Skip to content

A Tale of Two Climates

An intense El Niño event has raised global average temperatures recently, in the same way as the spike in 1998. But all the indications are that the Pacific is turning towards La Niña conditions, which will depress temperatures for the next year or so. It is too early to tell what trend we will see after that part of the ocean has settled back to ‘normal’, but these spikes appear to be superimposed on an essentially steady average temperature.

This, however, is not what you would think if you read recent headlines about the most recently published measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from the observatory at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, for example, CO2 levels mark ‘new era’ in the world’s changing climate. As the article puts it “The 400 parts per million benchmark was broken globally for the first time in recorded history in 2015.”

What it does make clear, however, is that this is in part also due to El Niño. By causing drought in some areas, this has depressed the growth of vegetation, so leading to less CO2 being absorbed from the air. At the same time, it is possible that more fires than usual have occurred under these dry conditions, so boosting emissions of carbon dioxide.

Despite the current spike, it is clear that the level of carbon dioxide in the air is steadily rising, albeit with the curve following a sawtooth pattern as northern hemisphere vegetation absorbs the gas during the growing season, only for much of this to be re-released after harvesting. Crossing this 400ppm threshold means we are now experiencing levels last seen at least three million years ago, based on data from ice cores. That this is a significant increase from the 270ppm which was the norm a couple of hundred years ago is undeniable. However, its implications are less clear.

Since good news is rarely news, the media tend to pick up on negative stories, and there are plenty of those on the climate change front. Today’s received wisdom is that global warming is continuing unabated and will lead to disaster unless urgent action is taken. But in reality most warnings of catastrophe aren’t fulfilled (on the other hand, plenty of unforeseen calamities do occur). Although we don’t regularly look back at prophecies of doom from some years back and compare them with what actually happened, there are plenty of examples of over-hyped statements.

Many of these were used as a way to prompt decisive action, on the basis that people needed to be jolted out of their complacent view that life could simply carry on as usual. The problem is that, although there is a general recognition of climate change being a big current issue, most people don’t give it the high priority that activists would like to see. To a large degree, this is probably because the reality doesn’t match the hype, and the perception that campaigners are crying wolf.

In 2008, the Guardian started the 100 months to save the world blog. Next year sees the countdown end. In the intervening period, there has been little sign of either a resurgence of the projected warming trend or any effective action to cut emissions dramatically by 2050, despite the much-lauded Paris agreement. We have also seen warnings of a shutdown of the Gulf Stream, a catastrophic release of methane from hydrates, more intense hurricanes and an ice-free Arctic ocean. That these have not come to pass doesn’t mean that they won’t, but all seem improbable at present. Making them sound like real and present dangers does the case for taking action no favours.

On a less dramatic scale, we read recently that the supposed link between climate change and problems with coffee production was another over-hyped story (Climate change hits coffee yield? It’s a load of froth, say scientists). Regular stories like this lead people to suspect that activists are looking for any potential impact of rising temperatures, however tenuous, and gilding it with a spurious aura of science.

The mismatch between rhetoric and general opinion is dramatic. The UN runs an on-line poll of what matters to people around the world (My world), asking them to choose the six issues that matter to them from a list of 16. Clicking on My world results shows that ‘taking action on climate change’ comes last on the list for the over 9.7 million people who have voted so far. A good education is top of the list (over 6.5 million votes) with climate change receiving less than 2 million votes.

Analysing the results by age, educational attainment and country of residence is also illuminating. All age groups up to age 45 put climate change last, while older respondents only put it above phone and internet access. The only factor which made a significant change was segmenting voters on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI) of their country of origin. Those in medium and high HDI countries put climate change above reliable energy, political freedom and phone and internet access. For very high HDI countries, such as EU states and the USA, better transport and roads, support for people who can’t work and better job opportunities were also ranked below climate change.

The conclusion is that intense concern about climate change is very much a First World issue, and this has to be borne in mind by policymakers. It’s true that the world’s poorer people would suffer most from some of the projected effects of rising temperatures, but it’s also true that the proposed radical action to reduce emissions will do nothing to solve current problems, and very probably will take the focus away from improving the lives of today’s population. Far from discounting the possible needs of future generations, it is disadvantaging the current one.

Not that this will stop our First World angst; with so many having comfortable, prosperous lives, people have time to worry about other issues. This is nicely encapsulated in the current opposition to oil company sponsorship in the arts world. Campaigners have already called for the British Museum to reject further sponsorship from BP because of their opposition to continued use of fossil fuels. Now we read that Rylance boycotts RSC in oil sponsorship row. Meanwhile, billions of people in the Third World want a decent education, proper governance, clean water, enough food, electricity and proper roads.