that we leave some people exposed simply because it would cost too much to provide them with an absolute"level of protection? So these are questions we have to address.'

Climatic change has always had a profound influence on the course of human history. In 1816, for example, 'the year without a summer', widespread crop failures led to social unrest throughout Europe, producing a revolutionary fervour that swept the continent for nearly three years. Whilst the fall out from the Napoleonic Wars was undoubtedly a major contributory factor, the proximate cause of this upheaval was a change in the composition of the global atmosphere following a series of violent eruptions of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia.

In 1845, the second warmest summer of the nineteenth century followed by sustained bouts of rain created the ideal conditions within which the potato blight Phytophthora infestans could devastate Ireland's number one staple crop. During the next few years more than a million people perished from malnutrition and millions more were forced to migrate towards wealthier countries such as the United States.

The Black Death, which swept the world in the 14th Century, had its origins in China where the first reported deaths occurred in 1333. One year earlier, as a result of the same global climate changes that produced constant rains and famine throughout Europe, unusually heavy rainfall in China caused the largest flood of the Middle Ages when the Yellow River burst its banks and caused an estimated seven million deaths (and seven million decomposing corpses).

"There can be no doubt that the waters had dislocated the habitats of the wildlife as well as the human settlements, including those of the plague carrying rodents," observes the climate historian Hubert H. Lamb in Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance. "It is probably no coincidence that the Bubonic plague epidemic, which ultimately swept the world as the Black Death, started in 1333 in China."

No one can accurately predict the socio-economic effects of climate change this time around. However, as Hurricane Mitch, the Orissa cyclone, and, more recently, the Venezuelan and Mozambiquen floods have so ruthlessly demonstrated, many thousands will undoubtedly lose their homes and lives. Whole countries could become uninhabitable. Once again, food shortages could exacerbate an array of historical tensions and resentments. Water wars, environmental refugees, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever could cripple entire continents.

So far the British media has tended to exploit extreme images of climatic disruption for their entertainment value. Programmes such as Storm Alert (BBC) and Eye of the Storm (ITV) either fudge or completely ignore the central issue of why these events are occurring, or how they might impact on future generations. The BBC never places environmental disasters, however cataclysmic, into a context of climate change. Though, last December, Channel 4's Jon Snow arguably became the first British news presenter to actually utter the C-words in relation to a major disaster (the Venezuelan floods).

Britain's media seems to be stuck on the idea that each and every environmental issue that it covers has to be, by its very nature, controversial. The cut and thrust of studio debate may make for good television, but as far as the issue of Climate Change is concerned, there is now a broad scientific consensus (95 per cent of the scientific community) which accepts that human activity is impacting on the Earth's climate at an unprecedented rate. Whilst the government could be accused of double standards in urging us, on the one hand, to drive our cars less, whilst licensing more oil exploration in the North Atlantic on the other, even it regrets the decades that have been lost to the misinformation sown by the fossil fuel lobby. Even so, the mainstream media still persists in dragging the debate down to the level of climate sceptics versus green lobbyists.

So what, if anything, is your average person supposed to make of it all? Given the extent to which the debate around climate change has largely been conducted above our heads with liberal sprinklings of scientific gobbledegook - not a lot, says Charlie Kronick, from the Climate Action Network: "If any global issue has been dogged by the democratic deficit, it's climate change. People you don't know, are telling you things you don't understand, about a problem you can't be sure you have, and instructing you to do things (like drive less or use less energy) that you feel that you can't achieve. It is soul destroying, dis-empowering and has encouraged a complete opt out on the part of the public. "Climate change as an issue has been dominated by the experts, whether from Government, the scientific establishment or environment groups. To have any relevance beyond this "ghetto", it will need to register within real communities, with real people, who are willing to make real change happen."

Neil Goodwin is currently making a documentary about the effects of climate change on the UK. Anyone interested in taking part in the debate, or with information he might find useful, should contact him on brendar@cwcom.net 


APPENDIX 1

BRITISH WEATHER RECORD BREAKERS 1980-1999

TOTAL: 61 MAJOR METEOROLOGICAL RECORDS SET IN 20 YEARS.

1980

1981

1982

1983

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

Source: Trevor Harley, Dundee University. 


APPENDIX 2

GREAT BRITISH STORMS AND FLOODS 1980-1999

TOTAL: 59 FLOODS IN 20 YEARS (14 considered to be either 'extensive', 'severe', 'serious' or 'widespread')

1980

1981

1982

1983

1984

1985

1986

1987

1988

1989

1990

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

Source: Trevor Harley, Dundee University. 


APPENDIX 3

FLOOD - A victim's experience

Revd. Graham St. John-Willey founded Flood Alert after being flooded out in Northampton in 1998. He has conducted a number of studies into the psychological effects of the flood on his friends and neighbours.

"On that dreadful night, Alice and I were woken by a neighbour, urgently knocking on our front door to say that his relatives, who live just a short distance away, already had over a meter of water in their home. And the clichE9 'It could never happen to us' sprang to mind again and again as we realised the seriousness of the situation.

"We couldn't stop the water once it reached the door, but we were able to slow its entrance. We used grow bags from the garden to barricade the back door. And later we put down towels and curtains to block an inner door, as we moved as much of our furniture and belongings as we could upstairs.

"But in the end the water just burst through the floorboards. We could hear it coming in. And with the power cut off it was dark and horrible and frightening.

"What can you say to the couple I was only speaking to last week? Aged 80, they'd spent eight and half-hours perched on top of their kitchen work surfaces waiting to be rescued. She was sitting on the cooker. Her husband was sitting there with his legs dangling in sewerage-strewn freezing cold water. There was no escape from it.

"2,500 homes and businesses in Northampton were inundated. Ten thousand people were affected. Two died. Hundreds were made homeless. Many, like us, have still not returned to their home. And some never will."


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