The heat­wave in Bri­tain is part of a large and dan­ger­ous pat­tern

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

The Bri­tish are parochial about weather. It is our cher­ished griev­ance, not to be shared with for­eign­ers. Per­haps it is the fact that our weather tends to come from the west, across the At­lantic, and not from our neigh­bours in Europe (un­less it’s a “beast from the east”) which re­in­forces the be­lief that our weather is a uniquely Bri­tish prob­lem. But though we can­not say defini­tively that the cur­rent heat­wave is caused by car­bon emis­sions, it fits the pat­tern of long-term changes that we call cli­mate. It is part of a global phe­nom­e­non, even if not the most im­por­tant part. The re­ally sig­nif­i­cant change is hap­pen­ing in east­ern Siberia at the mo­ment, where a com­pletely un­prece­dented heat­wave is warm­ing that Arc­tic coast­line, with con­se­quences that are un­pre­dictable in de­tail but surely bad on a large scale.

Siberia is a vul­ner­a­ble point in the global cli­mate sys­tem for two rea­sons. The ob­vi­ous one is the Arc­tic ice. The more that melts, the less re­mains to re­flect heat back into the at­mos­phere. Wa­ter, be­ing dark, ab­sorbs heat bet­ter so there is a feed­back loop set up. That is wor­ry­ing, but it may be less dan­ger­ous than the feed­back caused by the melt­ing of the layer for­merly known as the per­mafrost. This re­leases car­bon and meth­ane – more meth­ane will be re­leased from un­der the warm­ing sea – and both are pow­er­ful green­house gases. In­sta­bil­ity in the Arc­tic af­fects the whole of the north­ern hemi­sphere, as it in­creases the chances that the north­ern jet stream, will stick for longer than usual in a par­tic­u­lar pat­tern. When that hap­pens, the weather stops chang­ing in the af­fected ar­eas. Heat­waves are pro­longed and so are cold snaps. Ex­tremes of ev­ery sort, such as the rains in Japan which have killed more than 100 peo­ple, be­come more likely. What seems to be hap­pen­ing at the mo­ment is that a fix­a­tion of the jet stream has pro­duced the heat­wave in Siberia as well as ours here. Again, this is yet an­other feed­back loop. This is a heat­wave which makes fur­ther, hot­ter heat­waves more likely in the fu­ture.

Al­though there is enor­mous un­cer­tainty about the ex­act pro­gres­sion of cli­mate change, the di­rec­tion of travel is en­tirely clear. This is a prob­lem that de­mands co­or­di­nated global ac­tion. The Paris ac­cords are an ef­fort in that di­rec­tion, but they are be­ing sab­o­taged. Bri­tish, or English na­tion­al­ism about the weather is mildly com­i­cal but the self­ish and ig­no­rant at­ti­tudes of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are purely tragic for the whole world. Still, there is more chance of chang­ing the cli­mate than there is of chang­ing the mind of Mr Trump. While the US con­tin­ues to sulk on cli­mate change and to be driven by short-term im­per­a­tives of profit, the best any Bri­tish gov­ern­ment can do is to pre­pare for a change in the weather here. In 20 years’ time, the heat of the last week will no longer be news. It will be rou­tine. The ef­fect on old peo­ple, on schools, and on hos­pi­tals will be grim. A re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment would be plan­ning for this per­fectly fore­see­able out­come. Ours, how­ever, is oth­er­wise pre­oc­cu­pied.

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