CJ Werleman considers how alarming environmental developments have been sidelined again as the world deals with the Coronavirus crisis

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January saw the peak of Australia’s worst ever bush fire season, one fuelled by unprecedented drought, record temperatures and historic changes in rainfall patterns. Five months of raging infernos burnt 12 million hectares of land, devastated entire communities and destroyed more than one billion animals.  

Suddenly, Australia was having a real conversation about climate change, with firefighter associations speaking out on how global warming and drying conditions are contributing to longer fire seasons and smaller windows of opportunity to conduct hazard burns.  

The unexpected arrival of COVID-19 meant that the debate was short-lived. An existential threat in the present naturally supersedes one that most perceive to be located at some point in the future.

But the consequences of an overheating planet are most definitely with us now and causing global disruption and havoc – even if the words “climate change” are not currently occupying the front pages of newspapers, leading news broadcasts or social media timelines. A series of deeply alarming climate events have been lost in the fog of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Baghdad recorded its hottest ever temperature on Tuesday, with the mercury hitting 50 degrees Celsius, followed by its second hottest day on record on Wednesday. Damascus also posted a record high of 48 degrees Celsius on the same day.

The heat has become so unbearable in many Middle Eastern cities that desperate people have taken refuge by jumping in public fountains, as surging demands for electricity leads to power outages, which are only further exacerbating the misery.

“The heat is unbearable,” Ahmed Hashim, a 30-year-old Baghdad resident, told The New York Times. “There’s a psychological pressure, people can easily get into a fight.”

During the last northern summer, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK also posted record high temperatures, with dozens of European cities shattering previous records by posting temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius plus on a number of days.

More alarming still is the fact that the Artic Circle, which climate scientists refer to as the world’s “air conditioning system”, recorded its hottest ever temperature on 21 June – 38 degrees Celsius. The Arctic’s strongest and thickest ice melted for the first time ever only two years earlier – which even climate change sceptical economists described as “scary” and an “economic time bomb”.

Last month, a panel comprising climate scientists from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Switzerland concluded that record-breaking temperatures in Siberia would not be possible without human-induced climate change.

“Year-on-year temperature records are being broken around the world, but the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth,” Dr Dann Mitchell, associate professor in atmospheric science at the University of Bristol, told BBC News. “So it is unsurprising to see records being broken in this region. We will see more of this in the near future.” 

Greenland’s ice sheet is melting 700% faster today than it was in the early 1990s, which alone has raised global sea levels by more than a centimetre and at a rate exceeding the worst predictions. 

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal last month, the planet could see a greater increase in temperature in the next 50 years than it did in the previous 6,000 years combined, causing a drastic shift in the world’s population.

“The impacts are projected to increase steeply with the degree of warming,” the study’s authors observe. “For instance, warming to 2 °C, compared with 1.5 °C, is estimated to increase the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.”

A mere five decades from now, the planet’s “extremely hot zones” – which now cover less than 1% of the earth’s land surface – could exceed 20%, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, failed states and further conflict and violent extremism.

To place this in context, a former Australian Defence Force chief has said that Australia, a country of 25 million people, could be faced with taking in more than 100 million climate-induced refugees by the middle of the century – a view also shared by the US Pentagon.

“The US military sees the climate threat as imperilling the country on several fronts at once,” writes Michael T Klare in All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. “Droughts and food shortages are stoking conflicts in ethnically divided nations, with ‘climate refugees’ producing worldwide havoc. Pandemics and other humanitarian disasters will increasingly require extensive military involvement. The melting Arctic is creating new seaways to defend. And rising seas threaten American cities and military bases themselves.”

The current COVID-19 pandemic speaks not only to our vulnerability to the Earth’s hostile environment but also to our unwillingness to heed the warnings of scientists. That the worst affected Coronavirus countries are those led by individuals who have shunned public health officials by either downplaying the virus or reopening economies should be read as yet another warning for what awaits our stubborn refusal to tackle climate change.


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