Last Wednesday was great. I stepped out into the blistering Leith sunshine, dark shades at dip, and walked about twenty yards before running into a huddle of associates sat outside a Leith Walk boozer, supping lager, soaking up the rays, as you do. Naturally, I joined them. As you do. By late afternoon the temperature had hit 24 degrees and we were sharing the sun block cream and complaining about the ferocity of the heat.
It was the hottest day of the year. I’ve rarely felt Scottish sunshine attack my skin so savagely. My left arm and the left side of my face were a wee bit sore after less than half an hour. No real damage was done. We were grateful. The Scottish summer hasn’t been so brilliant.
I remember vividly the long hot summers of 1976 and 1977. Bliss! Week after week of cloudless skies and pummelling heat. By the end of the summer reservoirs and lochs were running dry and the authorities were worried. Donna Summer and punk rock had arrived. It was the best of times.
Most folk in Scotland, bar farmers, would give their right arm for a long hot summer that lasted for weeks. Instead we get sullen overcast days that seem to drag themselves from June 1st to the end of August.
The same can’t be said for the poor unfortunate souls based in Mitribah in north-west Kuwait. Last Thursday the temperature reached a lung-scorching 54 degrees. That’s 130 degrees Farenheit. A full 17 degrees higher than our blood temperature and over half way to the temperature of boiling water. It has yet to be officially verified but it was claimed this was the highest one day temperature ever recorded on our planet.
The Middle East has been tortured by a ferocious heatwave this year. Basra in Iraq recorded a similar temperature high of 53.9 degrees last Thursday. The death toll across the Middle East has spiked as heatstroke and dehydration combine with electrical failures and water shortages. Hospitals without air conditioning resemble furnaced tombs.
The vicious heatwave has been felt throughout most of the northern hemisphere. Last weekend the US suffocated beneath a so-called “Heat Dome” where high pressure trapped a layer of hot air beneath it. Temperatures reached a blistering 110-115 degrees in some States, such as California. Firefighters are still trying to deal with the raging infernos that resulted.
This can all lead to lazy generalisations. Individual heatwaves or spikes in temperatures can’t all be attributed to climate change, for sure. As 1976/77 showed these phenomena can be cyclical or recurring.
According to both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), every month of 2016 has been the hottest respective month since record-keeping began in 1880. Jan-June have been the warmest first 6 months on record with an average temperature increase of 1.3 degrees.
Hang on a minute you might say. 1.3 degrees higher than the baseline we use for calculating the effect of global warming? Really? This is where I get seriously worried. Not so much for myself but for the wee guys playing with Lego in the next room. 178 countries signed an agreement in Paris last December to try and limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees. (Less than 20 of the countries who signed it in Paris have ratified the agreement.) Yet here we are just seven months later, four years BEFORE the Paris Agreement is due to come into effect, already looking down the barrel of failure and imminent climate catastrophe.
The World Meteorological Organisation issued a stark warning last week that the Earth was on track for its hottest year on record and was warming faster than expected. It stated: “temperatures recorded mainly in the northern hemisphere in the first six months of the year, coupled with an early and fast Arctic sea ice melt, and ‘new highs’ in heat-trapping carbon dioxide levels, point to quickening climate change.”
You’d need a strong stomach to take stock of what is happening to the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets. Last month there were temperatures above freezing at the North Pole and even temperatures as high as 29 degrees on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. These should ease off as low pressures come in but 2016 will still compete with 2012 as the year with the lowest Arctic ice extent in the 38 years since records began. While this is bad news for polar bears it’s the extent of the Greenland ice sheet melting – which affects sea levels – that is of more concern. Greenland lost over a trillion tonnes of ice in the last four years.
The Greenland ice sheet is melting three times faster than in the 19 century.
Before hitting the panic button it’s important to note there are exacerbating circumstances for 2016. The strong El Nino phenomena in the Pacific has undoubtedly contributed to this year’s record global temperatures. 2015 was the previous hottest year in recorded history and it too was affected by El Nino.
However… and I feel a bit queasy about even writing this… the problem with dismissing 2015 and 2016 as El Nino years is the inconvenient truth that 14 of the the last 15 years have been the hottest years on record. Yes, El Nino has died down for now, and it won’t be a factor in global temperatures for the next few years, but what if the cumulative effect of carbon emissions keep the thermometer from going down next year? Then what?
Scientists will nervously monitor global temperatures next year. God help us if 2017 is a hotter year than 2016. If that happens we may reach the point of no return much sooner than anyone thought possible. If a 1.3 degree increase is reached for the first six months of 2016 you have to wonder what’s in store next. If/when a 1.3 degree increase becomes the new baseline then all bets are off.
Maybe global temperatures will ease off in 2017 and give us a period of remission to take effective action. You’d hope so but the problem with hope is that there isn’t much science behind it. We’ve moved into dangerous uncharted waters.
I should end this short commentary here but I’ll be brutally honest. I’m starting to feel a sense of despair about where this is going. The planet’s future hangs in the balance yet we continue to burn carbon and pump CO2 into the atmosphere at self-destructive levels. The petrochemical multinationals, fracking industries, and the oil rich Arab states ignore international treaties and do whatever the hell they want. China opens new coal-powered stations every week. Frack it, extract it, dig it, pump it into the air: it’s business as usual. The days of hoping future governments will fix everything on our behalf are ebbing away.
Articles about climate change rarely get much response either on websites like Bella. Nor do they get much in the way of shares, Likes or Retweets on social media. It’s not just Joe Bloggs who backs off. Political activists are often afraid or sheepish about climate change. Many feel useless, impotent, uninformed, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, or avoid the issue because it can’t be reduced to binary slogans.
I understand that. But it’s not good enough. In 20 years time when my wee guys have swapped Lego for trying to survive in an impoverished world both flooded and made desert; where water, food and electricity will probably be rationed, if they’re lucky; where entire populations may be displaced from uninhabitable hot regions; and when our planet’s ongoing 6th Great Extinction Event has wiped out so many other species; they might wonder what the actual fuck we were doing in 2016 when the alarm bells rang out loud and clear.
My politics have changed since 2014. Independence is still important to me. I still recognise we can do much more, and better, as a self-governing nation. I’ll support Yes 2.0 if and when it comes around. But it’s secondary. Educating ourselves in the realities of climate change, pressurising governments into taking effective action (yes you, Scottish Government, you can start by banning fracking and leaving those newly discovered oil fields exactly where they are, at the bottom of the North Sea), redesigning our lives and our economies for a post-carbon era, have to be the most important political priorities now. This will be the prism and yardstick through which Brexit, the EU, Scottish Independence, trade deals, economic growth, and all future politics will be observed and measured. Time is not on our sides.