Climate Change Notes

By Bryn Glover

The first fully, peer-reviewed analysis of the impact of the covid pandemic on CO2 emissions has just been published, and it indicates that these have fallen at almost exactly the appropriate annual rate that will need to be sustained till 2050 if we have any hope of restricting global heating to 1.5°C. To be clear, that is not to say that all we need to do is hold things as they are after these three months of lockdown with a virtual closure of all airports – it actually means that we shall need to repeat this level of reduction year on year for the next 30 years. Is anyone optimistic?

While we may recognise that such changes to our lifestyles will be necessary and crucial to achieving our climate goals, we should not ignore the fact that others such as the American far right are even now developing counter arguments, warning of what they call the ‘pain to be visited on the people by pro-environmental policies’ and calling upon their fellow citizens to resist all such initiatives. Trump ain’t gone yet, folks!

Here’s a little fact that may be useful in the debate: the incidence of Lyme disease in the United States is steadily rising from around 10,000 reported cases in 1990 to 40,000 in 2018, and health authorities warn that unreported cases may be as many as 10 times these numbers. As well as the immediate effects from the tick-bite, a growing number of sufferers are reporting what is being called ‘chronic Lyme disease’ in which, for reasons not fully understood, the bacteria injected go on to cause a lifetime of arthritis and muscular wasting. The link is that ticks are prospering and their habitats are extending under our warming climate conditions, and, according to a study in China, our best chance to stop the disease spreading is to limit warming to 1.5°C.

The World Meteorological Organisation has just published its latest five-yearly report on Global Climate. This report collects together and precisely codifies all the many factors that are generally well-known concerning global heating, greenhouse gases, dramatic changes in the incidence of droughts and excessive rainfall, sea level rises and glacier losses. Nonetheless, the organisation is optimistic that, building upon the gains forced on us by the covid crisis, we can alter the way we live sufficiently to meet the defined needs of the climate. It is good to be optimistic, but the coming year will reveal to what extent humanity is actually prepared to change its ways. Watch this space! 

Last year, record amounts of CO2 were released into the atmosphere from so-called ‘zombie’ fires occurring across the entire Siberian tundra. Such fires burned throughout the 2019 summer, releasing the equivalent of the annual CO2 output of Belgium. When winter descended, the fires seemed to shut down, but in fact, they continued to smoulder under the ice and snow, and now have broken out again across wide swathes of the Arctic. This phenomenon is a classic case of the ‘positive feedback’ effect that all those who study the climate greatly fear. Just as the loss of Arctic ocean ice enables more solar heating of the water and therefore greater ice loss, so the warming planet causes more and more tundra moss to thaw from the permafrost, and this greatly increases the chances of summer fires surviving as zombies through to the following spring. Zombie fires can actually be extinguished in winter, but to do so will require a much increased programme of ground-level monitoring to detect them.

Good news and bad news for Boris Johnson! A study by the Regulatory Assistance Project (an organisation dedicated to the speeding up of the transition to clean energy) says that this Tory government’s plans will successfully meet its climate change targets. The bad news is that it will take about 1,500 years to achieve, at current rates of progress. The phrase used by the RAP is that Johnson’s plans are ‘staggeringly unambitious’. According to Jan Rosenow of RAP, and to the government’s own committee on climate change, the best course of action would be to press for a greatly increased programme of installing heat-pumps, both air-source and ground source. It proposes that 19 million new pumps before 2050 would just about bring this dozy government back on track. The current incentive scheme, due in any case to end next year, has so far managed only 60,000 such installations. That’s about one third of one percent of what is needed.

Human beings are capable of tolerating often very hot temperature conditions so long as the atmosphere is relatively dry. High humidity will inhibit sweating, and so humid heat is less tolerable, and the limits are defined in terms of measurements made by so-called ‘wet and dry bulb’ thermometers. A ‘wet-bulb’ (TW) limit of 35°C will certainly be deadly, and lower levels such as TW 28°C caused thousands of deaths during the 2003 European heatwave. Significantly, a number of cities in Pakistan and in the United Arab Emirates are now regularly recording readings in excess of TW 35°C, and the consequence of this is that such places will become quite uninhabitable in the foreseeable future.

Just to rub it in for Trump,a study just published in Nature reveals that the recent once-in-a-millennium megadrought in the US and Mexico was almost certainly caused by human-induced climate change!

Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee

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