It’s still February but already feeling warm (update: winter temperatures records smashed) Thirty or forty years ago, the middle of February would normally have been the depths of winter in England, but no more: Buds are breaking, the grass is growing enthusiastically, and there have even been sightings of Swallows and Sand Martins flying up from the South.
Has anyone else who suffers from hayfever also had a few sneezes or runny eyes? Welcome to the new climate. Of course we were in the same position last year, before the Beast from the East arrived, but despite its dramatic impact, England had its hottest year on record last year.
Winter is being squeezed – by autumn running into December, and spring starting in February. Elsewhere in the world, Australia has just had its hottest January on record. Normally, this would only happen in an El Nino year, when warm water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean push temperatures up in Australia, and worldwide. This year there has been no El Nino (although one may just be starting up now), which makes the antipodean heatwave all the more alarming.
For those few people clinging on to denial and a desperate desire to find alternative ‘natural’ reasons behind our Climate Crisis, the Sun’s behaviour is not helping. Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers, for example, believes the climate is driven by the sun’s activity. We are now in a period called the ‘Solar Minimum’ when solar activity declines (and sunspots disappear from the surface of the sun). If the sun is driving the climate, solar minima should see global temperatures fall, yet they continue to climb.
While some efforts are being made to reduce the inexorable increase in greenhouse gases emitted from human activities, climate science continues to throw up surprises. Concentrations of Methane – one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – had plateaued until 2014. Then, inexplicably it started to increase again, and not just a bit but by a lot.
Dramatic increases in methane have been recorded over the past four years, but it’s not at all clear from where the Methane is being emitted. Methane from different sources has different chemical signatures, and these point towards a biological source accounting for the dramatic increase in recent years, rather than, say, gas leakages from the fossil fuel industry. Local monitoring also suggests the emissions are from tropical areas – which rules out methane leaking for Arctic tundra or Methane hydrates trapped in the sea bed. But whether the increased level of Methane is produced by rice fields or by cattle is unclear. There is still so much we do not understand; for example, it’s possible that a rise in atmospheric methane may be due to climate-change induced chemical changes which are slowing the natural processes which cause methane (which is short-lived, disappearing after about 10 years) to break down.
While scenes of mass cattle die-off in Australia may elicit compassion here, it’s the impact of climate chaos on the farmers who produce our food which will really bring the reality home to people. A recent report from the Climate Coalition neatly summarises what is already happening and how much more dramatic the changes in the near future will be.
You may be surprised to discover that the UK is more or less self-sufficient in carrots and peas. Last year’s extraordinary heat and drought made a big dent in both these crops – carrots were down 25-30% last year. The pea beetle is heading north as the climate warms and if (when) it arrives in Britain, will affect Pea yields. As we are being told to eat more fruit and vegetables, not least because it is better for the environment, there is a certain irony that climate chaos is going to make it more difficult for us to grow them, and the last thing we want is to be more dependent on imports, regardless of chaos around Brexit day.
Nor does it make any sense for the Government to be talking about the UK helping to ‘feed the world’ as Michael Gove said to the National Farmers’ Union conference last week. Exporting lamb and beef to the EU (exports of which are now at risk of total collapse if we crash out of the EU without a deal) is not going to help subsistence farmers in the tropics who produce most of the world’s food. Better that we support research into developing better agro-ecological farming techniques, or use our global influence to help farmers share best practice where it already exists.
All of these things are inevitably creating a collective sense of anxiety and perhaps despair that the damage has already been done and there’s nothing that can be done. So, it’s particularly inspirational to see young people demanding urgent action – a movement which continues to build.
Last week saw the first school strike for climate in the UK – inspired by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg, who has been on strike from school for months. Thunberg’s inspiration led to around ten thousand UK students walking out of school on the February 15 to protest that the Climate Crisis was only being given lip service by this government, and governments in general.
The Government’s response can only be described as crass; both House of Commons leader’s Andrea Leadsom’s dismissal of the action as ‘truancy’ and the Prime Minister complaining that they had wasted their teacher’s efforts in preparing lessons that they were not attending. Theresa May is notorious for ignoring how her reactions are perceived (the optics) beyond the Westminster Bubble, and she surpassed herself with this reaction. Thankfully other politicians reacted with interest and respect, not least former biodiversity minister Richard Benyon, who met local school students to listen to, and discuss their demands. And let’s not forget that born-again environmentalist Michael Gove sought to remove climate chaos from the curriculum during his tenure as Education Secretary, and it only remained after a major campaign – even now it’s treated as a sideshow.
It’s understandable that the generation at school at the moment feel frustrated and angry that their future is being put on the line by the people currently in charge, especially after the Brexit vote took away their future choices to live and work elsewhere in the EU.
Let’s hope these protests build and build over the next months (the next big one is planned for March 15) and grow to the point where they simply cannot be ignored by the politicians, media and the public. This would be a very healthy antidote to the act of national self-harm that is Brexit.