Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  A disastrous banner year for climate change

On 8 November, the eve of the American election results, I was at a friend’s cozy Brooklyn apartment, celebrating his birthday and what we thought would be an inevitability: the election of the first female president of the US. By 10pm, the map on TV was red, and the mood turned funereal.

We had awaited a history-making win; instead, we were forced to witness what felt rather like a history-ending moment. At the end of 2016, a year which witnessed record-breaking extreme temperatures and record-breaking thin Arctic ice, the world’s most powerful country had just elected a climate change denier.

In November, we watched and laughed as Hillary Clinton derided Donald Trump’s much retweeted assertion that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. More than a fortnight away from Trump’s inauguration, we look on in horror as his cabinet appears to fill up with climate change deniers and fossil fuel company leaders who have spent years trying to dismantle and undermine the very agencies they will soon head. Like Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, who sued the agency earlier this year when it attempted to curtail emissions of the greenhouse gas methane. Or the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, who signed a deal with Russia in 2011 to drill oil in the Arctic, Siberia and the Black Sea region. Only to be stymied by sanctions placed by the US in the wake of the Crimean invasion in 2014. That’s not all.

Since Trump’s election, the news cycle has been ricocheting with ever more alarming headlines on climate change. The president-elect has declared that he intends to renege on the Paris Agreement. This agreement was signed in April by 195 countries agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions that could lead to a 2- degree Celsius increase in world temperatures, by sticking to a carbon budget and agreeing to reduce the pace and amount of oil, coal and gas they burn.

The US’ participation in this was crucial—it’s the world’s second highest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for 19% of worldwide emissions. But the incoming administration, whose ranks are swollen with fossil fuel billionaires, clearly not only intends to abandon all restraint by lifting restrictions on oil and gas extraction, open federal lands to drilling, and revitalize the coal mining industry, it also plans to crack down on what Trump calls “politicized science", the crucial climate research done by space agency Nasa’s earth science division. His administration has also asked for a list of energy department staffers and contractors who worked on climate policy—it was perceived as a hostile move that sparked apprehension.

Climate scientists have reacted with “guerrilla archiving" projects, frantically copying spreadsheeted sets of vulnerable climate data from Nasa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) on to non-government servers. Noaa’s parent body, the department of commerce, might be entrusted to billionaire Wilbur Ross, best known for acquiring distressed companies—including, recently, scads of fracking companies—and drastically shaving down costs. So there’s a fear that he might do the same to science programmes. It’s not for nothing that Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic dubbed Trump “the first demagogue of the Anthropocene", who would release the brakes on a carbon-guzzling country, and spark off decades of inequality, upheaval and violence.

Warming Poles, thinning ice

The timing of all this could not be worse. This month, Noaa released the “2016 Arctic Report Card", a peer-reviewed report which tracks changes in the region. The takeaways were a set of grim superlatives: The Arctic has just had its warmest year on record. It has warmed by 3.5 degrees Celsius since 1900, twice as fast as the global average. This is due to a combination of factors, including the loss of ice leading to absorption of more heat, and atmospheric heat being swirled along to the Poles by storms. The Arctic also saw record-breaking low levels of snow cover for the first time since satellite observations began in 1967. The ever-shrinking Greenland ice sheet began warming earlier than it had before (except for one other year). And sea ice in the region between the months of October and November was the lowest ever since records began in 1979.

Meanwhile, scientists with the Norwegian Young Sea Ice (N-ICE2015) project, who undertook a risky wintertime expedition to the North Pole in 2015, were alarmed to see that not just was there less ice, but that the new ice that was forming had a completely different character. “We saw a new Arctic where the ice is much thinner, only 3-4ft thick," observed Mats Granskog, a sea-ice expert interviewed by Nature magazine. “And this ice functions very differently than it did 10 years ago. It moves much faster. It breaks up more easily. It’s way more vulnerable to storms and winds."

From the Antarctic, things look even grimmer. Two papers published using satellite data from Nasa this year found the fastest ongoing rates of glacier retreat ever observed in the region were caused in part by warm ocean water slamming into its biggest ice-shelf’s undersides. They also noted that this would “hasten mass loss and glacier retreat" from western Antarctica. The melting of the West Antarctic ice-sheet is one of the biggest sources of sea-level rise. If its biggest ice-shelf gets destabilized, the inevitable collapse could lead to an increase in worldwide sea levels of up to 4ft.

Extreme temperatures got more extreme

Moving on to another, less remote climate change indicator: extreme temperature. This year, hundreds of Indians died from heat stroke and dehydration. We were so distracted by being slow-cooked ourselves that we barely raised an eyebrow when a lady in Telangana ladled egg batter on to the flagstones outside her home and cooked up a perfectly edible omelette. The unfortunate residents of northern Phalodi, Rajasthan, had to contend with 51 degrees Celsius, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the country.

In July, scientists at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York announced that the first six months of 2016 had set respective records as the warmest months globally in the modern temperature record, since 1880. They added that the six-month period from January-June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius warmer than the late 19th century. The day after Trump’s victory, amid an atmosphere of helplessness, shock and fear, diplomats gathered in Marrakech for a climate summit were informed by the World Meteorological Organization that 2016 was set to be the hottest year on record “by a significant margin".

More intense storms, fires, floods

2016 was a year bookended by the Siachen glacier avalanche, which killed 10 soldiers, and the devastating tropical cyclone Vardah, the closest Category 1 cyclone (most turbulent), to approach Chennai in 50 years. And while it’s tempting—but not scientifically sound—to look for a climate change fingerprint in every single storm and flood, it’s undeniable that climate change is playing a role in amplifying the magnitude of a range of disasters, and making them occur in places and times where they haven’t been witnessed before. The Siachen avalanche, for instance, could be attributed to warming winter temperatures and glacial retreat in the Himalayas. As for storms and floods, Australian researchers published an analysis of worldwide rainfall data this year—the first such study of its kind. They found that a 1- degree Celsius uptick led to a 7% increase in extreme rainfall intensity, and increased flood risk.

This summer, thousands of acres of forest in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh were destroyed in fires that raged on for nearly 100 days. Forest fires occur every summer, but this year’s fires arrived earlier and were more intense. While there are no analyses of forest-fire risks in the subcontinent, it’s clear that climate change is pretty wildfire-friendly across Europe and North America, where it’s made forests drier and warmer—altogether better tinderboxes.

Phalodi town in Rajasthan. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint
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Phalodi town in Rajasthan. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint

Climate change mostly affects the poor

There are two truths about climate change: It’s a problem created by the world’s wealthiest, and disproportionately suffered by the world’s poorest. A 2014 paper in the Environmental Research Letters journal analysed historical contributions to global warming, and found the world’s seven wealthiest countries alone—topped by the US—had burnt up 63% of the fossil fuels responsible for today’s global warming.

In 2014, a group of resource economists headed by Robert O. Mendelsohn at the Yale School of Forestry analysed the distributional impact of climate change on rich and poor countries. They predicted that “poor countries will suffer the bulk of the damages from climate change", the primary reason behind their location. Distributed across low latitudes, they had high temperatures to begin with, so “further warming pushes them ever further away from optimal temperatures for climate-sensitive economic sectors". A World Bank report last year predicted that climate change’s role in making agriculture more unstable would push an additional 126 million people into poverty by 2030.

So Trump and his team underline the central injustice behind climate change: They have and will continue to profit from it.

The big figures

•The “2016 Arctic Report Card", which tracks changes in the region, stated that the Arctic has just had its warmest year on record. It has warmed by 3.5 degrees Celsius since 1900; twice as fast as the global average.

• Scientists with the Arctic Norwegian Young Sea Ice (N-ICE2015) project, who undertook a risky wintertime expedition to the North Pole in 2015, found the new ice that was forming was much thinner, only 3-4ft thick.

• At northern Phalodi, Rajasthan, temperatures rose to 51 degrees Celsius, the hottest ever recorded in India.

• In July, scientists at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York announced that the first six months of 2016 had set respective records as the warmest months globally in the modern temperature record, since 1880.

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