Weathering the Storm of Climate Change

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, May 15, 2014

The Parisian 2015 Climate Change discussions are near – scientists are clear about their warnings, but politicians seem unaware. Meanwhile, the weather is becoming more extreme.

Rain stops play! These are dreaded words across the world during the summer months – rain has stopped the great game of cricket. For some people it is the world’s best game, for others it is incomprehensible . . . especially the Test Matches of five-day duration.

It is not just cricket that is affected by the weather, but all outdoor events can suffer –´horse racing has to be cancelled if “the going” is too hard or muddy; open-air music festivals protect the performers somewhat but the audiences can churn the grass into mud baths; and some boat races are notoriously dangerous causing health and safety authorities to fret and governments put their air/sea rescue systems on high alert.

Adverse weather causes losses to sponsors as well as deaths, and we are unable to manage it. Yet I can write with confidence “. . . climate is what we expect, and weather is what we get”.

We are becoming better at forecasting short-term weather events which are often driven by predictions derived from long-term knowledge of climatic conditions.

But the science is young and the data complex, if not chaotic. We know some coastal areas have huge tides – northern France may have over eight metres range whereas its southern coastline lapped by the Mediterranean has only a third of a metre.

Imagine being in the middle of the ocean within the calm of a depression caused by local atmospheric pressure being lower than surrounding regions where there may be huge gales whipping the sea into 10-metre high waves. Oddly, in the centre of the depression the sea rises, drawn upwards by the low pressure. Strong depressions regularly advance on northern Europe from the Atlantic in wintertime, and when they coincide with the spring high tides (when the sun and moon align their gravity) they cause really high tides: if these coincide with high winds and the extra draw of low pressure devastating storms can occur.

In the Great Storm of December 1703 the UK suffered its worst storm – between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost, 700 ships were piled up on the London docks and one navy ship was blown to Gothenburg, Sweden before it could make its way back to England. There was no forecasting at the time so the UK government began to collect and analyse weather data.

Short-term forecasts
Today, most developed nations have good short-term forecasts aided by global data sharing from terrestrial measurements as well as satellite observations. Yet, through the winter of 2013 into 2014, there were many severe and damaging storms along the western coasts of Europe, renewing fears of climatic change. All the storms were forecast reasonably accurately (so there were few deaths) but now some predict that by the end of the century our anthropogenic involvement in climate change will be more important than nature’s own.

We have developed this mess through our own ingeniousness. First we found out how to get horses, mules and even elephants to augment our own weak muscle power. But the breakthrough came when we invented the steam engine.

By heating its water to drive pistons, turbines and, more recently, electricity generators, we increased our capabilities well beyond the inconstant wind and waterpower.

The steam engine could run 24/7 any day of the year – all it needed was fuel: first wood, then coal, oil and gas, and now nuclear fuel.

This apparently unlimited energy led to a rapid increase in global population (now falling and predicted to be stable by 2100 at about 11 billion); and to rapidly increasing emissions of air-borne pollutants, many of which are climate warming chemicals.

Carbon dioxide is the most commonly discussed pollutant. Scientists say that humans have sent a total of 305 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere since 1751; half of these emissions have occurred since the mid-1970s, and while the oceans and soils still act as “sinks” their beneficial activity may be swamped by our incessant emissions.

We, as individuals, seem not to care about this – in part because its outcome is unsure and it will be well into the future. We procrastinate, and so do our lawmakers who should legislate more strongly to control pollution.

We will see more frequent references to “climate change” as we approach December 2015 when, in Paris, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will hope to get global ratification of ambitious new plans to reduce our outputs of CO2 and other pollutants.

The last breakthrough was in Kyoto (in 1997) but its legislation action has ceased. Many scientists and government officials have been negotiating their way to the Paris meeting hoping for a new global accord to continue where Kyoto left off. I think the scientific community’s conclusions are clear though worrisome – and they bound their remarks with statistical error limits.

Being open
The politicians, however, are in a tizzy. Often they don’t understand the science, and may not believe it. In the US there are “creationists” who believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, and many are in high office.

Of course, politicians are charged by their voters to “do their best for their people” which often leaves no room for compromise.

Further, I think the brief high-level negotiations are flawed as the local host has to deal both with the influx of 15,000 people (diplomats, negotiators, scientist and lobbyists) as well as be responsible for engineering the final accord.

The IPCC two-week discussion process is too fast and too contrived – scientific evidence is discussed openly and at length, but politics are subject to ill-formed short-term coalitions created to extract concessions at the last minute.

I suggest we all lobby our national representatives to be open about their aims and their negotiating stance so that others may engage with them well before the stressful two weeks in Paris. Of course some conclusion will be signed-off in Paris – but will they be meaningful?

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.