The accelerating pace of extreme weather events is an acute challenge to political leaders.
Two months ago, on 8 November 2013, a devastating typhoon struck south-central islands in the Philippines. There were early warnings of what was to come, but over 6,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed. Some initial news reports indicated that wind speeds had reached nearly 320 kph (200 mph), figures that seemed scarcely credible, even in sudden gusts in an exceptionally strong storm. Soon, more detailed data became available, including two separate reports of sustained wind speeds lasting for ten minutes, making them a more reliable basis for assessment of typhoon Haiyan.
The Hong Kong Observatory put the sustained speed prior to landfall at 275 kph (170 mph), and the Chinese Meteorological Administration at 270 kph (167 mph). These may possibly be the highest speeds of a tropical storm ever recorded; they certainly mean that typhoon Haiyan was exceptional by any standards.
In the nine weeks that have followed the Philippines' typhoon there have been further remarkable weather events across the world: among them the highest temperatures for almost a century in Buenos Aires, record low temperatures across central areas of north America, and a series of storms affecting the coasts of north-west Europe. In Britain, for example, the Meteorological Office was publishing weather warnings every day for six weeks.
What appears to be happening is best described as the development of a more “energetic” climate, with increasingly intense weather activity stemming from more energy in the atmosphere due to carbon emissions. It follows the almost unnoticed report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in Geneva, published in July 2013, on the trends of 2001-10 and comparisons with earlier decades (see "The global climate cliff", 18 July 2013).
The significance of this WMO report - The Global Climate 2001-2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes - was that it eschewed predictions stemming from computer models (however sophisticated they might be) in favour of actual measurements and comparisons with data on previous weather stretching back well over a century. This approach, rooted in experience, observation and comparison, generated some notable findings for 2001-10:
* it was the warmest decade on record for both land and sea surface temperatures and for both northern and southern hemispheres
* it saw sea levels rising twice as fast as the trend in the last century
* it saw a rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, and an accelerated decrease in the net mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
The WMO commented that during the decade the world had “experienced unprecedented high-impact climate extremes”. The words can be seen as an informed forecast of typhoon Haiyan and the other events of 2013-14.
The aforementioned column cited the clear evidence in the WMO report of an increase in the severity of weather events, and reflected on whether this might be enough to incite strong intergovernmental action. Its conclusion - suggesting that "a truly serious shift in political outlooks" was needed, but that it appears such a transformation might "only come in the wake of great misery" - was hardly optimistic.
Six months on, however, a passing comment by Britain's prime minister David Cameron can be seen as, so to speak, an interesting straw in the wind. Cameron, responding in parliament on 8 January 2014 to queries about the extensive flooding that has hit many towns and coastal areas, said: “Colleagues across the [House of Commons] can argue whether [the flooding] is linked to climate change or no. I very much suspect that it is. The point is that whatever one’s view it makes sense to invest in flood defences”.
Cameron's early leadership of his Conservative Party from 2005 was marked by his emphasis on climate change, though this was always unpopular with many of the party's MPs, financial backers and supporters, many of whom are climate-change sceptics. Their views are backed in turn by free-market think-tanks and foundations and most of the leadership of the world's fossil-fuel industry.
The industry's stance is hardly surprising. If climate change does have to be stopped and carbon-dioxide emissions cut by 80%, then the great majority of the fossil carbon in proved and exploitable reserves of coal, oil and gas cannot be used. This would make the value of these reserves - on which fossil-fuel industry investment is based - essentially worthless: the industry would become a house build not on carbon but on sand. This is simply unacceptable to the industry, which therefore must argue that human-induced climate change simply cannot be happening - end of story.
Against this industrial, political and propaganda background, it is striking that Cameron could even suggest a link between the floods and climate change. But the indications are that he still does not grasp the scale of what needs to be done. There is no doubt that flood defences do need to be improved - but in itself this will only help stop climate change if it is accompanied by radical moves towards low-carbon economies. The improvement of flood defences would mean only installing barriers that in due course will be overwhelmed - it puts off the evil day, nothing more, and in isolation achieves absolutely nothing for the long term.
The problem in Britain - and in many other industrial countries - is that the climate-change denial lobby is so strong, so well funded and so effective that it is politically difficult for any major figure to stand up and say what needs to happen. The latter requires a degree of political leadership that is currently absent across the spectrum.
There is no pretending that it would be easy, because moving to an ultra-low carbon economy requires major short-term changes that might be singularly troublesome in order to prevent longer-term disaster. David Cameron’s remark is a small step. But it still looks as though far worse weather events over the entire world will have to be experienced before the political classes come to their senses.