The era of global warming has ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived”. That’s what the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres has said hours after scientists confirmed what many had already suspected. July is on track to be the hottest month on record. The past three weeks have been the hottest since records began. He had more to say:
“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa and Europe, it is a cruel summer. For the entire planet, it is a disaster. And it is just the beginning. It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels] and avoid the very worst of climate change. But only with dramatic, immediate climate action. Humanity is in the hot seat and for scientists, it is unequivocal – humans are to blame.”
All this, he said, was entirely consistent with predictions and repeated warnings. The only surprise is the speed of the change. The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable, and the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.
Politicians, he said, had to act swiftly: “It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C and avoid the very worst of climate change but only with dramatic, immediate climate action. We have seen some progress – a robust rollout of renewables and some positive steps from sectors such as shipping – but none of this is going far enough or fast enough. Accelerating temperatures demand accelerated action.”
Guterres was not the only world figure to make that demand. The World Meteorological Organisation secretary general, Petteri Taalas, said: “The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever before. Climate action is not a luxury but a must.
After a scary week for thousands of British holidaymakers caught up in the hellish heat and forest fires of Greece these warnings will carry even more force. Wildfires have struck at least nine countries across the Mediterranean as well as other countries in north Africa.
But perhaps we should acknowledge that wildfires are common in countries like Greece. I know that from my own experience. I have a home in the Peloponnese and a son and grandchildren living in Athens. But they’ve never seen anything quite like this. The prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis put it in stark terms when he spoke to the Greek parliament: “The climate crisis is already here and it will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters”.
Some commentators make the point that the crisis is so great we simply cannot grasp its scope and its implications. How else, they ask, to explain the fierce arguments in countries such as ours about even relatively modest proposals, such as imposing restrictions on what vehicles we should drive or how we should heat our homes and insulate them? And, if scientists agree that burning fossil fuels pumps even more carbon into our already polluted atmosphere, why do we direct so much anger against those protesters who demand a ban exploiting our few remaining oil and gas reserves?
As Guterres pointed out in such dramatic language, there can no longer be any argument as to whether the world is getting hotter. Our own Met Office had already confirmed that last year was the hottest on record in this country. All four seasons were in the top 10 hottest since records began in 1884. It issued its first ever “red warning” for extreme temperatures. It was also the first year in which a temperature above 40C (104F) was recorded in the UK. That was also the hottest on record. There were 638 more deaths than normal across the country. And the experts warn that the unprecedented heat is a sign of things to come. And they also warn that it’s human activity to blame.
Mike Kendon, the lead author of the report, said: “The observations show that extreme temperatures are changing faster than the average and, as our climate warms, we expect far more high temperature records to be broken, potentially by wide margins, and far fewer low temperature records.” If carbon emissions continue at roughly their present rate, 2022 will be considered a cool year. The science, says Kendon, is clear: “The longer we take to reduce emissions, the longer and harder it will be to reduce the impacts that we are seeing.”
So, as the Guardian put it in a leading article this week, what was long predicted is now happening. Earth’s weather systems are increasingly disrupted and destructive as a consequence of the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition to devastating heatwaves in the northern hemisphere, and their role in igniting forest fires, high sea temperatures over recent months have led scientists to reiterate their warnings that we are moving fast into uncharted, dangerous territory.
Climate models, the Guardian concedes, have always allowed for uncertainty: For decades, scientists have been certain of the direction of travel: towards increased heat, risk and instability. But how precisely the crisis would manifest, in what order systems would break down, and how the knock-on effects would unfold, remains a subject for research and discussion… One new study has suggested that a tipping point could be approaching, and that the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has, in this respect, been too conservative.
It continues: “The causes of record-breaking ocean temperatures are also being investigated. While an El Niño weather event was expected this year, it is not regarded as a sufficient explanation of the ocean temperature rises recorded since April. Heat is also thought to be causing the colour of the oceans to be changing from blue to green, due to increased plankton. The situation is particularly concerning because we have relied on the oceans to absorb 90% of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases. Dr Bernadette Sloyan, a marine scientist in Australia, has compared their role to that of an air conditioner.
“Warmer seas present specific dangers, both to human and marine life: melting ice sheets; sea level rises (because water expands when heated); coral bleaching; more intense storms; lower oxygen levels causing fish to die. But they are also an indication of the overall pressure that global heating is placing on nature. The Earth’s capacity to stabilise the amounts of energy entering and leaving the planet’s system is reaching its limits for current patterns of existence.”
There’s no question that this is a terrifying scenario. What adds to the fear for many is what the Guardian describes as the “inadequacy” of national and international responses to the emergency. Despite decades of pledges made under the auspices of the UN’s climate process, global emissions are at an all-time high. It is hard to fathom, it says, what further evidence is needed to persuade governments that a drastic change of course is the safest option.
It is clear that the countries and businesses that are most strongly reliant on fossil fuel profits will not willingly give them up: “Whether and how they can be convinced or compelled to do so is the existential question of our times”.
Last weekend the G20 bloc of nations – which produce 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions – failed to reach agreement on phasing down fossil fuels. This November’s round of UN talks, Cop28, is being held in the United Arab Emirates and led by Sultan Al Jaber, who also heads his country’s national oil company. As forests burn and the sea turns green, says the Guardian, “the necessity of confronting vested interests – including energy-intensive western-type lifestyles as well as the corporations that depend on fossil fuels for profits – becomes more desperate by the day.”
And yet, even as these apocalyptic scenarios are envisaged by respected scientists the world over, there is still scepticism on the part of some influential politicians. Indeed the former cabinet minister Lord Frost, who has many admirers in the Tory Party, says it’s time to “move away” from “high cost” policies designed to halt climate change and focus on cheaper measures that will reduce the impact of events such as flooding. He has praised Rishi Sunak for softening his line on the green agenda in light of the cost of living crisis.
Indeed, he goes further and suggests that climate change could even be “beneficial” for Britain because some experts have suggested that milder winters could save thousands of lives.
Where do you stand? Obviously it’s impossible for those of us who lack scientific knowledge, let alone are capable of understanding the complexities of climate change, to make an informed judgement so perhaps the question should be: who do you believe? Are you persuaded that the shocking events in the Mediterranean are the result of climate change? Or have at least been exacerbated by it? And do you believe our politicians are prepared to take measures that might prove hugely unpopular with many voters?
Perhaps most important, if you are really scared of what climate change might do to our planet, what are you personally prepared to sacrifice to help limit its effects?
Let us know.