It’s getting hard to avoid noticing the impact of climate change, but mankind (true to form) is trying its best to do so.
The threat, which mainly results through emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, is absent from the US presidential debate. Republicans call it a hoax. The Democrats have other priorities.
The UK coalition government is close to reversing a pledge to oppose a third runway at Heathrow Airport, once a plank for its green credentials.
Why the lack of interest?
It is a fact of life that mankind only reacts to clear and present danger. There is not much point worrying about a lion over the horizon, while you are fighting a tiger on your doorstep. During recessions there will always be more urgent issues to debate than the composition of the atmosphere.
The result is wilful blindness, where situations which make people feel uneasy are brushed under the table.
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of asset manager GMO, is less worried about finding a way to deal with climate change than the inability of people to do so. “We are badly informed, passionately prefer good news and easily avoid unpleasant facts. Our views are easily manipulated by vested interest. We are sometimes desperately inefficient and apparently corruptible as heck.”
Attitudes won’t change any time soon, but change they will, now that erratic weather is starting to produce crop failures, food shortages, price hikes and social unrest.
The climate is changing in many regions, but the best evidence for it can be found in the Arctic, where the area of ocean covered by ice is set to fall to a record low of four million square kilometres this summer against seven million in the 1990s.
Even where it provides cover, the ice has become pitifully thin, because of a rise in the sea’s temperature. As a result of the summer melt, an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan split from Greenland’s Petermann glacier in July. Now that glaciers are being lubricated by melt water, incidents like this are becoming more frequent.
On current trends, the Arctic will be free of ice in summer by 2030, at the latest, against forecasts of 2050 ten years ago. Ice plays an important role in reflecting the sun’s heat back into space. Now, the dark Arctic ocean is absorbing it.
Higher temperatures in the Arctic tundra are starting to release methane, a supercharged version of carbon dioxide. Exploration for fossil fuel in areas of the Arctic liberated from ice cover is stepping up.
Warmer temperatures mean more water vapour – another greenhouse gas – is evaporating from the sea. It takes a long time to fall as rain because the atmosphere is warming up. But a dip in temperature means a lot of rain can spill out all at once, as was seen in much of northern Europe this summer.
Storms caused unprecedented flooding on the Mississippi River in 2011. This year, the US corn belt has suffered a record dry spell, which has decimated crops.
The US Department of Agriculture – not the world’s most alarmist body – is warning that the weather extremes are consistent with climate change. Following the Moscow heat wave of 2010, climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf has worked out that weather extremes will quintuple in frequency.
You might think US farmers would be worrying about the trend. But wilful blindness gets in the way.
According to an Iowa university poll, a mere 5% of local farmers said the climate is changing for good. US farmer Kevin Mainord told the Financial Times last month: “It's more God and nature’s dictates, rather than a man-made event.”
As the global population increases, Grantham argues supply buffers have yet to be rebuilt following the last food shortage in 2008.
The poorer nations of the emerging economies are being worst hit. The Arab spring, for example, was triggered by a food shortage, which led to a hike in prices local population could not afford.
Egypt, for one, needs to use 40% of its expenditure to buy food after a tripling in wheat prices over a decade. This limits what it can spend on infrastructure, industrial capacity and societal improvements.
In India, the newly enriched middle classes are not benefiting financially because of the rising local cost of food. More than 40% of Indian children aged under three are undernourished and underweight. Per capita consumption of food is falling. The Naxalite Communist movement is gaining influence, as a result of the unrest.
Rising food prices have also been one of several factors behind riots among miners in South Africa. The wife of a striking miner told a local reporter: “Our men work hard but they are hungry. We are also hungry. As I speak to you now, we have no paraffin, no food in our home.”
Percival Stanion, head of strategy at Baring Asset Management, says food shortages – in themselves – are not necessarily the trigger for wars. But they certainly contribute to unrest and mass migration.
Grantham says his personal portfolio is 30% invested in agriculture, commodities and clean energy. That may be pushing it a bit, but time has come to start hedging portfolios against a situation that has become more threatening than most people would care to admit.