Insight: 2018, a bellwether year for global climate change disaster

A firefighter pulls a hose towards a burning home in California. Picture: Getty
A firefighter pulls a hose towards a burning home in California. Picture: Getty
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Early signs of catastrophe are everywhere, in floods, wildfires, freezing conditions – and the paralysis of human efforts to combat them, writes Ilona Amos

It’s not every day we hear about the heat of the sun melting buildings and roads in Scotland. But that’s exactly what happened as the nation experienced sweltering temperatures this summer. And it came just a few months after traffic ground to a halt and supermarket shelves were left bare when we were gripped by whiteout conditions brought by the notorious Beast from the East.

Britons, and perhaps Scots especially, are renowned for their obsession with the weather. Apparently research shows that at least a third of the population is either talking about the weather, has just done so or is about to at almost any time. It’s hardly surprising, really, given our changeable and famously unpredictable climate. But now the weather has got serious.

Recent long-range forecasts have suggested this winter could be one of the coldest in at least ten years. As many of us shiver in sub-zero temperatures during a weekend lashed by icy rain and the first major snowfalls of the season, it certainly seems plausible.

The bookies have already slashed the odds on a white Christmas, despite the fact the UK has experienced the sort of widespread snowscape we romanticise about on 25 December just four times in the past 50-odd years.

But as we know, and are only too keen to discuss, anything could happen.

Looking back at 2018 reveals a year of extreme and dangerous weather, both at home and around the world. Overall it has gone down as the fourth warmest year on record globally, coming directly after the three hottest years since 1850. The 20 warmest years ever measured have been in the past 22 years, with worldwide temperatures in the past five years averaging more than 1C higher than historical levels.

The UK summer was a scorcher, with the mercury soaring over 30C in several places during June and July. The average summer temperature across the country was 15.8C, narrowly pipping the 15.77C recorded in 1976, when there was a widespread drought. The hottest day of the year saw thermometers reach 35.3C in Faversham in Kent on 26 July.

Even in Scotland, prolonged drought conditions saw reservoirs dry up, with communities in Moray and the Western Isles asked to use water “wisely”, and crops shrivel and die.

The “weatherproof” roof covering on Glasgow Science Centre turned molten as the city baked in 31.9C on 28 June, the hottest day of the year north of the border. Meanwhile the roasting temperatures triggered speed restrictions on railways in central Scotland and melted roads in Aberdeenshire, Moray and Fife. Snow patches in Scotland’s highest mountains that historically persist through summer vanished completely.

With all that sunshine and heat, it was easy to forget that just three months earlier the country was brought to a standstill by the Beast from the East, an arctic blast caused by a polar vortex that ushered in freezing winds, blizzards and massive dumpings of snow to many areas.

Conditions have been even more extreme – and deadly – elsewhere. Frozen iguanas were seen falling from the trees in Florida in January as the east coast of the US endured some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded there. Minnesota plunged to -41C. The same month sand dunes in the Sahara desert were turned white, blanketed in up to 40cm of snow, a phenomenon seen only twice before in the past four decades.

Fierce and prolonged heatwaves scorched much of the northern hemisphere, triggering devastation and disruption from the Arctic and northern Europe to north America and Africa.

Greece, Sweden and the US state of California were ravaged by deadly wildfires, leaving hundreds dead and many thousands homeless. The Sahara experienced the highest temperature ever recorded in Africa – a blistering 51.3C – while Japan endured heat topping 40C, shortly followed by a deadly typhoon that killed nearly 200 people and forced eight million to flee their homes.

South America was hit by a short-lived but bitterly cold spell, with temperatures plummeting 20C lower than average to -10.6C in Argentina in July. Large parts of China were awash with some of the worst floods seen in years, while the annual monsoon rainfall in India was the most devastating in nearly a century. Much of southern France was also underwater in August due to unprecedented rain.

Man-made climate change, caused by high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere pushing global temperatures up, is being seen as the main factor driving the increasing frequency and intensity of these chaotic weather events.

“The weather around the planet is incredibly variable so it doesn’t rule out getting events like the Beast from the East and the winters of 1963 and 1947 and other very cold events,” said The Met Office’s Grahame Madge.

“But what the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is doing is loading the dice. You’re more likely to get a warmer event than a colder one, but you can still get extremes at either end.”

What made 2018 different is that the high temperatures we saw in the UK were replicated elsewhere, he says.

“In the 1970s we had a heatwave but it was really confined to the UK. This year the anomaly was way above the average temperature in countries as diverse as parts of northern Scandinavia, Japan, Arctic Russia, Canada. What we’ve found recently in Met Office studies is that the kind of summer we had in the UK is now 30 times more likely because of the background rise in global average temperatures since industrial times.

“And we know if we link that to carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, principally from burning fossil fuels, it increases the likelihood of having weather like that.

“From other studies we know that in another 50 years an event like the summer of 2018 is probably something you’re going to have here every other year.”

Environmental campaigners believe we have reached crisis point and uncompromising action must be taken in order to stave off the worst impacts of warming and protect life.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “During the last 12 months Scotland has suffered from dangerous storms, warnings on water shortages, crops wilting in fields and even trains running at reduced speed.

“Elsewhere holidaymakers died on the beach in Greece, California’s fire season seemed never-ending and temperatures in Spain and Portugal surpassed 40C.

“The weather is sending us very clear signals that our climate is changing in major ways. The increasingly extreme weather we see, feel and endure both at home and abroad is because of climate change.

“Scientists have long spelled out the type of impacts that we are now seeing and which are affecting the natural world, life in our cities and those who depend on the weather like farmers.

“The desperately slow pace of action from governments around the world has brought us to the brink of disaster. From storms to fires, we see devastating impacts in rich and poor countries alike but the developing nations are much less able to prepare for, to react to, and to rebuild after these disasters.

“We know that the burning of fossil fuels is driving this crisis and we know the world cannot afford to burn the vast majority of the fossil fuels we already have, but still we see oil and gas companies going after new developments, often with explicit government backing.”

The increasing frequency of such lethal and extreme weather events is finally beginning to set off alarm bells across the world, providing a window on what the future could look like as warming gains momentum. However, the question is whether there is a strong enough will to do something about it.

Fraught negotiations have been taking place for the past two weeks in Poland at the 24th Conference of Parties, Cop24, where world leaders, including Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, scientists and campaigners have been trying to hammer out a rulebook that will govern how commitments set out in the 2015 Paris agreement will be met.

Sir David Attenborough painted a bleak picture as meetings got under way. “Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” he said. “If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

The Paris Agreement, which comes into force in 2020, is structured around voluntary national pledges from countries to reduce their emissions. It includes provision of finance from developed countries to developing nations to support mitigation and adaptation efforts, in recognition of historical responsibility for the crisis. And it seems this has been one of the sticking points.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that failing to reach a satisfactory conclusion at COP24 would be “suicidal”, however progress has been thwarted by the US and other countries with big interests in fossil fuels.

Last night officials at the talks finally agreed on a set of rules to govern the Paris accord after negotiations overran by more than 30 hours.

However, the meeting has postponed decisions on pledging more ambitious action to fight global warming and on regulating the controversial market for international carbon emissions trading which allows rich nations to pay for carbon-cutting projects in other countries instead of reducing emissions.

Earlier, Dixon expressed his frustration with the direction the talks had taken. “Despite the ever more strident warning from climate science, the UN climate conference in Katowice has been the usual frustrating wrangle between rich countries who don’t want to act and poorer countries who can’t act without support,” he said. “While China and India are on track to meet their climate targets, countries like the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia continue to delay, obstruct and scheme to make sure the international system to tackle climate change is as weak as possible.”

From the conference, Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland is already recognised as a global leader in tackling climate change and we are determined to step up our efforts.” But many environmentalists believe the Scottish Government must go further than the measures outlined in the new Climate Bill, which set out a 90 per cent emissions reduction target for 2050.

“In Scotland we have an opportunity to choose a different path,” Dixon insists.

“If we increase the ambition our draft Climate Bill we can ramp up action within the next decade and demonstrate real leadership.

“This is the kind of good example the world needs and will deliver benefits to millions of people in Scotland though warmer homes, cleaner, quicker transport and support for farmers to move to greener practices.”

Mohamed Nasheed is former president of the Maldives and lead negotiator for the islands, which are under imminent danger from rising sea levels. He made an impassioned plea for urgent progress on reducing emissions, calling for “nations to overcome their divisions” over how to tackle global warming. “Please do not kill us,” he said. “We are not prepared to die. We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis.”

He cautioned that failure to take the necessary action would cost the world dearly. “If we come together on the basis of the emergency facing us, we can do it. Every country at this summit will have hell to pay if we don’t.”