Feeling the heat yet?

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 19.01.38Last 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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 19.02.52The 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.”

Arctic Ice meltYou’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.

Comments (37)

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  1. Douglas says:

    All well and good, Kevin, but pales into insignificance compared to the news that Prince Harry regrets not talking to someone about Diana’s death….

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      There are so many squirrels to see. If only there were white Arctic squirrels.

  2. nick says:

    absolutely…states however are the obverse of capital, the state and capital co-evolved so thats the problem…its the 1% again really that is stopping any meaningful action, take away their money and democratise the state (into a community of communities) we can actually save the planet…

    presently capital is in its knees (0%/negative interest rates), breaking up the eu means breaking up the geographical fix that has allowed profitability to be restored (at the expense of workers) after the stagflation of the 1970’s (and scottish independence will further undermine international capitals ability to suck the planet dry as well as weakening the grid-locked international state-system)

  3. Christie says:

    Excellent work Kevin. It’s long past time we started learning to leave it in the ground.

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      I hope political voices will have the courage and sense to speak out against drilling new fields in the North Sea. With the collapse of oil prices now is as good a time as any to start planning the transition to a post-oil economy.

  4. David Millar says:

    It’s too late; we’ve passed the tipping point. Future generations will, rightly, curse us.

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      You might be right but it would be a kick in the teeth to our kids if we didn’t at least try and salvage as much a possible.

    2. Craig Banks says:

      There is absolutely no evidence to support a ‘tipping point’. The climate is fundamentally stable. The article is also flawed. To state that a recent day was hotter than ever before on this planet just undermines the credibility of the writer.

  5. G H Graham says:

    When I don’t need a warm jacket in in July, I’ll start to take notice.

    Otherwise, so what?

    1. Lynsey says:

      That’s the problem when folk think global warming just means we get decent summers in Scotland. Maybe doing one, or all, of these free courses will help you get better informed about climate change? https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/collections/climate-change

  6. John Page says:

    Excellent piece, Kevin. And you don’t mention the methane farting out of the thawing Arctic tundra at an alarming rate.
    The only way to avoid disaster is to react like Britain did in 1939 or like Cuba after the Soviet collapse: total war footing, completely centralised control of the economy, digging for victory etc.
    Instead of that we are going to spend £205bn (before Brexit induced currency losses) on Trident……generals rehearsing the battles of the last war.
    FFS.
    And we are going to frack and set fire to coal mines.
    FFS.

    John Page

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      With 100,000s of homes under threat from flooding that should be a priority. But when you compare £205bn being spent on nuclear defence but only £2.3billion earmarked for flood defences (in England) you can see where Westminster’s priorities lie. The cost of flood defences will increase yearly too as temperatures rise.

  7. Maureen Wright says:

    Plus the largest source of methane emissions is animal agriculture. To really make a difference become a vegan.

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      Agriculture has so far managed to avoid being closely aligned to climate change in the public’s eye. I’m a meat eater but can see the days of a meat freeforall coming to an end.

      1. tartanfever says:

        I decided to take out one of my ‘beef’ meals every week and make it a vegetarian dinner. and trying to concentrate that meal on local, organic vegetable and fruit produce.

        I suppose if everyone did that it could have quite a compound effect, plus, it made me more knowledgable about my diet.

    2. Colin Mackay says:

      I’ve made the switch fairly recently to pescatarian(can’t quite lose the fish being an islander). I’d hope schools are teaching the benefits of vegetarian eating and the dramatic effect the vast overconsumption of meat is having on the planet. Care for the planet has to start there surely, with future generations knowing the score.

    3. seonaidh says:

      Agree. Being vegetarian is an easy personal step for almost anyone. Even being vegan isn’t as hard as it once was. My kids are veggie and fortunately w/o eating much in the way of ‘meat replacements’ – it’s good to teach the bairns compassion as much as for health reasons.

      Maybe just one small step in taking action for the environment but the more, the better.

      https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/18/vegetarianism-save-planet-environment

    4. Lynsey says:

      To think I first heard them talking about the effect of farming animals on greenhouse gases, as they were called then, in the mid 80s. Aye, Thatcher herself quoted it. Nae wunner we despair.

      1. tartanfever says:

        I remember that story being on ‘Newsround’ with John Craven when I was a kid.

        Estimates are that there are around 1.3 billion farmed cows on the planet, each which can produce in excess of 50 litres of methane per day – methane being some 15 times more toxic to our atmosphere than CO2.

  8. Martin Hamilton says:

    In 2016 we chased Pokemon. In cars. Until the health and wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants are considered more important than the ‘economy’ by the powers that be, nothing will change.

    I would like nothing better than a realisation that this way of life cannot continue. But where to start? Stop driving? Ban air travel? Get everyone to grow their own food?

    Our way of life has become so false and detached from the natural world that the change required would feel brutal to most.

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      The hardest part of challenging climate change is trying to work out what to do as individuals. Lifestyle changes seem to me inevitable for any kind of sustainable future but in the short term I’d suggest the priority has to be putting massive pressure on governments to take effective climate action. That in itself needs a more informed populace. Books need read!

      1. John Page says:

        FutureLearn and Coursera are platforms for universities to offer short, free and high quality courses on climate related topics. These are called moocs (massive open online courses) and I would recommend them highly having done a number since retiring. You can do them via a mobile phone.
        But the best recent book by far is Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.
        The Story of Stuff animation/web site is also brilliant.
        Thanks
        John Page

        1. Lynsey says:

          The first of Future Learn’s series of seven course on the programme called ‘Understanding Climate Change’ has just started! https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/climate-from-space

  9. Sonny Crocket says:

    Well not in my name anymore! i got meself a wee electric car that feeds of solar panels on my roof. Works brilliantly you ice folk (internal combustion engine) should really consider this.

    1. Lynsey says:

      Which car did you get? I was looking at the Nissan leaf and the van version just last night.

  10. bringiton says:

    The only way to get politicians across the globe to agree to do something meaningful about this is through economics.
    They will only pay lip service to emission regulation as long as fossil fuels are still the cheapest form of energy for powering their economies.
    Most of them (excluding the Chinese) are in it for the short term and it is going to take time for renewables to completely replace traditional methods of energy supply.
    Meantime we reap the whirlwind,hurricane,typhoon etc of climate change,including the Chinese.

  11. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    Remember: ‘think global, act local’?

    Begin at home and develop action in your locality: activate and motivate community councils to hold unitary council to account for their carbon emission reduction policies. Aim to develop locally grown food to reduce food miles. Work on campaigns to influence supermarkets.

    These things are happening already, but too slowly and still too small.

    Join the Scottish Greens and give Patrick Harvie, Andy Wightman et al more clout.

  12. c rober says:

    But what about this solar panel dumping we hear of to protect EU manufacturers , just like china steel , or the nimbys with onshore turbines , or the media and utils in bed to say that our leccy bills are going up due to green agendas? People dont look long term , never mind politicians.

    I can see through the above that I mentioned , and agree that there is a climate change despite deniers.

    I think I mentioned somewhere before that I travel throughout europe , so I do see or hear that things have changed climatically , from older mostly subsistence multi-generational EU farmers , but those sub 45 years on the earth are oblivious just as much as those that are older in the UK , and want the eco generation gone for the above reasons.

    El nino , or is it nina , well the scientists are getting a little worried that desalination is meaning less movement north and south will become the normal pattern.

    I reckon there is a future for local generation and storage of Hydrogen gas at the property level , where the down time peak of eco generation would not only mean cheaper energy but also a way to use fuel cell for cars and homes , where that fuel is half the price of even LPG PKM , importantly removing the oil companies from the debate and political control. This is where I think Norway is probably going , despite NSO being a state asset , from 2020 there will not be any ICE cars for sale , and at present I just dont think they have calculated the electricity demand of short range recharging never mind the long range aspect.

    But we also need to start thinking about just how we build houses , say pre heat undersoil coils for house water pre boiler entry , whole roof solar water and pv , and of course making passive standards the norm … but the argument there is to make it cheaper than the old construction methods , and the jury is still out on VOC from pure passive from electronics and with building materials. Small plots and two storey housing in dense estates does not help things despite the argument of land protection , you need a lot of room for undersoil piping which simply isnt available with todays planning for sites. Simply changing site layouts to large green areas and south facing rear gardens with large windows would also help.

    Air to Air heating can work well in Scotland in new homes , air to water underfloor heating based on ecocrete slab founds , and even air to water whole wall heating which i seen a test for recently in retrofitting an old property , but its not cheaper than a combi boiler and rads over the shorter term with gas or even electric. So perhaps a push could be had to increasing council taxes , or fuel taxes , on houses by cm2 or kw used in order to fund retrofitting? IE the more you use the more you are taxed? This would also aid the pensioner heat or eat scenario in older properties , and on their demise mean already in place for the next owner , completely removing vat from eco heating would also be a great starter , as well as increasing vat on old tech like gas combi.

    Right now I cant use one of those leccy car jobbies for 90 percent of my mileage , pure leccy not hybrid , or I would . But I cannot use it in any way possible for my business , which is or can be 30-40k a year on EU roads. However there is some planning for a partial solution for me , the future super roll on roll off trains , but these too are basically a way of moving freight from the road to the rail , to national capitals and to reduce drivers wages in the process as well as tolls costs , and will still only remove about 10k from my travelling. China is also very keen on its EU rail future for freight.

  13. tartanfever says:

    Just to add some context to Kevin’s figures on rising temps. A 3.5 degree rise in temperature is considered to be an extinction point.

    I kid you not.

    ‘A 3.5 degrees C increase is considered to be the extinction point, because in such a world the food chain collapses, oceanic plankton dies off and these temperatures severely limit terrestrial vegetation. ‘

    You can read the report from Flassbeck Economics here: it’s quite long, and it’s also very frightening.

    http://www.flassbeck-economics.com/how-climate-change-is-rapidly-taking-the-planet-apart/

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      Thanks for that link. I hope people read it, study it, reflect on its implications, and consider taking either educational, political or direct action.

  14. seastnan seastnan says:

    I tend to9 the belief that climate change is a natural solar and a planetary phenomenon. There was a time in the relatively recent Geological past when Greenland was actually green and not white.

    There are however huge economic benefits that could accrue to Scotland as a result of increasing planetary temperatures – even if it also means increasing investment into local flood defences for areas potentially under threat.

    Only an Independent Scottish Government will sort those problems out as Westminster does not give a flying-**** about Scotland or anything outside SE.England. We should always keep our focus on the Independence Question as once this is answered to our national satisfaction then, and only then, can we as United People deal with the problems and advantages presented to us from climate change.

    Climate change is happening and there is nothing meaningful that humanity can do or is even willing to do about it – even Mars is heating up and there are not any 4×4’s there that I’m aware of (apart from the three buggies there already). Humans will do what they always do – they will cope.

    1. Julian says:

      You may tend to the belief that that “climate change is a natural solar and a planetary phenomenon” but NASA and masses of scientists actually have evidence – you know – that evidence stuff – that the world is heating up very rapidly because of fossil fuel emissions.

      See the link by tartanfever above – we are talking about possible human extinction in the near future. Humans won’t cope with a 3.5 degree increase, they will die.

      1. seastnan seastnan says:

        Don’t be ridiculous! ‘Possible human extinction’ …. get fucking real for goodness sake.

        It IS true that the planet is heating up and I never denied that it was, but it has got sod-all to do with human activity. Check out the geological record — you know that kind of really solid evidence thingy stuff.

        It has been a hell-of-a-lot hotter in the past and the planet (which is far older than humanity)does go through cycles – the evidence that you love is clearly there. The current green political agenda will not answer the problem and is actually quite reactionary and authoritarian in it’s social approach.

        We will need to work with nature on this problem and by so doing turn the problem into an economic advantage applying realistic and sensible solutions where appropriate — bet you guys are really regretful we never went fully nuclear when we had the chance … I mean all that carbon-free energy but at least the Scottish SNP Government as good as achieved the climate change targets.

          1. seastnan seastnan says:

            What has ‘god’ got to do with it?

            Not a deity you’d really want on side as, if I recall the bible correctly, he was more than a wee bit enthusiastic about wiping out humanity and is generally acknowledged as being directly responsible for the deaths of 21,000,000 humans and uncountable numbers of innocent bird and animal life.

  15. Connal says:

    If you want to get involved in climate campaigning and get some help, Friends of the Earth are running a year-long Fossil Free Campaign Organiser training programme.

    It will help you learn how to organise in your community for fossil free action and run effective local campaigns.

    Find out if its right for you http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/ff-campaign-org

  16. Pogliaghi says:

    I would encourage everyone who identifies as concerned about climate change, before offering any opinions on political solutions to actually take the problem seriously. Read an adult treatment of civilization’s energy options written by an engineer or physicist. Like for example, the late David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”. As a Zen teacher once said, “..in the minds of the beginner there are many possibilities. In minds of a master there are few”. Sometimes Beginner’s Mind is a positive thing, but at this late stage we need some real wisdom. There are very good reasons why James Hansen (well-known ‘father’ of modern climatology) settled on two key planks to his campaigning: next generation nuclear and revenue neutral carbon taxation. All mainstream political parties, including the SNP and all European Green parties are failing completely to take note. So-called environmentalists should be as terrified about their own collective ignorance as we all should be about the general level of climate ignorance and apathy. We have decades to solve the problem but as a society we haven’t even begun to undo decades of mistakes we’ve already made, including incredibly grave cultural ones within “environmentalism”.

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