I once spent two weeks on a Russian icebreaker ship in the Arctic. And during that voyage up the West Coast of Greenland, I watched in awe as towering icebergs calved from glaciers in thunderous and angry protest and fell into the Davis Strait. The glaciers were retreating over time, the icebergs melting.
Where Baffin Bay and the Northwest Passage meet, I saw a polar bear and her cub swim in an iceless sea, looking for ice floes on which to rest and feed. There were none.
A couple of years ago, as I drove the South Island of New Zealand, the glaciers of the Southern Alps were largely gone, just their rocky moraine serving as a headstone to their once mighty presence.
Last summer, as I stayed with in-laws south of Manchester in England, large military Chinook helicopters clattered overhead, ferrying bags of gravel and crushed stone to the dam at Whaley Bridge. Too much rain had inundated the structure, it could give way at any moment, sending a deluge into the valley below.
And last week in the south of Spain, the temperatures hit 43 degrees Celsius as I wandered the majestic Alhambra in Granada. It doesn’t get that hot there normally.
But these are not normal times.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published on Monday, we humans have irreversibly damaged this planet now and forever. And unless we act fast and furiously, we will do more damage with far more severe consequences that we are already witnessing.
There are massive wildfires burning through Greece and Turkey, so too in the Western US. In Siberia, this summer is so warm that permafrost that has been in place for tens of thousands of years is melting — releasing methane and carbon dioxide in countless billions of tonnes into our atmosphere. In the Northwest quadrant of the US and Canada, temperatures are at unprecedented levels. On Wednesday, Sicily recorded the highest-ever temperature recorded in Europe.
Last week, meteorologists warned that the forthcoming hurricane season would be the worst year as the waters where these giant storms are born are warmer now — giving off moisture to form the storms — than ever before.
And they also reported that the Gulf Stream — the huge wind movement that determines the weather patterns for much of the Northern Hemisphere, is now becoming unpredictable and is varying in movements they have now witnessed before. That’s why, for example, severe storms stayed above Germany and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) for so long last month, causing the deaths of some 200 people and bringing unprecedented floods that simply washed away traditional flood defences.
So yes, our world is changing. And yes, we have changed it. It has changed us too — and our children.
My stepson Scott lives in Norway and is adamant he and his partner won’t have children. They say they don’t want to bring children onto this planet because of the way we have harmed it. Those are sentiments voiced too by my daughter in New Zealand. I believe it is becoming a factor in how many people see the world now — a world warmer, more unpredictable, more dangerous because of the way we have mistreated it.
Maybe there needs to be fewer of us using less resources, eating better, consuming less, growing more, taking care of what is left and managing their stewardship of this planet better than I and others who went, used and abused before.
It is hard to see hope, harder still to believe it. For so long so many have talked for so long about the need for action on climate change. When I worked at a national newspaper in Canada, the Kyoto protocols were supposed to point the way to reducing greenhouse gases.
“Kyoto is Japanese for ‘turn the page’,” one editor would quip. Sadly, too many pages have been turned and we still hold hope that come November, when world leaders gather in Glasgow to decide on targets for cutting emissions, there will be meaningful change. Yes, hope is hard to see.
This week’s IPCC report is the sixth from that body of scientists and experts since it was formed back in 1988. It has been eight years in the making and it provides the world’s full knowledge yet of how climate change is affecting us — and we it.
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” the report says. “There is no uncertaint language in this sentence, because there is no uncertainty that global warming is caused by human activity and the burning of fossil fuels,” said IPCC co-author Friederike Otto, a climatologist at University of Oxford.
Even if we can all agree to cut carbon emissions, we are unlikely to prevent global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Without immediate steep emissions cuts, though, average temperatures could cruise past 2C by the end of the century.
I will not be around then to report on the havoc but now, the scientists say, severe heatwaves that happened only once every 50 years are now happening roughly once a decade. Tropical cyclones are getting stronger. Most land areas are seeing more rain or snowfall in a year. Severe droughts are happening 1.7 times as often. And fire seasons are getting longer and more intense.
Sea levels are sure to keep rising for hundreds or thousands of years. Even if global warming were halted at 1.5C, the average sea level would still rise about 2 to 3 metres, and maybe more.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we have done. Soon, our children’s children will wonder what an iceberg is — if there are indeed, children of children.