Land, sea and air records
Yet more grim statistics show that the planet is getting hotter and hotter, writes Eddie Ford. Meanwhile the Tories are denouncing eco-zealots, campaigning against Ulez and granting yet more oil and gas concessions
Another week, another set of temperature records broken. This time it is the announcement that we had the hottest July and the hottest day, July 6. That came just after news of the hottest surface sea temperatures. True, the difference might appear at first to be microscopic. But what is important is the direction of travel - which is terrifying. Everywhere you look, things are getting hotter and hotter, and everything we know tells us that will continue to be the case.
Yes, it is more than likely that these temperatures are partly driven by the El Niño phenomenon - the warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. However, that effect is relatively marginal. The main explanation, quite obviously, is human-created greenhouse gases. Again, it is worth remembering - going against a British-centred view - that we are dealing with global temperatures, meaning that the highest surface temperatures of the sea should be expected in March, not in July or August. This means that records will almost certainly continue to be broken.
Interestingly, sea surface temperature measurements have been made from ships for more than 150 years and are actually some of the longest instrumental records available for understanding the climate. How accurate they have been is a different question, of course, but they do exist and they do not need to be that accurate to give you a good idea about where things are going. As it happens, with the near inevitable march of technology, for the past 40 years there have also been measurements available from satellites and buoys - so no-one can pretend that they do not know what is happening.
From all this data, scientists have discovered that over the full period of the records, global mean sea surface temperature has increased by close to 0.9°C, and that the increase over the past four decades is about 0.6°C - the curve is getting steeper. The latest five-year average is about 0.2°C above that between 1991 and 2020 - another alarming sign. Some of the fastest warming areas are parts of the Arctic Ocean, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, as well as parts of the Pacific. This is extremely bad news for all of us, because seas and oceans help to regulate the climate, soaking up heat, driving weather patterns, acting as a carbon sink and providing respite, as cool air blowing off the sea can make hot land temperatures more bearable. On the flipside, warmer waters have less ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which means there will be more of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Warming oceans also contribute to ice melting, which causes a rise in sea level - with potentially catastrophic consequences. In more scary statistics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2100 sea levels could be as much as 1.1 metres higher than they are today, and sadly no amount of emissions reduction can stop the near and mid-term impacts of this phenomenon. About one billion people could possibly be exposed to much greater risks of flooding by the mid-century, whether in Bangkok, Amsterdam, Jakarta, Shenzhen, Manila, Huston, New Orleans or Dubai.
As many readers will know, several marine heatwaves have occurred around the world this year, including around the British Isles earlier this summer. Last week, waters off Florida had unprecedented temperatures of 38°C. Unfortunately, marine heatwaves are becoming more numerous, with the number of heatwave days having tripled in the past couple of years. They rose by more than 50% in the 30 years to 2016, compared with the period 1925-54. These marine heat waves destroy swathes of sea-life, just as wildfires take out huge areas of forest. Indeed, as satellite images have shown, the deep blue sea is actually becoming steadily greener over time, due to changes in plankton populations - with areas in the low latitudes near the equator especially affected.
You could not ask for a more graphic representation of the dire state of the ecosystem. Plankton of different sizes scatter light differently, and plankton with different pigments absorb it differently. When comparing these changes in colour with those hypothesised from a computer model simulating what the oceans would look like if human-caused global heating had never taken place, these changes seems clear. They have been detected in over 56% of the world’s oceans - an area greater than all of the land on earth. In most areas there is an unmistakable greening effect, but there are also places where red or blue colourings are rising or falling - climate change being a complex, chaotic process.
Furthermore, in an ominous warning, Antarctica is experiencing what amounts to heatwaves on the frozen continent. Last summer and this winter, sea ice extent has reached record lows - changes that happened even faster than most climate scientists predicted. There is now 2.5 million square kilometres less sea ice than there should be at this time of year - roughly the size of Western Australia. There have also been winter heatwaves in the central Chilean Andes, with temperatures surging to 37°C - melting the snow below 3,000 metres, which will have knock-on effects for people living in downstream valleys who depend on meltwater during the spring and summer.
Perhaps most worrying of all though, there is a lot of competition - a new study published in the Nature Communications journal suggests that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation could weaken to the point of collapse by as early as 2025. AMOC was already known to be at its most sluggish in 1,600 years owing to global warming and researchers spotted warning signs of a tipping point in 2021. Using sea surface temperature data stretching back to 1870 as a proxy for the change in strength of AMOC currents over time, evidence from past collapses indicates a temperature drop of 10°C in places like the British Isles, Norway and Iceland. Global warming is predicted to have such paradoxical localised effects.
In a depressing footnote to this story, we have Rishi Sunak’s campaigning against the London Ulez scheme and granting at least a hundred new gas and oil licences in the North Sea as part of a “maxing out” of fossil fuels that can only be described as moral and economic madness. Alongside that we have the comical (or disgusting) sight of Tory ministers trying to justify the unjustifiable by telling us that the new licences are “totally compatible” with the goal to achieve net zero by 2050.
One of the most absurd things that has been said, out of the many, is that these gas and oil concessions would be good for the environment because domestic supplies require less transport - therefore they will cut down on CO2 emissions and must be green! You could hardly make it up. Do they really believe it themselves? As if North Sea oil ends up entirely in Britain: no, it is sold into a global market. Certainly, the idea that opening up 100 new gas and oil concessions is somehow a contribution to the fight against global warming is not only jaw-dropping nonsense: it is downright stupid.
Well-rehearsed Tory MPs have appeared on the radio and TV to inform us about Britain’s marvellous achievements over the past years when it comes to setting the green agenda, etc. What they do not explain, of course, is that these supposed achievements had far more to do with the class war than ecological concerns. Though Margaret Thatcher did give one speech about the environment, she quickly recanted - going on to complain that the climate had become a leftwing vehicle and writing in her 2003 book Statecraft about the “alarmist” science of the IPCC: “The new dogma about climate change has swept through the left-of-centre governing classes.”
Therefore any idea that Thatcher was some sort of eco-warrior, should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves - even if she did have a scientific background as a food researcher at J Lyons. No, she did not close down the coal mines because she was a far-sighted guardian of nature who recognised the threat of global warming. Rather, she recognised the threat of highly organised and militant British miners to the bourgeois order.
There were two miners strikes under Ted Heath - the final one in 1974 ended up in a general election, with him asking who ruled in Britain: the unions or the elected government? Well, he did not get the answer he wanted: the Tories were voted out of office. The Tories never forgave the miners for such a humiliation. From that moment onwards they were determined to break the NUM - for which they prepared assiduously, just like the bourgeoisie did for the 1926 General Strike (unlike the TUC, it has to be said). The fact that they closed down one coalfield after another was the Tories’ unintended contribution to reducing CO2 emissions: replacing coal with gas generation of power made a difference. But, of course, the burning of any fossil fuel still releases CO2 and other greenhouses gases.
Now we are meant to believe that gas and oil extracted in British waters is a wonderful thing. A bit like going to the supermarket nowadays and finding out that half of the products on the shelves are apparently good for the environment. It is spin, gimmickry and downright lies.
Rishi Sunak is a modern-day Nero. He fiddles the figures while the planet burns.