2011 – another year of living dangerously

It’s been one hell of a year for the planet, with the meteorological and climatic record books being re-written and in some cases, thrown away. This year ushered the concept of the ‘new normal’ into being, as US scientists simply ran out of superlatives to describe the rate of change being recorded.

John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, has just published a detailed review of the year. It’s well worth reading, with plenty of useful source links, for anyone interested in getting to grips with the ever-quickening rate of acceleration of ‘weird weather’ phenomena. When scattered willy-nilly across the media, it can be difficult to grasp just how fast this subtle freight train of climate destabilisation is now moving.

We are in debt to the Guardian newspaper for its trojan efforts at covering climate, environment and sustainability issues systematically, rather than reactively, as is unfortunately still the norm right across the Irish media (am I correct in thinking that since Paul Cunningham moved to Europe, RTE simply hasn’t bothered replacing the role of Environment Correspondent? If this remains the case, it is a scandal of myopic incompetence and dereliction of its public service remit to rival the Kevin Reynolds fiasco).

This lack of specialist expertise on the environment beat renders media outlets particularly vulnerable to being blindsided by industry-funded spooks like the Global Warming Policy Foundation and a variety of neoliberal ideologues with personal or political agendas passing themselves off as independent experts.


THE YEAR 2011 was another ecologically tumultuous year, with greenhouse gases rise to record levelsArctic sea ice nearly equalling 2007’s record melt, and temperatures the 11th highest ever recorded.

It was marked on the ground by unparalleled extremes of heat and cold in the US, droughts and heatwaves in Europe and Africa and record numbers of weather-related natural disasters.

In addition, 2011 saw the world population reach 7 billion, the second worst nuclear disaster and record investments in renewable energy.

The 41 sea, land and air indicators used by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to measure sea and land temperatures showed unequivocally that the world continued to warm throughout 2011. In July, NOAA reported that the last 300 months had all been above average temperature and that the 13 warmest years had all occurred in the 15 years since 1997. 2011 was additionally remarkable, it said, because a “La Niña” event was taking place, a naturally occurring oceanic cooling phenomenon that would normally bring temperatures down.

Despite stagnation or economic recession in many industrialised countries, concentrations of CO2measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, peaked at more than 394 parts per million in May and are now 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming.

In September, Germany’s University of Bremen reported that Arctic sea ice had hit a record low, based on data from a Japanese sensor on Nasa’s Aqua satellite. Days later, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, using a different satellite data set, reported that ice coverage in 2011 was marginally greater, making 2011 the second-lowest on record.

Christophe Kinnard, of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones in La Serena, Chile reported in November that both the duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice “seem to be unprecedented for the past 1,450 years”.

“Everything is trending up – surface temperature, the atmosphere, and it seems also that the ocean is warming and there is more warm and saline water that makes it into the Arctic. The sea ice is eroded from below and melting from the top,” said Kinnard.

While eastern Europe, Russia, Pakistan and the Middle East suffered the most from weather extremes in 2010, it was the turn of North America in 2011. The continent experienced massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, record wildfires and a crippling droughtin the south.

More than 2,941 monthly records for extreme heat and extreme cold were broken in all 50 US states in 2011, said the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The costs of weather-related disasters spiralled. The US experienced 14 separate disasters each costing over $1bn. In total, financial losses were estimated at over $50bn.

“In many ways, 2011 rewrote the record books. From crippling snowstorms to the second deadliest tornado year on record to epic floods, drought and heat, and the third busiest hurricane season on record, we’ve witnessed the extreme of nearly every weather category,” said NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro.

2011 was described by many commentators as the “year of the tornado“. Between January and June, 43 major thunderstorms released nearly 1,600 tornadoes in the central, southern and eastern United States. Half happened in April, and 226 of them on April 27.

But 2011 was also the year of too much or too little water. It began with devastating floods in Australia which covered an area the size of France and Germany combined, and ended with tropical storm Washi killing nearly 1,000 people and making 300,000 homeless in the Philippines.

Thailand’s worst floods in 50 years claimed 730 lives, northern China’s drought that started in 2010 continued well into 2011 and was the worst drought to hit the country in 60 years.

Massive droughts affected some of the world’s richest and poorest communities. The worst drought in 60 years gripped more than 10 million people and led to the death of thousands of people and millions of animals in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Meanwhile, Texas was badly hit by heatwaves and drought. The city of Austin had 27 consecutive days where the temperature was over 100F and 90 days in total when it reached that level. The Texas Forest Service said the continuing drought had killed 100-500 million trees, a figure that did not include the ones killed in wildfires that scorched around 4m acres of the state.

The year began and ended with drought and record temperatures in Europe. The average temperature for northern Norway in November was 5.3C (9.5F) above normal, the Danube was at its lowest levels in 60 years, and Germany and much of northern Europe had the driest end to a year since recordkeeping began in 1881.

2011 was also an extraordinary year for major earthquakes. In the seven weeks between 1 January and 21 February, Argentina, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tonga, Burma, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Sulawesi, Fiji and New Zealand were all hit.

But by far the most damaging quake was the one that led to Japan’s deadly tsunami on 11 March. This killed 15,500 people, caused the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and led to 160,000 people fleeing the area or being moved away. By the end of the year, it was estimated to have cost around $210bn in lost production and physical damage. Decommissioning the station is expected to cost a further $15bn.

Arguments still rage over the radioactivity levels, but while the industry, backed by some western commentators, played down the consequences, levels of radioactive caesium were shown to have reached 50m times normal levels off the coast. As 2011 ended, it was still hard to accurately gauge the level of devastation, the amount of the meltdown and the exact radiation levels. Last week, the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said its owners had at last brought the station into a state known as “cold shutdown”.

One clear fallout of the Fukushima disaster has been European countries turning their backs on nuclear power. Most significantly, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said in May that she would bring forward the phase-out of Germany’s nuclear power stations to 2022.Italians voted overwhelmingly against new nuclear reactors and theSwiss government moved to phase out its reactors.

Now for the good news. In July, the UN Environment Programme announced that investments in renewable energy had grown 32% in 2010, reaching a record $211bn since 2004. For the first time, investment in faster-growing developing economies was greater than that in developed economies.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance said renewable energy investments were projected to double over the next eight years and reach $395bn per year by 2020. The bad news is that the International Energy Agency (IEA) says even this will not be enough to stabilise emissions and controlclimate change.

The IEA’s sense of realism was underlined at the UN’s annual climate conference in December. The talks in Durban, South Africa, avoided a major split between big emitters and others, with an agreement between 194 countries to work towards a legally binding deal to cut emissions in the future, leaving only voluntary pledges in the meantime.

“Without much stronger commitments for the next 5-10 years the Durban outcome will stay nothing more than smoke and mirrors – an illusion of ambition with no real targets or clear timelines,” said Nnimmo Bassey, head of Friends of the Earth International.

Negotiators also concentrated on establishing carbon markets for forest protection and transport.

Conservationists battling the worldwide loss of forests welcomed satellite data from Brazil showing deforestation in the Amazon region had fallen to the lowest level for 23 years. However, new laws were passed in December that, if enacted, will allow ranchers to fell more trees near rivers and on mountaintop watersheds.

Tigers and other charismatic mega-fauna appeared to do better in 2011. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Burma and Nepal protected a further 2m hectares of land for tigers. India – which holds half of the world’s tigers – estimated an increase in the population from 1,411 in 2007 to 1,706 today. However, the WWF announced that only 18-22 Siberian tigers remained in the wild in north-east China.

Unexpectedly, a significant increase was recorded in the Virunga mountains that are shared between Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. A WWF survey counted 480, an increase of 100 since the last count in 2003.

And in a small triumph for conservation, the UN Development programme declared in December that more than $100m had been raised, mostly by Latin American countries, to temporarily leave in the ground the estimated 900m barrels of oil believed to be below theYasuni national park in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to 2011 – another year of living dangerously

  1. Theresa Carter says:

    Thanks for this John 🙂

  2. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    John, I have really loved your stuff going back over the last year, and of course the previous three or four years. You are a terrific writer, inspirational, driven, compelling, ingenious and engaging, always brilliantly done, it is journalism par excellence; congratulations.

    The work you do is superb, I love it, man, I really do. It is a disgrace that The Irish Times no longer carries a column by you. It was never more important. I am really angry that The Irish Times doesn’t have you now, I think it is a huge, huge gap in their coverage and that they must take you back. Your absence is a major, major gap in coverage, it was never so vital. Everything else is really tittle tattle; take note, Kevin O’Sullivan.

    The funny thing is that, since your column was dropped by The Irish Times, by the former editor, I have struggled to stay with them. I mean, I still buy the paper every day but I am now more suspicious of their ideas, their agenda. Before, I always used to live by their ideas, but now I find myself questioning them; not that any other paper fills the gap. I have had to migrate to the Guardian to find what I’m looking for. Maybe you’ll move there too.

    To me, Frank MacDonald of The Irish Times was always the last word on the environment, on planning, biodiversity, and so on. He still is, in Irish terms, but now I have to take into account that he is a globetrotter, which for me makes him less believable. If you don’t live by your word then you are impossible to believe. Frank, if you see this, this is my problem. I can no longer believe you, because you are not walking the walk. Okay, your reportage is still very good, but is that good enough? You cannot globe-trot and be a credible environmental reporter. In this day and age it is all the more incredible, because you can access all the info you need from your desktop. I have not read anything in your reports from 2011 that would indicate to me that you had to be there to say the same thing. So I’m losing the faith, Frank. Sorry.

    Similarly with Fintan OToole: extraordinary insight, incredible reportage, the very very best we have ever seen in Ireland in my lifetime, but is he ever going to actually say we need an alternative to capitalism? It doesn’t look like it.

    And I have given up waiting for him. He is going to stay with it and is not going to push for what we need. We are all going to go down the plughole waiting for O’Toole to come around to a way of thinking that he can live with until it is too late, or the new way pays him to speak its mind.

    I think he’s absolutely brilliant, I really do, I look upon O’Toole as the greatest journalist of our time, but I think he is now a bought man, he will say whatever he thinks the markets want him to say, and by that I mean whatever the board of the paper demands of him. He is no longer speaking for me, the ordinary man, he is looking to his salary, his pension, what’s left of his future.

    This, for me, is the greatest regret of 2011, that Fintan O’Toole is now a lost cause, really. He is lost, when once he was the light. What can he be thinking of himself when he sits in front of the computer writing crap that will satisfy the markets? He’s paid an awful lot of money not to cop on and stay with the programme. Is he ever going to get real, or is he really gone? Should I ever read his column again or would it be a waste of time? I think a waste of time, really, unless he cops himself on.

    Really, all of us out there who think change is possible look to Fintan O’Toole to make the argument for us. To make it real. To give us hope. That’s what Fintan is for. If he doesn’t deliver, the hope dies with him. Is there someone else? I’m tired, I don’t know.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks once again for your feedback and ongoing interest in these postings during the last 12 months. It does encourage me to keep chipping away even though I often struggle to see a reason to continue, given what we’re up against. But optimism seems to be both the blessing and the curse of the human condition, so what’s left to do but be optimistic, irrespective of the evidence. Optimism is probably an evolutionary coping mechanism, given its dogged persistence in the teeth of overwhelming circumstances.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Appreciate your posting, and your very generous remarks. I experienced a bit of a loss of faith in Fintan O’Toole myself this year, when he lobbied furiously for the massive extraction of offshore oil reserves, without once pausing to consider the consequences of letting loose all this ancient carbon into our already overburdened atmosphere. Fintan is a fine writer, when he’s writing within his sphere of competence, but this sadly does not extend to environment, energy, sustainability or climate issues. He simply “doesn’t get it”. And, I suspect, never will.

    Pound for pound, perhaps the only journalist left worth following is Monbiot. He draws the threads of inequality, corruption, injustice and environmental collapse together, rather than treating them as separate, unrelated events, as most (less gifted) journalists and commentators continue to do. Vincent Browne writes with real skill and compassion on inequality, but again, lacks the ability or insight to join the dots to reveal the wider picture of system-wide failure.

    Beyond that, we have many many busy fools, each operating within their own cabins of interest, oblivious to the fact that the ship has already been holed and is taking on water at an unsustainable rate. Our ability to compartmentalise our thinking has made us excellent specialists, but at the price of failing to identify the larger picture.

    As for the Guardian, funny you should mention that…. watch this space in 2012!

  5. Toby says:

    News just in … Professor Richard Tol is leaving these shores to work at the U of Sussex.

    Good news, or what?

    At least he is better place to cosy up to his denialist buddies Peiser and Lawton in the charlatan Global Warming Policy Foundation.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    The phrase “all the attributes of a dog…except loyalty” sprang to mind when I watched Tol’s self-serving performance on the RTE news bulletin last night. This muppet was co-author of the ESRI’s comically inept 2008-20015 ‘Economic Forecast’ document which, to put it mildly, showed all the analytical insight of Mystic Meg when it came to failing utterly to spot our gigantic bubble economy, and the fact that it would most likely collapse.

    Tol’s personal hobbies include climate change disinformation; he has been the go-to economist for fact-benders like Bjorn Lomborg (who bases much of his bullshit “analysis” on bullshit “data” cheerfully served up to order by Tol). The denialist think-tank known as the Global Warming Policy Foundation (secretly funded by god-knows-which energy industry paymasters) lists Tol as among its ‘Academic Advisory Council’. This is a virtual goon squad of denier/liars, including such well known shills as Ian Plimer, Benny Peiser, Freeman Dyson, etc.

    Tol’s boss in the ESRI, Frances Ruane, was made aware (by me, among others) of this bizarre involvement, but she shrugged it off as irrelevant for her star pupil. The reward for her ‘loyalty’ to Tol is his tongue-lashing of his former colleagues as being little more than stooges, and his injunction that anyone with a lick of sense should high-tail it out of Ireland. Our ship may or may not be sinking, but at least it now contains fewer rats!

  7. seafóid says:

    “Our ability to compartmentalise our thinking has made us excellent specialists, but at the price of failing to identify the larger picture.”

    Absolutely. There is very little cross-disciplinary work. So many special interest clowns with no credibility. The whole system is insane.

    I agree with Coilin that we have to start talking about the nature of modern capitalism. I think we are looking at a future series of events to rival the impact the Black Death had on the Norman colonies in Ireland. Life will go on but what will be left ?

    I think the academic community could do more. Not just environment wise but also concerning the economy. Why is the floor left to journalists most of the time?

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