The year 2013 was among the top ten warmest years since modern records began in 1850, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It tied with 2007 as the sixth warmest year, with a global land and ocean surface temperature that was 0.50°C (0.90°F) above the 1961–1990 average and 0.03°C (0.05°F) higher than the most recent 2001–2010 decadal average.
Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century. The warmest years on record are 2010 and 2005, with global temperatures about 0.55 °C above the long-term average, followed by 1998, which also had an exceptionally strong El Niño event.
At this point many commentators, scientists and bloggers will say “Well look at that. We told you the planet is warming.” Of course those that deny climate change will mutter about conspiracies, the “pause in warming” and such nonsense.
But let us move well beyond that conversation, cherry picking of facts and the finger-pointing that takes place every time a press release such as this comes out.
When I look at this graph I see a planetary and civilisational emergency. I see a looming catastrophe if we don’t begin advanced planning.
What I see is the urgent need to examine how we adapt to a changed climate.
Clive Hamilton has written an interesting piece in The Conversation today on the question of “believing” in climate change. Personally, I’ve always stated I accept the scientific evidence – what I believe is of little consequence.
As Hamilton states, the climate change debate is a political one. Hamilton looks at how the Theory of Relativity played into the political debates of the 1930s, a point I also made in my piece “To pilot a planet”.
It is hard to imagine a scientific breakthrough more abstract and less politically contentious than Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet in Weimar Germany in the 1920s it attracted fierce controversy, with conservatives and ultra-nationalists reading it as a vindication of their opponents – liberals, socialists, pacifists and Jews. They could not separate Einstein’s political views – he was an internationalist and pacifist – from his scientific breakthroughs, and his extraordinary fame made him a prime target in a period of political turmoil.
There was a turning point in 1920. A year earlier a British scientific expedition had used observations of an eclipse to provide empirical confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that light could be bent by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Little known to the general public beforehand, Einstein was instantly elevated to the status of the genius who outshone Galileo and Newton. But conservative newspapers provided an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists with an axe to grind, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment among those predisposed to it.
In a similar way today, conservative news outlets promote the views of climate deniers and publish stories designed to discredit climate scientists, all with a view to defending an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe. As in the Wiemar Republic, the effect has been to fuel suspicion of liberals and “elites” by inviting the public to view science through political lenses.
At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend:
This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.
The controversy was not confined to Germany. In France a citizen’s attitude to the new theory could be guessed from the stance he or she took on the Dreyfus affair, the scandal surrounding the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of spying in 1894, whose fate divided French society. Anti-Dreyfusards were inclined to reject relativity on political grounds.
In Britain, suspicions were less politically grounded but relativity’s subversion of Newton was a sensitive issue, leading Einstein to write an encomium for the great English scientist prior to a lecture tour.
Like Einstein’s opponents, who denied relativity because of its perceived association with progressive politics, conservative climate deniers follow the maxim that “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”. Scientists whose research strengthens the claims of environmentalism must be opposed.
Conservative climate deniers often link their repudiation of climate science to fears that cultural values are under attack from “liberals” and progressives. In Weimar Germany the threat to the cultural order apparently posed by relativity saw Einstein accused of “scientific dadaism”, after the anarchistic cultural and artistic movement then at its peak. The epithet is revealing because it reflected anxiety that Einstein’s theory would overthrow the established Newtonian understanding of the world, a destabilisation of the physical world that mirrored the subversion of the social order then underway.
Relativity’s apparent repudiation of absolutes was interpreted by some as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay. There could not have been a worse time for Einstein’s theory to have received such emphatic empirical validation than in the chaotic years after the First World War.
Although not to be overstated, the turmoil of Weimar Germany has some similarities with the political ferment that characterises the United States today – deep-rooted resentments, the sense of a nation in decline, the fragility of liberal forces, and the rise of an angry populist right. Environmental policy and science have become battlegrounds in a deep ideological divide that emerged as a backlash against the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Marrying science to politics was a calculated strategy of conservative activists in the 1990s, opening up a gulf between Republican and Democratic voters over their attitudes to climate science. Both anti-relativists and climate deniers justifiably feared that science would enhance the standing of their opponents. They responded by tarnishing science with politics.
Einstein’s work was often accused of being un-German, and National Socialist ideology would soon be drawing a distinction between Jewish and Aryan mathematics. Although anti-Semitism plays no part in climate denial, “Jewish mathematics” served the same political function that the charge of “left-wing science” does in the climate debate today.
In the United States, the notion of left-wing science dates to the rise in the 1960s of what has been called “environmental-social impact” science which, at least implicitly, questioned the unalloyed benefits of “technological-production” science. Thus in 1975 Jacob Needleman could write:
Once the hope of mankind, modern science has now become the object of such mistrust and disappointment that it will probably never again speak with its old authority.
The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute – the leading denialist organisation that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy – has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist.
The association between “left-wing” opinion and climate science has now been made so strongly that politically conservative scientists who accept the evidence for climate change typically withdraw from public debate. So do those conservative politicians who remain faithful to science.
The motives of Einstein’s opponents were various but differences were overlooked in pursuit of the common foe. Today among the enemies of climate science we find grouped together activists in free market think tanks, politicians pandering to popular fears, conservative media outlets like the Sunday Times and Fox News, a handful of disgruntled scientists, right-wing philanthropists including the Scaifes and Kochs, and sundry opportunists such as Christopher Monckton and Bjorn Lomborg.
While Einstein’s theory posed no economic threat and industrialists were absent from the constellation of anti-relativity forces, the way in which climate denial was initially organised and promoted by fossil fuel interests is now well-documented. In the last several years, climate denial has developed into a political and cultural movement. Beneath the Astroturf grass grew.
This is an edited extract from Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton, published by Allen & Unwin.
Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Again The Conversation provides some of the best commentary and thinking on the climate change debate.
Nick Rowley from the University of Sydney reflects upon the impact Hurricane Sandy may have on the politics of global warming. More importantly he muses on what progress can be made to fashion a global consensus for action (reprinted below).
This figure comes from a report by Pew Environment Group and is worth reading. It is worth noting who is making the investment, and critically who is not:
The Americas region is a distant third in the race for clean energy investment, attracting $65.8 billion overall in 2010. Investments in the United States rebounded 51 percent over 2009 levels to reach $34 billion, but the United States continued to slide down the top 10 list, falling from second to third. Given uncertainties surrounding key policies and incentives, the United States’ competitive position in the clean energy sector is at risk.
I’ve been musing for some time that he price of listening to the climate sceptics – at least for the US – is the loss competitive advantage.
We can see this in how America is surrounding its lead on technology and innovation (not to mention its moral leadership) due to the reflexive denial of conservative politicians cultivated and feed by the sceptics movement and right-wing media.
One only has to look at the “war on renewable energy” waged by the conservative Republican Party and News Corporation. In dismissing non-carbon sources of energy, the United States is literally surrounding its technological advantage to the Asia-Pacific nations.
“Stick with coal!” scream the sceptics.
And while many advocate for a “Drill baby, drill” energy policy the rest of the world is leaving the US behind.
The above statistics prove the folly in such short-sightedness.
There can be little doubt that in the future we will utilise clean energy technologies from China, India and South Korea – and so will the Americans.
The phrase “Made in the USA” will come to carry the same overtones we now associate with the old Soviet and East European industries: shoddy, polluting and the epitome of inefficient technological obsolescence.
This is not the first time the Americans have surrounded a technological or economic advantage: one merely needs to look at the decline and near collapse of the American automobile industry (although it should be noted it has experienced a small turn around by switching production to more fuel-efficient vehicles to match their competitors).
The same dynamics are playing out again.
Where foresight and leadership are required you can trust the doubting voices to stifle innovation and genuine discussion on policy responses. Because ultimately that is what the climate sceptic movement promotes: paralysis.
It encourages the individual and nation to stand still and forgo innovation. Failing to even acknowledge the problem of climate change means forgoing a leadership role in the realms of politics and techologicaly.
Thus it seems America’s decline is marching lockstep with rising temperatures and increased extreme weather events
When a nation’s political elite are locked into denial or silence on an issue as fundemental as climate change it can only have negative effects in both the short and long term.
The silence on the issue in the American presidential election is the true victory of the deniers – but such self-imposed silence on a issue of strategic importance will cost the US dearly.
This is not to blame the individual American, many of whom are blameless – indeed when polled the vast majority accept the science and wish to see policies and regulations addressing energy and climate change.
The ruined foreshore of New Jersy, the wrecked and burnt homes and flooded subways of New York are the price of failed leadership.
I am writing with Hurricane Sandy having brought devastation to New York and the East coast of the United States.
Much has been written on the politics of climate change. But until a few days ago, a severe weather event affecting the Presidential poll in the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would have been regarded as creative fantasy or another average Hollywood script.
And yet that is the situation now. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to losses of $US125 billion: the costliest event ever recorded in the US. It was also the deadliest single storm event, claiming 1,322 lives. Sandy doesn’t come close to those statistics, yet she has halted an election campaign, shut down a major global city and stopped trading on the New York Stock Exchange for two days.
In the autumn of 2005 when working at Downing Street on climate and sustainability, I spent four days north of New York with a group of scientists and business leaders concerned with the global climate problem. It was no hurricane, but while I was there the rain didn’t stop. At the conference I met a senior executive working with Munich Re, one of the two largest re-insurance companies. An actuary by training, he wasn’t the type of person swayed by emotion or any environmentalist requests to save the world.
Re-insurers rigorously analyse the frequency and loss trends of different perils from an insurance perspective. They calculate and assess the risk, and advise on premiums accordingly. He had little interest in the political battles with sceptics and those denying basic climate science. He said he wasn’t qualified to understand the policy responses required. Having assessed the data it was clear to him that as the atmosphere warms, the relationships between ocean currents, ice caps, and atmospheric pressure become more turbulent. The weather turns more unpredictable.
In looking out of the window at the torrential rain all I saw were damp autumn leaves. But for him, the constant rain demonstrated the probability of future events that Munich were most fearful of: a pattern of severe storms tracking up the east coast to New York, New Jersey and Washington DC. Not the big “doomsday” scenario, but what Al Gore describes as an unstable series of climatic events that become “the new normal”.
Sandy is not some bolt out of the blue. It is the kind of event that insurers have been across for a while. And as the science, impacts and costs of global climate change become more clear and the risks more real, the next meeting of the world’s climate negotiators will take place in Doha at the end of the month.
Figueras is a seasoned United Nations professional: highly intelligent, committed, knows the system backwards, and feisty. I sat next to her at a private lunch convened by the Clean Energy Council. She enthusiastically described the growth in the regulation of carbon with more than 30 emissions trading schemes now in operation. This is indeed positive, but sadly few, if any, can yet demonstrate a price that will come close to de-linking economic growth from emissions growth
If only the politics of carbon pricing worked as well as the economic principles. And with the failure of Copenhagen to fulfil even the most modest expectations built up following the rise in public, business and political consciousness, there is currently no appetite to take the lead internationally on climate change.
Figueras sees this lack of momentum and argues it must be accelerated through three mutually re-enforcing dynamics:
government and business working in tandem
an understanding that a burden-sharing approach must be replaced with an international race to lead in low emissions energy and infrastructure
an end to the logjam that pits the rapidly developing economies against those that have achieved their high carbon development already.
On these criteria there is cause for optimism. The first is latent. There are notable exceptions, but business responses to climate change have waned and remain more about the need for conspicuous concern rather than achieving measurable reductions.
The second is very much underway. According to Bloomberg, in 2004 only $US34 billion was invested in clean energy globally. In 2011 the figure was $280 billion. That is a more than 800% increase. Last year was the first when new investment in clean energy overtook investment in coal and gas.
On the third, new alliances have been formed between India, China, and Brazil. For them low carbon has the potential to be a massive potential source of competitive advantage over coming decades.
Figueras is impressive. I disagreed with little that she said. She recognises that progress cannot come from the top down, or just the bottom up, but through the actions of multiple State and other players working together.
Yet she believes heads of state must be kept away from the negotiations. Certainly, the Copenhagen experience cannot be repeated: leaders turning up to make speeches and rehearse positions. But for the international agreement that this problem demands to ever be reached, heads of state must be involved. Decisions that have implications for global economic, energy, transport, and trade policy will not be taken by negotiators, no matter how deft and able, working for environment ministers.
Heads of state won’t be in Doha. The timing and the place is wrong. But for the international response to move from flirtation with the problem to putting in place the rules that might temper the scenarios that my friend at Munich Re continues to work on, they simply must be around the table.
Nick Rowley does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
An online poll of 13,500 adults in 13 countries found that most people believe that climate change is happening.
The figures ranged from 98 percent in Mexico and Hong Kong and 97 percent in Indonesia to 80 percent in Belgium and 72 percent in the United States.
Rising average temperatures, drought and extreme rainfall were the phenomena that people most cited.
However countries had a much more variable opinion over whether whether it is mankind causing global warming.
Asked whether human activity was mainly responsible for climate change, 94 percent of citizens in Hong Kong agreed, followed by 93 percent in Indonesia, 92 percent in Mexico and 87 percent in Germany.
The United States remains the “heartland” of climate scepticism: this may lend support to the idea that denial is a product of right-wing popularism. Thus it is strongest where the culture war is being waged and think tanks, conservative politicians and fundamentalist Christians are most actively opposed to the science and regulatory efforts:
Dissent was strongest in the United States, where 58 percent agreed with the question, in Britain (65 percent) and Japan (78 percent).
The survey was carried out from July 5 to August 6 by the opinion poll group Ipsos for the insurance firm Axa.
It was conducted in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States.
The results come as the climate change debate becomes more important to the US election.
Campaign groups are threatening to target the vulnerable congressional seats of Republicans who dismiss the dangers of climate change.
In the UK, trust in climate change science was damaged by the theft of emails from the University of East Anglia or so-called ‘climategate’. Sceptics claimed that the emails showed scientists were willing to exaggerate global warming – although later inquiries found the science remained sound.
In Japan global warming has been dismissed as nuclear industry propaganda.
In comparison, developing countries, that are more likely to be hit by extreme weather events, are more likely to believe mankind is responsible for climate change.
The countries with strongest public support are those most likely to suffer the worst impacts.