The weather these past years seems to have gone mad, and not just in New Zealand – though here it’s been bad enough, we’ve had successions of intense storms with record-breaking wind speeds.
Wellington was in chaos for days after a ‘one in a century’ storm in June – our third in a decade – knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes, felled trees and smashed commuter infrastructure.
My photo of debris on Petone Beach, June 2013.
The Dutch half of my family tell me that, over in the Netherlands, winter decided to give spring and summer a miss. It never warmed up until a couple of weeks before summer was due to end. Nothing seemed to stop the rain.
Drought 2013, Hutt river. Usually there’s more water in it.
This week Boulder, Colorado, was awash with 1-in-1000 year floods – I picked the story up via blogs, and then news came of a couple of Kiwis living there who had to flee before the deluge. (Check out Susie Lindau’s blog, in my links. and Phil Plait’s awesome science blog ).
Meanwhile Japan – including the damaged reactor at Fukishima - is being hammered by Typhoon Man-Yi. Half a million people have been ordered to evacuate.
I have an interest in understanding this because I’ve been writing a book on coal, environment and our attitudes (coming out next year). So is all this global storminess a coincidence? Mathematically, that’s possible. Random events – to human perception – appear to cluster. But there is a common cause. A recent analysis attributed about half the recent extreme weather to human-created climate change. Bearing in mind that ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are not the same thing, we’re facing the first obvious consequence of our 250 year crusade to dump fossil carbon into the atmosphere.
I’ll blog later about the science of climate change. To me, though, the way things are panning out reveals a great deal about the human condition.
My reasoning at the broadest level is this. We’ve been playing our usual trick of exploiting resources until they’re gone. That was an essential survival skill in the last Ice Age. Other species of human – the Neanderthals, the Denisovians, the ‘Hobbits’, all died. H. Sapiens alone survived – we had, it seemed, the ‘tude (it seems to have been a function of our greater ‘working memory’).
A diagram I made using my trusty Celestia installation and some painting tools.
It worked a treat when the human population was a few thousand. When environments were exploited, people moved on – or dwindled, as on Easter Island. But it got industrialised. World population was around a billion in 1800. Factories, locomotives, ships and households in burgeoning cities began pouring coal smoke into the air. Humanity began exploiting the environment not on a regional scale, but globally.
There was but one outcome – the biggest ‘own goal’ in the history of the world, and we’re staring down that barrel now. Into which, as far as I can tell, has swept that other component of the human condition; stupidity – intellectualised, given traction by its rational gloss. But still stupidity.
It’s evident in the way we’ve reacted to climate change. It’s been emotionalised, rationalised, politicised, reduced to catchechisms, polarised between ‘warmists’ and ‘deniers’. All for reasons that have little to do with science, and a lot to do with vested interest, political need, even personal conviction over what constitutes reality. All of it slowing efforts to understand what is happening – then take steps to fix it.
Look at it this way. Past biomass – mostly plants – built up over tens and hundreds of millions of years, has been dug up as coal, gas and oil, then burned in what, by geological standards, is an eye-blink. We’ve dumped the waste products of all those millions of years worth of ancient ecosystems into Earth’s current system in just 250 years – which, when we’re thinking on these scales – amounts to one swift hit. It’s like taking a century’s worth of household rubbish and trying to jam it into a bag that’s only good to hold the rubbish from this morning. And then we try to rationalise our way out of the consequences?
I mean - duh! What did we think was going to happen?
The people at the receiving end of unprecedented weather events are the first victims.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up this weekend: “Write It Now” and “Sixty Second Writing Tips” return.