Weird weather is our ‘new normal’

The folks over at asked me to do an OpEd on the ever weirder weather that is now featuring in pretty much every other news bulletin. Turns out that this is one seriously busy website. The posting has been viewed over 7,500 times and has attracted 90 user comments, with the usual generous contributions from skeptics/deniers, who swarm like flies on any article or commentary that dares ‘join the dots’ between weather disasters and the larger picture involving the slow death spiral of our gravely damaged biosphere. The piece is below:


GIVEN THE DRAMATIC slump in media coverage of climate change compared to two or three years ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that it must all have been a bit of a storm in a teacup, rather like the Y2K panic back in the late 90s. This impression, while understandable, could hardly be further from reality.

The decline in public and media concern about climate change is doubly puzzling, considering that extreme weather events are now occurring with a frequency and intensity greater than at any time in the century and a half for which detailed instrumental global climate records have been tracked.

2011 was a year of unparalleled weather extremes, with heatwaves, droughts, flooding and a host of other ‘natural disasters’ causing record damage from Russia to the US, Australia, across Asia and in Europe.

Ireland, thanks to its maritime location, is buffered to a degree against the most severe weather events, yet even here, disasters like the freak flooding in the Dublin area last October that left two dead and the Dundrum Shopping Centre under water are recurring with ominous regularity.

Across the continental US, almost 3,000 monthly weather records were smashed in 2011. Severe weather events cost the US over $50billion last year. Early in 2011, unprecedented floods in Australia covered an area almost twice the size of France.

In fact, the 13 warmest years since global records began in the 19th century have all occurred since 1998. This year will almost certainly continue this trend. Even though 2012 is only a few days old, this can be predicted with a high degree of confidence. I can also predict that 2012 will see another tumultuous year of weather extremes right across the globe. And next year may well be worse again…

Given that Met Eireann struggles to predict the weather here on this one small island more than a handful of days ahead, how can I be so sure about projections months, even years ahead and right around the globe?

‘The economic crisis has blindsided us to a rapidly unfolding tragedy’

The answer is surprisingly simple: global average temperatures are rising rapidly, and human activities are the main driver. Last year, we pumped yet another 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), a powerful ‘greenhouse’ gas, into the atmosphere.

Year after year, tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 arising from burning of fossil fuels make their way into the atmosphere, where they remain for hundreds, even thousands of years into the future. As this layer of invisible heat-trapping gases thickens, so the global temperature rises, slowly but inevitably.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its landmark 2007 report, warned that if carbon emissions were not quickly and drastically reduced, the world would face ever-worsening weather disasters, leading within decades towards a global environmental catastrophe on a scale not witnessed in recorded human history.

The IPCC’s warnings have gone unheeded, and carbon emissions are now running at levels well beyond the IPCC’s “worst case” scenario figures, which projected a cataclysmic 4C rise in global average temperatures this century.

The obsession among the media and politicians with the economic crisis has blindsided us to a rapidly unfolding environmental tragedy that is on course to demolish the world economy (which depends entirely on natural resources) and plunge billions of us into crushing poverty as well as drastically diminishing biological diversity on this planet for millennia. Unstoppable sea level rises will, in time, wipe most of today’s coastal settlements from the map of the world.

Scientists have a name for all of this: The Sixth Extinction. The very survival of millions of species now hangs in the balance, chief among them the genus homo sapiens, a young species which has enjoyed global hegemony for barely a hundred centuries (the dinosaurs ruled for an impressive 160 million years).

If this all sounds like the plot from a Hollywood disaster movie, keep in mind that these projections are from the world’s most respected scientific experts and organisations. And they don’t do science fiction.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is online Twitter: @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Weird weather is our ‘new normal’

  1. Orla says:

    Thanks to that article in The Journal this morning, I was introduced to your blog and have been avidly reading it ever since. So much new information and perspectives on issues I have not previously considered. Thank you so much and I look forward to more and more updates.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Feedback appreciated and welcome aboard Orla! As a newbie to this area, be warned, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. To borrow a line from The Matrix, you could instead take the blue pill and the story ends. I reckon unvarnished reality is preferable to soothing fantasies. Still, it’s not too late, if you stop reading now….!

  3. Hugh Curran says:

    I appreciate that you are restating the climate issues so well since the basics of climate change are not getting through to many people. Unfortunately In the U.S. in the past ten years there has been a dramatic drop in the percentage of Americans who accept anthropogenic climate change. With corporate politics being what it is this not surprising. Curiously, a couple of weeks ago I watched a late night show on RTE which featured an interview with two people from RTE weather. In the half hour or so interview neither of them were able to address long term weather issues, nor did they mention climate change nor climatologists, even when they were challenged to give long term predictions. This puzzled me. Is there an avoidance of issues related to long term climate change in Ireland?

  4. Thatcher says:

    Excellent piece, right on the money once again. As Hugh says above, what’s really eerie is how little this topic is being discussed, by the media, politicians, celebrities, you name it – a few years ago they were swarming over this issue, now it’s about as popular as crab lice.

    Any clues from the front line John? (p.s. fair play for sticking with this story from long before to long after it’s either popular or profitable!)

  5. John Gibbons says:

    The mysterious decline and collapse of media coverage of climate and related issues is one that has researchers, media boffins and the scientific establishment stumped. RTE, for instance, no longer even bothers with having an Environment Correspondent (a matter I intend returning to in some depth very shortly). That’s one serious statement from our national broadcaster. Curiously, the weather guys and girls are not the worst, in my experience. Evelyn Cusack sneaks in some solid context from time to time, and Gerry Fleming understands climate issues at a deep level. Problem is not with science-literate folk like them, I suspect, but with journalists and editors who, quite simply, don’t ‘get’ this story and have to come to the collective (delusional) position that it’s “old news”.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    As per my comments to Hugh above. Watch this space for more.
    p.s. I believe Meryll Streep did a great job being you!

  7. Cathy4or says:

    Just wanted to add my support to your site and your supposition.  I am 50 next week and I remember a lot drier summers as a child.  Just going to listen John Gibbons on the radio now! Best of luck.I will be watching!  Thanks Cathy

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Hi Cathy, thanks for dropping by. Hope you found the NewsTalk ‘debate’ of interest last night. To me, what’s truly fascinating is that the meeja are even still framing this as a ‘debate’ at all. The level of science ignorance out there is terrifying, and it’s not just the denier wingnuts. Supposedly serious journalists pride themselves in not knowing the first thing about climate science, and caring even less. Scary.

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