Tuesday, January 1st 2013, 3:43 AM EST
The signals could hardly be clearer: climate change is on the way, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity
This coming year, according to the Met Office, could be one of the warmest ever. This forecast is the latest in a cascade of ominous observations. Just in the last month US scientists warned that West Antarctica was warming twice as fast as expected, and three times faster than the average for the planet as a whole; and the European Space Agency revealed that snow cover in Europe and Asia in June had been the lowest since satellite observations began 45 years ago. It has been a year of extremes, in which the Arctic summer sea ice fell to its lowest ever; in which the 48 contiguous states of the US experienced the hottest ever temperatures and protracted drought; in which wildfires in the tundra darkened snow over Greenland and precipitated melting at an unprecedented rate. The largest Atlantic hurricane on record crippled New York, while Britain, which began the year with one of the driest winters on record, then experienced what for some counties proved to be the wettest year ever.
In global terms, 2012 was probably only the ninth warmest on record. But 11 of the 12 warmest ever have fallen in this young century. The signals could hardly be clearer: climate change is on the way, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity. More than two decades ago, scientists warned that these things would happen: they are happening, and faster than anybody expected.
Ice reflects sunlight: it helps insulate the planet. Dark things – soot, blue water, tarmac and brick – absorb sunlight, and accelerate warming. So the loss of ice cover is itself going to feed back into extra warmth and even faster melting. For every 1C temperature rise, saturated air can hold 7% more water vapour. So with rising temperatures, there will be devastating drought in some regions and catastrophic floods and cyclones in others. But glacial ice is also water waiting to reach the ocean. Researchers warned in 1978 that the West Antarctic ice sheet was likely to melt as carbon dioxide levels rose. There is enough ice there to raise global sea levels by at least 4.5 metres: if that happened, London, New York, Shanghai and other estuarine megacities would become uninhabitable and most of Bangladesh could disappear. Already, as we report in connection with Britain today, food security is back on the political agenda in the rich world.
And the political response to these ominous signals? Ministers met in Doha, agreed once again that planetary warming should be limited to 2C rather than, say, a possible 4.8C, and promised to meet again in 2015. They then went back to worrying about economic growth. But unsustainable growth is the problem. Successive UK governments have grasped the gravity, but have acted slowly and inconsistently. This one – avowedly the "greenest government ever"– should be vigorously pursuing carbon-free ways of delivering energy and inventive ways of saving it. Instead, it has seconded energy executives into the civil service; it is contemplating the exploitation of shale gas; and it is watching rail fares rise by twice inflation, and so encouraging fossil fuel use on the road. In the US, attitudes are changing: senators and members of Congress may remain sceptical, but – according to a December poll – four Americans in five now think that temperatures are rising and government should act.
That is good news: politicians respond to electoral alarm. The bad news is that the longer the delay, the more radical the action needed, and the more single-minded, wholehearted and hardheaded the requisite international co-operation to deliver it. The auguries are not promising. Rationing resources is never easy politically, and nation states tend to compete, rather than co-operate. But headlong climate change presents hazards on a global scale, so global agreement and concerted action is the only option. We don't have another planet to go to. We really are all in this together.
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