Looking up at grey skies in August, I’d say many of us have flippantly said “Global warming? Bring it on!” More seriously, opponents of action on climate change have made claims of beneficial effects of warming for agriculture and the economy as a whole. Maybe the storms and flooding of the last few days, repeating and exceeding the floods of last year and the year before have provided a more sombre idea of the effects of global warming on our weather systems. In this post, Phil Ælse explains why global warming won’t be a pleasant experience!
What does the term global warming means to you? Do you envisage yourself enjoying balmy days on Blackpool beach, strolling along the promenade at Llandudno in shorts and sun-glasses, and picking coconuts from the palm trees along Skegness front?
Unfortunately, whilst the general temperatures will increase in the short term, the specific effect on Britain could be less pleasant.
Think Costa Rica not Costa Brava: increased humidity; sweaty, smelly bodies; respiratory illnesses and skin disease on the increase; viruses and bacteria that flourish in dank conditions running riot; food spoiling rapidly and drinking water that needs boiling before use.
Britain’s Geography make it a damp place – even Julius Caesar commented on that: “The nights are short and the weather miserable, with frequent rain and mists.” Global warming won’t change that. The Pennines cause water vapour to rise and that soon comes back down as rain.
In general terms the east of Britain suffers more from this effect than the west, as the colder air streams across the North Sea are more ready to dump rain than the typically warmer Atlantic and its beneficial Gulf Stream to the west.
The Gulf Stream is a continuous current of warm water that runs from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic and up the west cost of the UK. This is what gives places like North Wales and Lancashire relatively warm coastline, compared to places at the same latitude, such as Newfoundland on the Canadian east coast. But whilst the sea and air temperature of the west coast is higher than the US east coast it is the welsh mountains of Snowdonia and the Pennines that then cause the cloud vapour to rise and dump rain on us.
Now, imagine if we warmed the ice cap at the North Pole. This will result in a stream of cold water pushing down the Atlantic and could cause a diversion of the Gulf Stream, pushing it south and away from the UK. This would remove the beneficial warming effect from our coast line and seas, and would means that we wouldn’t get the same comfortable temperatures, but we would still get the same clouds hitting the Pennines and rising to fall as rain. Except this is now more often going to be as snow and ice during the winter.
So, yes, an initial rise in global average temperatures may give you a slightly warmer climate – with all the problems of warm humid climates. But by 2050 we could start to see the diversion of the Gulf Stream, meaning that the climate our children will ensure will be more like that of Canada, with three metre deep snow drifts, transport chaos and frozen water pipes. The worst case result of the diverted gulf stream is that there will no longer be any warmer water streams being sent up to the Arctic Circle’s seas. The glaciers and ice caps will ultimately spread, not shrink, and northern Europe and the UK will eventually (and whilst not in our grand-children’s life time, fairly rapidly in geological terms) be brought in to the next ice age.
This has precedent. Ice core samples have been taken from the Poles and from ancient glaciers that show there is a direct correlation between rising CO2 levels and an eventual decline in to an ice age. The last big ice age, some 11,000 years ago caused the Gulf Stream to shut down. The regional climate of the Northeast Atlantic became considerably cooler and as a result north-western Europe dropped back to ice age conditions within tens of years of this diversion.
So how is this our fault?
Humans have only been around for a few thousand years, and ice ages have happened for millions of years and multiple times. Cows and pigs haven’t just started pooping and parping. What’s changed?
The difference in this case is the speed in which carbon dioxide (the most prominent greenhouse gas) is rising during the global industrial age compared to previous pre-ice-age periods. Each ice-age has been preceded by a gradual increase in carbon dioxide over thousands of years. In the last three hundred years, the rate of carbon dioxide has increased vastly, meaning that the rate of increase of the ice core graph is not a curve as in previous occurrences, but a near vertical line as can be seen on the extreme right of the graph.
This meteoric rise is a result of our massive increase in carbon emissions from our altered way of life. Flying, driving and heating with fossil fuels means we are creating CO2 in spades.
Demanding fresh meat on our table every day means we have millions more cattle animals than we ever had before. To satisfy this demand, animals are now raised in factory conditions. Raising animals on pastures can be a means of absorbing CO2, but these intensive methods add to the emissions that are changing the climate on which we depend.
An economy based on producing and marketing ever increasing numbers of disposable consumer products means more and more energy is used in creating, transporting and disposing on giga-tonnes of products, many of which are used once then thrown away.
What can we do?
We need a different kind of economy. One that serves the needs of our communities rather than a continual treadmill of production for production’s sake. We need to get rid of the nonsense of long supply chains for goods that can be produced locally. We can make a start in our own lives by buying local produce and supporting local shops, by sharing tools and equipment that aren’t needed every day – but in the end the system must change.
We need to move a distributed modern energy system based on renewable energy with people in control of their own energy supply. The UK already has some community energy projects – other European countries, such as Germany have a lot more. If there is no community project, what about installing solar panels or switching to an energy provider that provides equitably generated electricity, and tell the fuel guzzlers WHY you switched.
And even when it seems like talking to the wall, we need to make sure our MPs know how we feel when they vote for things like fracking.
Ultimately, it may not be enough. But what you do will affect your community and your grandchildren. Doing nothing at all, you only allow the disaster to strike and when your grand-child looks at you and asks “Why is it so cold?” will you be able to say “Its just a cold snap, dear”, or will it be “Because my generation destroyed it all for you!”