Wildfires. Flickr/Jared Yeh. Some rights reserved.In the past week, two events on opposite sides of the Pacific have sharpened awareness of climate change. Moreover, what is happening in Australia and Canada comes in the wake of what appears to be a sudden and unwelcome increase in global temperatures.
2014 was the warmest year since accurate records were first kept, and 2015 was warmer still. 2016 looks set to exceed both of those years. What is adding hugely to concerns among climate scientists, however, is that recent months have not just set new records for temperatures but have exceeded previous readings by a full degree centigrade or more.
April 2016 was the seventh month in a row in which records were broken. This would be highly unusual for any single month, but for it to happen for so many consecutive months takes the planet into unprecedented territory
But what of Australia and Canada?
The price of disdain
In Australia, one of the major funders of scientific research is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Much of Australia’s impressive past research on climate change, particularly that related to sea-level rises and changes in the Antarctic has come through CSIRO-funded programmes. These are now being cut back severely. The process reflects the outlook of Canberra's current Liberal Party government, which has little time for climate change despite Australia’s manifold drought and wildfire problems.
This week it is reported that CSIRO is restructuring and, in the process, laying off 278 scientific staff, a third of them involved in climate-change research. Among them is John Church, who is considered one of the world’s top ten experts in sea-level changes. There is also a risk that funding will be cut for the only monitoring station in the southern hemisphere that records atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is at Cape Grim in northwest Tasmania. Here, it is striking that just three days ago the station recorded a carbon dioxide reading of 400 parts per million for the first time. Many climate scientists believe that anything exceeding 350 ppm is far too much.
The Australian government’s disdain for climate is reflected in efforts to make CSIRO prioritise commercially funded research. This inevitably would ensure that Australia’s previous work on climate change simply will not be maintained.
Canberra is not alone in losing interest in the impact of climate change, as both Vladimir Putin’s Russia and David Cameron’s Britain show. In the UK, indeed, as soon as the Conservatives found themselves with an overall majority after the 2015 election, they moved rapidly to overturn many of the green initiatives that had had their origins in the Labour government of the late 2000s, and were maintained largely by pressure from the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners from 2010 to 2015.
Canada, too, under the previous prime minister Stephen Harper, had little interest in climate change. Justin Trudeau, after his election victory in October 2015, has reversed that situation. This is most appropriate, since Canada is the marker for the second major development: the rash of wildfires that have affected the tar-sands province of Alberta, leading to the evacuation of around 90,000 people from the city of Fort McMurray and neighbouring towns. This large-scale displacement has attracted most media attention, but the real significance of what has happened is far wider – and potentially will have a global impact.
The third carbon sink
It has been known for several decades that climate change is geographically asymmetric, affecting some parts of the world far more than others. Chief among these are the Arctic and near-Arctic regions, which are typically experiencing a rate of warming at least twice as much as the global average. These cause concern because of two well-recognised examples of positive feedback.
The first is the so-called Albedo effect, where sea-ice melts because of the warming ocean; this in turn leaves more open water which reflects less solar radiation than ice cover, so the sea warms even faster. The second is the strong suspicion that vast areas of near-Arctic permafrost will tend to melt in the coming years, as the previously frozen vegetation thaws out and releases methane (marsh gas), which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As that happens, temperatures will increase, leading to more thawing of the permafrost and yet more warming.
The significance of the Canadian wildfires is that they point to a third kind of positive feedback. Across the globe as a whole there are a number of carbon “sinks”, where carbon dioxide fixed by plants through photosynthesis is stored. The oceans themselves are hugely important in this regard, as are the equatorial rainforests of the Amazonian basin, central Africa and, to a lesser extent, south-east Asia.
There is also a third carbon sink in the shape of the vast boreal forests of the near Arctic, which stretch across north America from Alaska to Canada's Atlantic coast and across Russia, especially Siberia. The last five years have seen substantial increases in the areas of boreal forest lost to wildfires, often following exceptionally dry and hot weather (temperatures in parts of Alberta were over 15 degrees centigrade higher in the weeks before the current fires). These conditions combine with the highly combustible resin-rich pine trees of the forest to produce uncontrollable infernos.
A notable feature of the climate-change debate is the manner in which sceptics and deniers have strongly criticised those many climate scientists who have pointed to the risk of 'tipping-points' which increase the rate of warming to runaway levels. These scientific warnings highlight predicted examples of positive feedback. This is the real significance of the recent Canadian wildfires.
More than making necessary a city's evacuation, more than being located in Canada’s tar-sands region, the wildfires are a further indication that the global climate may now be in the process of becoming unstable. This is not so much climate change as climate disruption, and its consequences are for everyone.