New momentum needed on climate change
I remember the excitement which many environmentalists felt at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland in 2008, at the news that Barak Obama had been elected president of the United States. Here, at last we felt, was a US president who understood the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Unlike the Bush administration, when the US delegates at UN climate change conferences were either in denial or dragging their feet around the issue of climate. Here was a President who could provide leadership on a global stage to confront and address the most serious problem facing humankind in the next few decades. In the run-up to his election, Barak Obama had described “climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing challenges and pledged an all-out effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”(Time to Confront Climate Change, New York Times, December 27th 2012).
It was a false dawn. A Republican controlled House of Representatives refused to pass a climate bill and the cap-trade idea, even though the idea was rooted in conventional economics. Cap-and-trade became a dirty word. During the 2012 presidential campaign, neither Barak Obama or Mitt Romney mentioned climate change, until Hurricane Sandy crashed into New Jersey and New York. President Obama spoke “only obliquely about the threat of rising seas and extreme weather events, both of which scientists have linked to a warming climate” (New York Times, December 27th 2012 also).
After his election, President Obama has said he would like to foster a nationwide “conversation” about climate change and its current and future impact on the United States and, most crucial of all, what measures must be taken to halt it.
The significant changes in the natural world, particularly severe weather in North America might help lead this “education” process. Justin Gillis writing in the New York Times on January 8th 2013, reported that 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the United States.. By March 2012, much of the US was experiencing an unseasonal heatwave. This was followed by a devastating heatwave and drought in the Corn Belt took a huge toll on the maize, wheat and soya harvests which sent the price of food spiralling upwards. The 2012 drought was comparable to the severe droughts in the 1950s, but was not as severe as the droughts in the 1930s. In the 1930s, the drought was allied with poor farming techniques which dried out the land to such an extent that it caused massive soil erosion. It was the era of the Dust Bowl.
According to Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climate Data Center in Asheville, N.C. which released the official climate compilation data on January 8th 201, the increase in temperature was very significant. Gillas writes that in meteorological terms, the difference between one year being hotter than another is usually measured in fractions of one degree Fahrenheit degrees. However, he goes on to point out that 2012 was an exception. The average temperature of 55.3 Fahrenheit was one degree higher than the previous record which was set in 1998. At local level, 34,008 daily high records were set at weather stations across the US. The meteorologist Guy Walton, who works at the Weather Channel, points to the fact there were only 6,664 record low temperatures.
Though all the costs are not yet available, experts believe that 11 of the climate disasters, from tornados, to Hurricane Isaac which hit the Gulf Coast in August 2012 exceeded a threshold of $1 billion. The damage from Hurricane Sandy alone could exceed $60 billion, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region. In addition to being the nation’s warmest year, 2012 turned out to be the second-worst on a measure called the Climate Extremes Index. 1998 holds the record.
The majority of climate scientists would agree that natural variability played a role in the high temperatures experienced during 2012. But they also believe global warming caused by humans releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere is also a part of the equation. They point to the fact that 10 of the warmest years on record have all occurred during the past 15 years.
Globally, 2012 was not the hottest year on record. In fact, the La Nina weather pattern had a cooling effect across the globe. Even so, it is expected to come in as the world’s eight or ninth hottest year. If El Nino effect returns in 2013 as expected, we could be in for a scorcher.
• The author, Fr Sean mcDonagh SSC, is a member of the Leadership Team of the ACP