Global warming appears to have entered a new and fast-moving trajectory. Amid record-breaking temperatures, melting ice and a sharp increase in North Atlantic sea surface temperatures, veteran climate scientists describe the situation as ‘very unusual’, ‘worrying’, ‘terrifying’ and ‘bonkers’.
“A few decades ago some people might have thought climate change was a relatively slow-moving phenomenon but we are now witnessing things happening at a terrifying rate,” says Prof Peter Stott, leader of the UK Met Office’s climate monitoring and attribution team, this week.
El Niño arrives
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has also warned of record temperatures and extreme heat in the near future after confirming the latest climate-heating El Niño event had “arrived”. The last major El Niño was in 2016 – which to date remains the hottest year on record – but for 2023, it comes on top of increasing global heat driven by human-caused carbon emissions, an effect described by the WMO as a “double whammy”. Its officials say urgent preparations for extreme weather events are now vital to save lives and livelihoods.
“As El Niño builds through the rest of this year, adding an extra oomph to the damaging effects of human-induced global heating, many millions of people across the planet and many diverse ecosystems are going to face extraordinary challenges – and unfortunately suffer great damage,” added Stott.
The WMO estimates there is now a 90% probability of the latest El Niño continuing to the end of 2023 at a moderate strength or higher, with the added risk of it supercharging extreme weather.
New records for high temperature have been broken almost daily on every continent in recent months whilst in the UK, the average temperature for June was beaten by nearly a full degree with an unprecedented heatwave also affecting the country’s coastal waters.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, admits that he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on with this summer’s crazy climate data.
“It feels to me like the climate may have shifted into some sort of new regime of global heating that scientists don’t yet understand. And yet the media and everyone keep acting like things are basically fine and leaders keep expanding fossil fuels,” he says.
Cambridge University’s Prof Emily Shuckburgh, a leading climate scientist and director of Cambridge Zero, says that after the UK’s record-breaking month of high temperatures, it looks likely the rest of the summer will be warmer than normal too as global temperatures continue to rise.
“We’ve been warning of these changes for 30 years and warning that the planet is overheating,” she told listeners on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme (3 July 2023).
“We’ve got record melting in Greenland occurring right at this moment, we’ve got record low levels of sea ice in Antarctica. From pole to pole we are seeing dramatic changes and it is nature as well as humans that is witnessing the impact.
“Those extreme temperatures of 40 degrees that we saw in the UK last summer had a dramatic impact on our wildlife and a dramatic impact on us. Across Europe thousands of people died prematurely in that heatwave.
“Sadly the UK used to be a global leader in terms of climate change and it was only two years ago that we hosted the big international climate conference COP-26. We’ve now relinquished that leadership.”
Prof Shuckburgh says the recent progress report from the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) on how the UK is doing against its own decarbonisation plans was “covered with red” because goals and targets were not being met.
“We should be responding to the cost of living and energy crisis by investing in insulation, in solar, in wind, offshore and onshore,” she suggested.
Prof Shuckburgh urged people to accept the global scale of what is at risk. “We know that if we don’t respond to climate change as a country and as a world then the risks are enormous,” she said.
“They are potentially catastrophic in terms of our food supplies, the global spread of disease, the risk from migration by communities that have been impacted by climate change, the risk of conflicts and, most importantly of all, the risk of passing catastrophic tipping points.
“This is what’s at stake. The really frustrating thing from my perspective is that we know what the solutions are. We have them at our fingertips and what we need are stable policies in support of them.”
Leadership lacking – the UK falls short
Such stark warnings are echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, who also described addressing climate change as a “human rights” issue.
Evoking a “dystopian future” if urgent action isn’t taken, he said: “Our environment is burning. It’s melting. It’s flooding. It’s depleting. It’s drying. It’s dying. We, the generation with the most powerful technological tools in history, have the capacity to change it.”
He accused world leaders of performing “the choreography of promising to act” before getting stuck in a rut dominated by short-term political expediency. Turk called for an immediate end to “senseless subsidies” of the fossil fuel industry and said the Dubai COP28 (2023 UN Climate Change Conference) climate summit in November and December needs to be a “decisive game-changer”.
At the end of June, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was accused by a resigning government minister and environment campaigner, Zac Goldsmith, of being “simply uninterested” in the environment and climate emergency.
Lame political leadership – mirrored by many of those in power and supported by the fossil fuel industry and elements of the right-wing media – along with a cost-of-living crisis and war in Ukraine, have all contributed to a prevailing laissez faire attitude.
At the start of 2023, when Sunak introduced his five key policy pledges, the climate and environment were noticeable by their absence, a clear indication that the country’s third prime minister in as many years does not view them as a priority.
Sunak, who favours flying about the country on short-haul private jets and helicopters, also shunned a recent Paris summit on the climate, debt and poverty hosted by the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Perspective from space
If there can be a final thought (for now) then perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, it might go to the actor William Shatner.
As Captain James T Kirk of Star Trek’s Enterprise spaceship he explored the universe, espousing a vision of the future where humanity had not only survived but overcome many of the Earthly problems we face today.
Last year 90-year-old Shatner had what he described as a “life-changing experience” when he physically travelled into space for the first time, expecting to experience “a deep connection with the immensity around us” and “a deep call” for endless exploration.
“The strongest feeling I had, that dominated everything else by far, was the deepest grief I have ever experienced. I understood, in the clearest possible way, that we were living on a tiny oasis of life, surrounded by an immensity of death,” he said.
“I didn’t see infinite possibilities of worlds to explore, of adventures to have, or living creatures to connect with. I saw the deepest darkness I could have ever imagined, contrasting starkly with the welcoming warmth of our nurturing home planet.
“This was an immensely powerful awakening for me. It filled me with sadness. I realised that we had spent decades, if not centuries, being obsessed with looking away, with looking outside.
“I did my share in popularising the idea that space was the final frontier. But I had to get to space to understand that Earth is and will stay our only home. It is the final and only frontier, and we have been ravaging it relentlessly, destroying it at an unprecedented rate and making it uninhabitable.”