The virus has contained emissions for now, but the planet continues to heat up
“The future is grim but the sunrise is beautiful,” US environmental writer William DeBuys once said, explaining to an interviewer that while the evidence about future climate made him pessimistic, he was hard-wired to feel cheerful.
Those words of DeBuys keep coming back to me. On clear mornings early in this Hobart winter it’s been impossible not to feel cheerful. Which is just as well, because the state of our climate is anything but.
There is no better illustration of our parlous situation than this year’s global temperature maps, which show an ominous warming region across a huge swathe of Siberia and central Asia.
For all of this century the Arctic has been warming more than twice as quickly as the world overall, but this year has seen a major break-out. The May mean for some Siberian centres was 10C above their average – on top of steady warming across all of Siberia over the first five months of this year, nearly 6C above normal.
On one day in May, the temperature in the Siberian town of Khatanga climbed above 24C – over 25C above normal and 12C higher than the previous record. Then a fortnight ago Nizhnyaya Pesha, northeast of Moscow, sweltered in 30C temperatures – 17C above normal. Both centres are within the Arctic Circle – in the case of Khatanga 500 km north of it.
A full analysis of this unheard-of warming is yet to come, but a lot of it is likely to be down to the fact that the volume of ice covering the Arctic Ocean has dropped by half over just 40 years. The change has been most dramatic north of Siberia, which is now routinely ice-free all summer.
Less sea ice and reduced Arctic snow cover means both sea and land surfaces are darker-coloured, enabling the ocean and the land to absorb far more solar heat than normal. In heatwave conditions last summer, with permafrost melting at a record rate, peat fires fuelled by released methane broke out. Those that were not extinguished last summer are now flaring up again.
The Siberian experience is just one driver –albeit a big one – of high temperatures globally. Four major global temperature reviews, by the European agency Copernicus, NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the privately-funded Berkeley Earth, have concluded that for Earth as a whole, last month was the warmest May ever recorded.
An El Nino event made 2016 the warmest year on record. There is no such event this year, yet both Berkeley Earth and NASA calculate 2020 will break the record again. This when Earth is at its maximum distance from the sun and solar energy reaching us is at its lowest in the 11-year cycle – proof, if anyone needs it any more, of the dominant climate impact of greenhouse warming.
In mid-March the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation warned that 2020 would be a pivotal year, in which the world’s ever-rising emissions would have to begin coming down if we were to avoid a catastrophic climate future.
Their timing was exquisite, if accidental. A week or two later, with COVID-19 forcing economies everywhere to shut down, emissions suddenly started dropping. A Nature study published last month found that this year will see global emissions down by at least 4 per cent and probably more.
Leaders everywhere are doing their utmost to get economies moving again, so the downward curve may be short-lived. We do need functioning economies to develop the technologies and systems to reach zero carbon emissions and ultimately to lower carbon levels in the air. What we definitely don’t need is a return to business as usual.
But with a few scattered exceptions (Europe and New Zealand come to mind), in preparing their national recovery plans leaders are not including any effective emissions-reducing measures, let alone the ones we need most – those that will have an immediate impact.
It’s possible that COVID-19 and other destabilising factors will turn today’s recession into a multi-year depression – tragic for humanity but a welcome breather for the natural environment. That would keep emissions relatively low, but it’s no way to secure a safe climate future.
But it’s never too late. “Thriving Tasmania” is an event aiming to draw Tasmanians into a virtual conversation to reflect on how we can shape a stronger future community in the wake of COVID-19. Two identical events – next Monday and on July 9 – will explore the actions we can take to help our state thrive again. Register at www.tasmanianway.org/thrivingtasmania