News comes through this morning via John Gormley and Ciaran Cuffe that the Climate Change Response Bill has at last been published. A public consultation period on the Bill is to run until January 28th next, with a view to enactment in February – assuming, that is, the ragged Coalition can hold together that long.
Thanks to the wonders of WikiLeaks, we have some fascinating insights into the real state of play regarding Ireland and climate change in recent years. My favourite quote is from 2008, attributed to one Tom O’Mahony, described as an assistant secretary, DoE:
The Irish populace has not, “internalized the costs of global warming,” so there is no sense of urgency to move on the issue. Without public pressure to do something, there is a risk that the government will lose enthusiasm for the project and “kick the can down the road”
We’ve already covered the gist of the Bill here previously, so no need to re-hash. In short, Ministers, get on with it, please. Posterity is watching. Meanwhile, as the latest flurries of snow tumble down over Dun Laoghaire, below are a few reflections on what – if anything – this weird weather might be trying to tell us about the bigger climatic picture:
First, the good news: despite concerns, the Gulf Stream, the powerful current that transfers vast amounts of heat from the equator to north-western Europe, does not appear to be faltering. Were it to stop entirely, average winter temperatures in Ireland would plummet by 5 degrees C, meaning the current freeze would be a regular fixture for several months every year.
Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research warned that the marked overall warming of the earth’s northern half could counterintuitively result in significantly colder winters. Dramatic losses of sea-ice in the eastern Arctic is affecting far more than polar bears. It is also causing regional heating of the lower levels of air –this in turn is leading to strong anomalies in atmospheric airstreams, triggering an overall cooling of the northern continents. This is the conclusion of a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Think of the Arctic ocean as a cup of take-out coffee, and the ice sheet as the Styrofoam lid. Take off the lid, and the coffee cools quickly – but the heat loss from the liquid transfers to the atmosphere.
“These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia,” according to Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study. “Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.”
What is telling about this statement is that it was issued in early November, well ahead of the current freeze. Prof John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth, Ireland’s top climate specialist, is aware of the Potsdam Institute research, but cautions about extrapolating from what remain weather, rather than climate events. “More extreme weather events are likely when you put more energy into the system”, he told me.
Ironically, if the intense ‘blocking anticyclone’ that is keeping our usual maritime weather at bay and delivering this freezing weather were instead happening in mid-summer, “we’d now be in the middle of a heatwave, and running out of water from that”, added Prof Sweeney.
Global warming is ratcheting up energy in the global climate system, and this is expressing itself in the ever-increasing number and intensity of what we used to call ‘natural disasters’ – floods, droughts, landslides, forest fires etc. 2010 is now on target to be globally the hottest year since instrumental records began in the mid-19th Century. While Europe shivers, temperatures in western Greenland are currently an astonishing 10 degrees C above normal
“By global warming destroying the Arctic ice sheet, we’ve essentially changed the climate of north-western Europe, and that simply has to have an effect”, says Dr Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway (and author of ‘Deluge’). “Climatically, we’re moving into unknown territory; when the climate is changing rapidly, you get lots of extremes – look at the flooding and freezing events of the last two or three years. The climate is clearly out of equilibrium”, Kieran told me.
Earlier this year the US the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the decline in Arctic sea ice will “impact large scale wind patterns over the Northern Hemisphere, allowing cold air to move southward”.
While the underlying heating signal from global warming is unequivocal, translating that into projection for the near future remains problematic. There appears to be an increased likelihood of significantly more severe winters in the next number of years that Ireland may have to learn to cope more effectively with. But in the medium term, experts expect milder, wetter winters to reassert themselves.
Looking ahead, the fear among scientists is that humanity is stumbling unwittingly towards a climatic tipping point and into a future where weather extremes are once again the dominant force in shaping the course and setting severe limits to human progress.