Overall 2017 will be the warmest non-El Niño year on record globally, and over the past 12 months we have seen plenty of extreme weather, both here in Australia and across the world.
Here I’ll round up some of this year’s wild weather, and look forward to 2018 to see what’s around the corner.
Drought and flooding rains… again
It feels as if Australia has had all manner of extreme weather events in 2017.
We had severe heat at both the start and end of the year. Casting our minds back to last summer, both Sydney and Brisbane experienced their hottest summers on record, while parts of inland New South Wales and Queensland endured extended periods of very high temperatures.
More recently Australia had an unusually dry June and its warmest winter daytime temperatures on record. The record winter warmth was made substantially more likely by human-caused climate change.
The end of the year brought more than its fair share of extreme weather, especially in the southeast. Tasmania had by far its warmest November on record, beating the previous statewide record by more than half a degree. Melbourne had a topsy-turvy November with temperatures not hitting the 20℃ mark until the 9th, but a record 12 days above 30℃ after that.
November was rounded off by warnings for very severe weather that was forecast to strike Victoria. Melbourne missed the worst of the rains, although it still had a very wet weekend on December 2-3. Meanwhile, northern parts of the state were deluged, with many places recording two or three times the December average rainfall in just a couple of days.
Hurricane after hurricane after hurricane…
Elsewhere in the world there was plenty more headline-worthy weather.
The Atlantic Ocean had a particularly active hurricane season, with several intense systems. Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and its slow trajectory resulted in record-breaking rainfall over Houston and neighbouring areas.
Then Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both of which reached the strongest Category 5 status, brought severe weather to the Caribbean and southeastern United States just a couple of weeks apart. Island nations and territories in the region are still recovering from the devastation.
Around the same time, the Indian subcontinent experienced a particularly wet monsoon season. Flooding in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal killed more than 1,000 people and affected tens of millions more.
In many cases, especially for heat extremes, we can rapidly identify a human influence and show that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of such events.
For other weather types, like the very active hurricane season and other extreme rain or drought events, it is harder (but not always impossible) to work out whether it bears the fingerprint of climate change.
What’s in store for 2018?
The main problem when trying to offer an outlook is that extreme weather is hard to predict, even on the scale of days or weeks in advance, let alone months.
For Australia, with a weak La Niña in the Pacific, there are few clear indications of what the rest of the summer’s weather will bring. There is a suggestion that we can expect a slightly wetter than average start to the year in parts of the southeast, along with warmer than average conditions for Victoria and Tasmania. Beyond that it is anyone’s guess.
The La Niña is also likely to mean that 2018 won’t be a record hot year for the globe. But it’s a safe bet that despite the La Niña, 2018 will still end up among the warmest years on record, alongside every other year this century. Rising global average temperatures, along with our understanding of the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, are one of our clearest lines of evidence for human-caused climate change.
So it’s hard to say much about what extreme weather we’ll experience in 2018, other than to say that there’s likely to be plenty more weather news to wrap up in a year’s time.
Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.
Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.
But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.
To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?
For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.
Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.
But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.
More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.
As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.
Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.
Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.
A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.
Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.
These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.
Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.
Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.
But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.
President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.
Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?
Of course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.
Global average carbon dioxide concentrations rose by 0.8% during 2016, the largest annual increase ever observed. According to figures released overnight by the World Meteorological Organisation, atmospheric CO₂ concentrations reached 403.3 parts per million. This is the highest level for at least 3 million years, having climbed by 3.3 ppm relative to the 2015 average.
The unprecedented rise is due to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the strong 2015-16 El Niño event, which reduced the capacity of forests, grasslands and oceans to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The figures appear in the WMO’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. This is the authoritative source for tracking trends in greenhouse gases that, together with temperature-induced increases in atmospheric water vapour, are the major drivers of current climate change.
Laboratories around the world, including at CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, measure atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at more than 120 locations. The gases include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as synthetic gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
At Cape Grim in Tasmania, we observed a corresponding increase during 2016 of 3.2 ppm, also the highest ever observed.
For 2017 so far, Cape Grim has recorded a smaller increase of 1.9 ppm. This possibly reflects a reduced impact of El Niño on atmospheric carbon dioxide growth rates this year.
For roughly 800,000 years before industrialisation began (in around the year 1750), carbon dioxide levels remained below 280 parts per million, as measured by air trapped in Antarctic ice. Geological records suggest that the last time atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were similar to current levels was 3-5 million years ago. At that time, the climate was 2-3℃ warmer than today’s average, and sea levels were 10 to 20 metres higher than current levels.
The extraordinarily rapid accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere over the past 150 years is overwhelmingly and unequivocally due to human activity.
Methane is the second-most-important long-lived greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, with 40% coming from natural sources such as wetlands and termites and the remaining 60% from human activities including agriculture, fossil fuel use, landfills and biomass burning.
In 2016, global atmospheric methane also hit record levels, reaching 1,853 parts per billion, an increase of 9 ppb or 0.5% above 2015 levels. At Cape Grim, methane levels climbed by 6 ppb in 2016, or 0.3% above 2015 levels.
Nitrous oxide is the third-most-important greenhouse gas, of which [around 60% comes from natural sources such as oceans and soils], and 40% from fertilisers, industrial processes and biomass burning.
In 2016, global atmospheric nitrous oxide hit a record 328.9 ppb, having climbed by 0.8 ppb (0.2%) above 2015 levels. At Cape Grim, we observed the same annual increase of 0.8 ppb.
If we represent the climate change impact of all greenhouse gases in terms of the equivalent amount of CO₂, then this “CO₂-e” concentration in the atmosphere in 2016 would be 489 ppm. This is fast approaching the symbolic milestone of 500 ppm.
These record greenhouse gas levels are consistent with the observed rise in global average temperatures, which also hit record levels in 2016.
The only way to reduce the impact is to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol and the subsequent Paris Agreement are important first steps in a long and challenging process to reduce such emissions. Their immediate success and ultimate strengthening will be crucial in keeping our future climate in check.
The authors thank Dr David Etheridge for his advice on the use of proxy measurements to infer carbon dioxide levels in past atmospheres.
The link below is to an article reporting on the opening of the world’s longest bushwalking/hiking trail – The Great Trail in Canada.
The Amazon, often described as the “lungs of the Earth”, is the largest rainforest in the world. Its extraordinary biodiversity and sheer scale has made it a globally significant resource in the fight against climate change.
But last week the Brazilian president Michel Temer removed the protected status of the National Reserve of Copper and Associates, a national reserve larger than Denmark.
The reserve, known as “Renca”, covers 46,000 square kilometres and is thought to contain huge amounts of copper, as well as gold, iron ore and other minerals. Roughly 30% of Renca will now be open to mining exploration. Renca also includes indigenous reserves inhabited by various ethnic communities living in relative isolation.
The decision, which has been denounced by conservation groups and governments around the world, comes as the unpopular Temer struggles with a crushing political and economic crisis that has seen unemployment rise above 12%.
Political and economic turbulence
Brazil is currently in the middle of the largest corruption scandals in its history. Since 2014, an ongoing federal investigation called Operation Car Wash has implicated elite businesspeople and high-ranking politicians, uncovering bribes worth millions of dollars exchanged for deals with the state oil company Petrobas. According to the BBC, almost a third of President Temer’s cabinet is under investigation for alleged corruption.
There is no doubt that Brazil needs to find ways out of recession and unemployment. As the minister of mining and energy has said, “the objective of the measure [to allow mining] is to attract new investments, generating wealth for the country and employment and income for society.”
However it’s not clear that this move will benefit ordinary Brazilians. This is not the first gold rush into this area, and the Amazon still has high indices of poverty and many other challenges.
During the 1980s and 90s tens of thousands of miners flocked to gold deposits in the Amazon, driven by high international prices. One of the most famous examples, “Serra Pelada,” saw 60,000 men dig a massive crater in the Amazon Basin.
These mining operations typically provided little economic benefits to the local populations. Instead, they attracted thousands of people, which led to deforestation, violent land conflicts and mercury pollution in the rivers.
In reality the Amazon and its people deserve a sustainable model of development, which takes advantage of the outstanding biodiversity and beauty of its standing forests. The historical record shows mining is likely to lead to a demographic explosion, and further deforestation, pollution and land conflicts.
The principle of non-regression
One important aspect of international environmental law is called the “principle of non-regression”. The principle states that some legal rules should be non-revokable in the name of the common interest of humankind. Essentially, once a level of protection has been granted there is no coming back.
This principle is reflected in article 225 of the Brazilian constitution, which lays out the right to a healthy environment:
All have the right to an ecologically balanced environment […] and both the Government and the community shall have the duty to defend and preserve it for present and future generations.
The Brazilian constitution also describes the Amazon forest as a “national heritage”. It must then be treated accordingly.
While the Amazon is a fundamental part of Brazil’s history, it’s also an essential part of the global battle against climate change. The Amazon contains half the worlds’ tropical rainforests, and its trees absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, land use, including deforestation and forest degradation, is the second-largest source of global emissions after the energy sector.
Developed countries around the world have committed resources to help Brazil offset the costs of safeguarding their forests. One example is the Amazon Fund, created in 2008. It has received billions of dollars from foreign governments such as Norway and Germany, to combat deforestation and to promote sustainable practices in the Brazilian Amazon.
But with 14 million Brazilians unemployed, further assistance is required to ensure that they can protect their forests.
As well as governments, companies have also committed billions of dollars to fight climate change and support projects that reduce carbon emissions and promote energy efficiency. Most businesses have also created self-regulatory standards to ensure compliance with international laws and ethical standards.
The decision of the Brazilian government leaves us with two questions. How will the international community honour their commitments to keep global warming below 2℃, if countries begin rolling back their environmental protections? And how will companies involved in mining projects in the Amazon honour their social responsibility commitments and moral obligation towards present and future generations?
The degradation of the Amazon will affect the entire world. The clearing of the Amazon for mining will lead to the emissions of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases, furthering global warming and causing the irreversible loss of biodiversity, and water resources, as well as damage to local and indigenous communities.
Let us not take a step back towards more destruction. Rather, let us strengthen the protection of our remaining forests.