The hurricanes of the past few weeks that have devastated the Carribean and parts of the United States have been record-setters. The human cost is huge, and our first thoughts must be to the victims and their families.
Unfortunately it’s the likely shape of where things are going, worldwide. New Zealand’s been unusually warm and wet all year – wet to the point where the district where I live has had over 1000 landslips through the urban areas. Part of that is on the back of the 2013 and 2016 earthquakes, which opened up cracks – but the endless rain was still the trigger.
There’s no doubt what’s going on. We’ve been pouring carbon dioxide and other carbon products into the atmosphere, in ever-increasing quantities, for the past 250 years or more. What’s more, while the long-term trend is sea-level rise and alterations to the spread of temperate and tropical zones, the immediate effect has been chaotic record-setting weather.
The scary part is that this has happened before. Studies of historical climate – which I got slightly involved with over 30 years ago in New Zealand, when work was being done to define local climate over the past thousand years or more – have revealed wide cycles of natural change. Such change is driven by a raft of factors that still apply today – everything from variations in atmospheric composition to minor wobbles in Earth’s distance from the sun, to our axial tilt, to insolation (the intensity of the sun) and so forth.
What emerged from these studies was the discovery that the last major climatic shift – the end of the so-called ‘Waiherere warm period’ and the onset of the ‘little ice age’ in the fifteenth century – came with a period of unprecedented storms, enough to flatten forests. Ouch.
Well, guess what, it’s happening… again. Except this time we’re the cause.
And before anybody trucks out ‘climate change denial’ arguments, let me put it this way. The debate has been polarised along entirely the wrong lines, largely on the back of vested interests and false-logic simplification of what is a quite complex topic.
The reality is that natural climate change exists – but so does human-driven change. Both are true. I mean, we’ve been pouring carbon combustion products into the atmosphere for over 250 years in rising quantities. What did we think was going to happen? We’ve created a force for change on top of all the others, adding to the mix of factors.
But here’s the kicker. One of the arguments against humans being the cause is that what we’ve done is, technically, insignificant against the scale of natural phenomena. That’s true to some extent. However, the evidence is that climate – because of the multitude of factors affecting it – is meta-stable. This means it can chaotically switch from one point of apparent stability to another – often switching relatively quickly by comparison with the length of the ‘stable’ periods. It doesn’t take much to trigger the switch. And that switch is accompanied by weather chaos. This principle is true of all meta-stable systems, incidentally.
What annoys me is that this is an obvious own-goal – a big one – and yet people and even certain governments keep trying to deny it.
The issue isn’t denying climate change. We’re too late for that. The issue is what can be done about it – before more people suffer. And to do that, we have to work together – all of us.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017