The sea ice covering the most northerly part of our planet shrank last week to its second lowest level on record. Once stable at around 7.5m sq km in summer, the Arctic ice cap has been dwindling for several decades and dropped to an area of 4.1m sq km a few days ago, a victim of the rising fossil-fuel emissions and increasing temperatures that now beset the Earth. At the same time, the US space agency Nasa announced that August 2016 had tied with July 2016 as the hottest month globally ever recorded. Our world is heating up dramatically.
As winter returns to the far north, its ice cover will slowly return, of course, though it will certainly not be restored to its former glory. The overall trend of summer Arctic sea-ice cover has been a steadily downwards one for the past 30 years, an inexorable decline that has deeply worrying implications for the region, and for the rest of the planet, as we report today. An Arctic that is regularly free of sea ice in summer – a real prospect for the middle of the century – will open up that fragile, pristine wilderness to all sorts of potential woes: overfishing; pollution related to oil drilling and mineral extraction; the eradication of indigenous species; and the destruction of native communities. In addition, with little or no ice left to reflect solar radiation back into space, and its dark waters absorbing more and more of that radiation, the Arctic will heat up even further, enhancing the global warming that has already taken a grip on the planet. As Professor Gail Whiteman, of Lancaster University, remarked last week: “Forget the FTSE: Arctic sea ice is the real barometer of global risk.”
Urgent action is clearly needed, a point that is not lost on international climate negotiators. In a few weeks, they are scheduled to assemble in Marrakech in order to discuss the ratification of the Paris agreement, which was hammered out late last year and which seeks to limit the burning of fossil fuels in order to restrict carbon dioxide emissions and so limit global temperature rises to around 2C since pre-industrial times. To date, a total of 27 nations – including Brazil, China and the United States – have formally backed the plan, and a further 20 countries are expected to add their names in the next few days. Crucially, the United Kingdom has made no commitment to back the Paris accord. Yet the agreement needs the formal support of 55 nations before it can come into force.
The fact that the Britain still refuses to put its name to the treaty is therefore deeply worrying. The government claims that it is committed, ultimately, to backing the agreement but the longer it delays, the more it is likely to lose the leadership it once commanded when it came to climate change issues. Even if Britain misses the legislative deadline set for the Marrakech meeting, an announcement now that it is committed to the Paris agreement would send a much-needed message to the world. It would let them know that the current UK government still realises the urgency of the situation and the perils that face the planet.
The problem is not one that should be viewed as being vague and global, however. It is a precise danger and it is a local one as well. As the planet heats up, so the United Kingdom is also becoming warmer and wetter. Our eight warmest years on record have occurred from 2000 onwards, and during that time we have also experienced six of our seven wettest years. The atmosphere, as it heats up, is holding on to more and more water which it then releases as bursts of intense rainfall. This point was emphasised by the National Flood Resilience Review, published earlier this month, which admitted that we are now facing a greater threat of flooding due to heaver rainfall and rising sea levels than ever before. Monthly rainfall totals in winter could be up to 30% higher than recent past extremes, it stated.
Last December’s record flooding – which saw 341mm of rain fall in 24 hours at Honister Pass in the Lake District, for example – is certainly likely to be surpassed in the next few years. Yet the government is so far committed to making only the most rudimentary of infrastructure improvements in order to combat the problem, and has pledged a mere £12m of extra cash for anti-flooding measures. That level of response is simply insufficient.
There is a real need now for the government to assure the public that it understands the risks we face from climate change and commit itself fully to this urgent and pressing issue.
Source: The Guardian