Wednesday, 23 November 2011

More Funny Weather

Today, with supremely smug irony, the British Parliament has been discussing slashing the feed-in tariff (originally designed to encourage the adoption of solar power by domestic consumers) as part of the Government's so-called "green deal". It is being cut by over a half on the spurious argument that it increases the cost of electricity to consumers and consequently pushes people into fuel poverty - I say spurious because the highest estimated increase caused by FITs is £6 per annum onto the average household bill, with some estimates as low as just 30p. This is zilch by most standards and even more so when set against the rise of several hundred pounds per annum that the Government has contentedly allowed profiteering energy companies to add to fuel costs in the last year or two.

This comes in the same week as a World Meteorological Organisation report has revealed that in 2010, in spite of all the talk and more talk by the IPCC and Governments, the rate of increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its highest yet - an additional 2.3 parts per million, putting us firmly on course to exceed even the worst scenarios previously anticipated by climatologists. These figures endorse an earlier report by the International Energy Agency in May, which produced similarly stark findings. Even if magically all further increase was to stop, temperatures would rise by around 3C by 2050 - it may not sound much, but its impact would be on a level that would spell disaster for human societies in many parts of the world through the collapse of their agriculture and social systems. Less directly affected countries would find the cost of basic needs such as food and water rocketing well beyond the point of social crisis, and mass migrations would almost certainly trigger conflict on an unprecedented scale.

Don't believe it? It would be nice if it wasn't true and tempting to want to think that; and this week, the BBC announced that the global warming episode of its "Frozen Planet" series won't be shown in the USA so as not to disturb the willful ignorance of the US public, who are among the worst polluters on the planet. 

However, aside from the evidence of increasingly extreme weather events, like the fact that British temperatures this past week have been around double the seasonal average - a whopping 18C on Sunday compared to the 9.5C norm for mid-November - the plain science is this:

- the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more heat from the Sun is trapped in our atmosphere. Too little and we would freeze; too much, and we'd fry. The margins either way are surprisingly (and terrifyingly) small - humanity's hold on the planet is tenuous to say the least.

- through our massively increasing use of fossil fuels, such as gas, coal and wood due to the processes of the industrial age from the 1750s onwards, humans have pumped unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses with even greater "greenhouse" effects, like methane and nitrous oxide (currently the fastest increasing gas), into the atmosphere. Indeed, in the last fifty years, we have used more carbon fuel than in the rest of history combined.

- Consequently, since 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 389 parts per million. At the same time, temperatures have climbed, sometimes exaggerated or cooled by natural variations like El Nino and El Nina, and even occasionally by sunspots, but overall, the ongoing, underlying trend is up, and has nothing to do with any natural phenomena. Rather, it is created and fanned by human activity for precisely the scientific reasons set out above: burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions which trap more and more heat in our atmosphere.

The current rate of emissions is in spite of the downturn in economic activity through the global recession - and Britain is as much to blame as anywhere, with a 2.8% increase in emissions in 2010. And as the planet warms, we are already past the "feedback" thresholds for a number of phenomena which will start to cause an exponential increase in greenhouse gas levels. These include the diminishing of the albedo effect as Arctic ice melts and the "whiteout" of the northern hemisphere declines, reflecting less light and heat back into outer space. Similarly in the north, the melting of the Siberian tundra after millennia of permafrosting is releasing dangerous quantities of methane, which is around twenty times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Eventually, what has been triggered by human activity and could still be at least mitigated by human action, will take on a life and dynamic entirely of its own.

So, just as every long march begins with a single step, every piece of action taken now to reduce greenhouse gas is utterly vital, not to saving the planet - it will endure - but to saving our civilisation and even our species. To this end, the delay and trimming by the Con Dem Government is more than lamentable - it is a betrayal of our futures and a crass denial of reality.

Funny weather indeed. But no laughing matter.


  1. So...we can see that the Bible, in speaking of 'hellfires', was quite accurately predicting our collective fate after all.

  2. One correction, Viridis. I have it on superb authority that the final episode of Frozen Planet will be broadcast in the USA, but with Sigourney Weaver rather than the venerable D.A. The Daily T was spreading lies and making mischief. Please contact me directly for further info. (PS I am not a denier!)

  3. Flipside, I am delighted if it is going to be shown, and much as we all love David, Sigourney Weaver may make for an interesting variant. Thanks for the info; and will contact you for a link if it goes ahead. best wishes!