One of the most significant and startling indicators of the reality of climate change came about last week. And I am not talking about extreme weather events. Rather I am talking about an admission by the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson, that climate change is actually happening, and more specifically is resulting from human activity and the huge reliance on burning fossil fuels to meet our massive energy demands. This speech sent shivers down my spine, more so in fact than the culmination of all the numerous extreme weather events that have been occurring recently. When the CEO of a major oil company publicly acknowledges the reality of climate change you know full well we have a problem. What could be a more pertinent indicator of the perilous situation we are in than an admission from a person who has such a vested interest in playing down climate change as much as he possibly can? Up until now there has generally been corporate denial of this fact, from all the heads of the major oil companies as far as I know. And this latest shift in position stands out in stark contrast to the public stance of former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson’s predecessor Lee Raymond, who continued to deny climate change for the duration of his tenure at Exxon-Mobil.
There is one small caveat however – Rex Tillerson maintains that climate change does not present an insurmountable problem for mankind. “It’s an engineering problem” he states simply “and there will be an engineering solution.” Well Mr Tillerson, when you figure out the engineering solution to which you refer please let us know, ASAP. I sense we don’t have time on our side on this one.
So lets return from cloud cuckoo land for a moment and back into the realm of reality again. If I was bit more cynical I might surmise that this shift of public position is more of a tactical move. People who continue to deny the reality of climate change are frankly starting to look a bit silly in the face of all the crazy-ass weather we are having. So why not just admit climate change is happening but deny that it presents any real problem? This is much less silly don’t you think? Er no, but I suppose it was worth a try anyway. I don’t in all seriousness believe Mr. Tillerson will be able to make that one fly. Not with most people anyway. Either he thinks we are all idiots, or he is an idiot, or both. So perhaps he should go back to what he is good at doing, making huge profits for Exxon-Mobil, and leave the PR stuff to someone a bit more sensible. (And you can tell just how evil this man is by looking at his picture!)
I am frequently exasperated and entertained in equal measure by deniers of climate change and the ludicrous denial-based statements they frequently make. Here is one I heard this week by someone responding to the widespread flooding we have experienced this ‘summer’ in the UK.
“All this flooding is not being caused by more rainfall like we are being told but rather is due to the water companies failing to maintain the drainage system properly.”
Nope. IT IS because we are experiencing more extreme weather events. What drainage system in the world could cope with a month’s worth of rain falling in the space of about 10 minutes? This is just silly and one wonders whether the people who make such potty statements can possibly believe what they are saying themselves. But never underestimate the power of denial! It is a powerful beast that raises its unwelcome head whenever people are confronted with problems they don’t like to face up to.
Another claim not holding up well under scrutiny is the suggestion that the public’s perception of climate change and its severity is largely influenced by all the excessive media coverage of weather related natural disasters. I’m not so sure about this one either, and I think I can qualify my doubts of this with a pertinent example from just this last week. Half of America was on fire and Florida was underwater – and guess what made news headlines in the UK? Tom Cruise splitting up from his wife! The Natural disasters in America barely got a mention. In fact I can honestly say I spoke to people this week who had no knowledge of these major disasters at all, including the devastating storms over the weekend that have left millions without power and resulted in around five US states being declared in a state of emergency. But we do however know all about the details of Tom Cruise’s separation from Katie Holmes, which I suppose is the important thing. Like Paul Weller once said – “the public gets what the public wants” and at this moment in time the public don’t want to be reminded of inconvenient truths. They prefer trivial distractions that provide escapism from real problems, at least within the context of climate change anyway. In any case it is certainly not true that climate issues get undue attention from the media, which is my main point here. I can only meaningfully comment on the UK media of course, but as far as this goes there is very little if any media coverage of many of the extreme weather events currently happening around the globe, as is evidenced by speaking to people, who on the large part are oblivious to much of what goes on in this regards.
So just how serious and imminent are the problems relating to climate change? Are they really that serious? Well they are if you happen to live on planet Earth, which I guess covers most people likely to be reading this blog post at the moment. Nowhere on this Earth is completely immune from the effects, and even if the heat doesn’t get you there is always a chance of being frozen to death by an ice age. The UK and Northern Europe have relatively northern latitudes compared to many countries with comparable climates. The reason we are not freezing our arses off most of the time like they are in Siberia is because of a handy little feature known as the Gulf Stream. This acts like a giant conveyor belt that transports colossal amounts of energy into the region from warmer latitudes. However this conveyor belt process is potentially threatened by the decreasing salinity of seawater due to significant amounts of freshwater being released by all the polar ice cap melting that is going on. And if this flow of energy is interrupted or compromised for any reason we have a serious situation on our hands here in the UK. We can kiss goodbye to anything resembling a decent summer that’s for sure.
Hang on a minute! Are we not experiencing just that at the moment? We have literally had one shite summer after another for at least five or six consecutive years in the UK now, the current one being the shite-est of them all. I think I got drenched more times in the period between April and July this year than the previous 10 years of my life combined. If I come back from being outside for any length of time and am still dry I wonder what’s going on! On the positive side I am saving a great deal of money on sunblock these days as there is no sun to block out. And they are virtually giving sunscreen away in shops because they can’t sell the stuff anymore. From what I understand of what the weather experts are saying about all this it seems we are experiencing all this ‘adverse weather’ because of something called the jet stream being in the wrong place. It should be further north this time of year or something. Basically, anything lying to the south of the Jet stream gets an easy time while anything to the north of it gets hammered. And I would say we are getting a genuine arse kicking from the weather at the moment.
And what influences the behavour of the Northern jet stream? The melting polar caps in the Arctic region. Ah! There we have the culprit! The temperature differential between the warmer tropics and Polar Regions is what drives the jet streams, normally fast flowing ribbons of moving air high up in the atmosphere. The temperature differential in the Northern hemisphere is gradually being degraded due to the warming Arctic region, an area of Earth warming faster than any other due to the sun-reflecting snow melting, which in turn results in more energy from the sun being absorbed. This in turn slows down the jet stream and creates what is known as blocking patterns, whereby the fast flowing ribbon of air moving from West to East in the Northern Hemisphere downgrades to slower meandering air movements. It is the absence of this normally fast flowing ribbon of air that is creating the conditions for much of the extreme weather events we have been experiencing lately in Northern Europe, Northern America and parts of Asia.
The modest sounding increases in Earth’s average temperature over the past century or so causes problems seemingly disproportionate to the relatively small scale of the temperature increases. The capacity for warmer air to hold moisture goes up exponentially with temperature increase. So for every degree increase in temperature there is a striking jump in the quantity of moisture that can form rainclouds. The problems ensuing from this are twofold. Firstly there is the more obvious problem of increasingly intense downpours. But there is a more insidious side effect that emerges from this also. Latent heat is released whenever water vapour condenses to form rainclouds, and it is this latent heat that powers huge storms. So we have the double whammy of more intense rainfall along with more violent and persistent storms!
It is not just increase in Earth temperature that causes problems either but increases in the variability itself of the weather. Put in statistical terms the bell shaped curve representing the probability distribution of weather extremes not only shifts along the axis but widens. So contrary to most people’s intuitions the probability increase of very hot summers exceeds the probability increase of slightly warmer summers!
What other problems are presented by climate change? It is fairly common knowledge that the Maldives could go underwater in the not too distant future but in fact there are actually up to eight different countries facing a similar threat, including Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines and Barbados. Also at threat is Egypt whose sensitivity to sea level rise is particularly high. Much of Egypt’s infrastructure is at a low sea level. And the low lying agricultural Nile Delta region will most likely not go unscathed either, having an inevitably severe economic impact on the region.
And there are plenty more examples that could be added here that I won’t bother going into.
Strictly speaking climate change skeptics have traditionally fallen into one or two camps – those who deny climate change per se and those who admit the reality of climate change but attribute it primarily to natural variability in climate, with mankind’s activities at best only slightly exacerbating the problem. Investing serious time and effort quibbling over the exact degree of climate change that is attributable to human activity rather than natural variability is however a misguided and pointless debate, in the same way that having a debate about whether or not it is a good idea to throw paraffin on a blazing house on the basis that the initial cause of the blaze was not paraffin related is a misguided and pointless debate. We have very good science that tells us, irrespective of the degree to which natural variation is responsible for the changes we are seeing in the weather, that pumping tonnes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is going to trap more heat and result ultimately, unless it is slowed down or stopped, in catastrophic consequences on a global scale.
So let’s stop all this silly denial and all the pointless speculating about largely irrelevant issues and get down to the serious business of actually doing something about it. Because if we don’t stop screwing with the planets ecosystem the planet’s ecosystem is going to screw with us.
And I think it has already started to.