Drought in China, and Understanding Timescales

In the background, with that response to Mary-Jayne now posted below, there have needless to say been some further interesting developments in recent days on the climate change front – with a view to the left of cooling steam I captured rising at dawn from a nuclear power station in Lyon, France.

First, this morning, we hear from one of the principle authors of the last IPCC report on climate change less than two years ago that the prospects for global warming and its consequences had been severely underestimated.

The severity of warming over the next century, said Professor Chris Field, will be much worse than previously believed, and future temperatures “beyond anything” predicted.

Interestingly, BBC Radio Four this morning placed this item second in the news after an account of planned employee bonuses to be paid by Lloyds Bank. Audiences and the wider global community still find it so hard to accept this narrative as overarching everything else – although I suspect that is very likely to change quite soon, as people begin to register the fear that is coming.

Second, one of the world’s leading NGOs dealing with humanitarian aid, the Feinstein International Centre in the US, has warned this past week that the cost of dealing with global warming-related disaster, already significantly on the rise, will increase in the coming years by between 32% and 1600%. And having attended a conference with these folk 18 months ago in the US, I know they think the outcomes are likely to be even worse.

Continuing, we learned this week that Northern China (where I was based for three years in the mid-80s) is currently experiencing its worst drought in 50 years. No-one has died, so in the nature of news, the story has had rather less attention than the Australian fires. But the underlying message is the same. Alarming shifts in climatic behaviour.

The picture here is part of one I took two years ago in that self-same Northern China, of a reservoir north of Beijing, the Miyun. Look closely, and you’ll see what’s left of the water that I used to windsurf on to the left.

In the 1960s, when the reservoir was built, the water reached up to the bottom of the second row of mountains in the blue background.

Today, even before the current drought, the water is almost gone. In a very few years, this and many other North Chinese reservoirs and rivers will be dry – and the region will be on the brink of desertification. I cannot see how Beijing can avoid becoming virtually uninhabitable within a few decades at most. It’s that bad.

Another thought. It isn’t just climate and rainfall changes that are going to render the wider planet uninhabitable. What has so far been largely left out of the public debate is the sheer pressure of human population – that algal bloom on Gaia’s surface. But could that be changing?

The BBC news website this week published an important comment, immediately denounced two-to-one as most intelligent reports seem to be by the usual blogger army of climate-change sceptics, naming what writer John Feeney called the elephant in the room of runaway population growth, and urging the environmental movement to stop running scared of this controversial topic. Well worth a read.

And in perhaps another indication that commentators, in the face of so much resistance, may just be starting to find courage to name the unnamable, you may have seen Channel 4 News on Friday night carrying a discussion on a new report by Britain’s Mechanical Institute of Engineers appealing to this country’s government not just to try to prevent the effects of climate change, but to focus on adapting to what the report called its inevitable impact, including flooding, volatile storms, droughts and heat waves.

The government should, the report says, take preparatory measures including building power plants at flood-proof locations, planning for rising sea levels and knocking down sections of inner cities to create ventilation areas to cope with the extreme heat. And if you think that the IPCC’s outside prediction of 6.2 degrees warming by the end of the century sounds severe, do read this Engineering report, which foresees rises in some parts of the inhabited globe, including coastal China, of up to 13 degrees and more.

Now that’s radical, fact-based and alarming writing. Yet, interesting, as with the BBC this morning, how Channel 4 needed to balance the determinedly serious comments of an Institute scientist with reassurances from Lord Smith of the Environment Agency, that the government was across this, and that, for example, the Thames Barrier would hold for another 80 years.

Ah, said the C4 News’ usually thoughtful presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, so we don’t need to worry just yet?

And that’s the point which scientists, therapists, politicians, journalists, environmental activists, have to get across. That yes, we do really really need to worry, now. To the planet, and in the context of possible human survival as a species, 80 years is no different from eight. But how do we do this without putting people off.

If we don’t start to worry, quite badly, and name that worry, we truly are toast.

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