State of the earth, 2015


I used to work as an engineering hydrologist, and an environmental manager. Multi-syllable words, but they meant I spent a lot of time collecting, analysing and using climate data, mostly rainfall and streamflow. And so I also did some reading on the then fledgling science of climate change.

I am also a christian, so I believe God wants us to care for his world, the people, yes, but also the animals and the earth itself.

So here’s a report on the state of the climate in the only world we have.

Six things everyone should know about climate

It’s all connected

Our climate is affected by many things – the sun, daily and annual temperature variation, the composition of gases and particles in the atmosphere, the rotation of the earth, the pattern of winds, the amount of water “locked up” in Arctic and Antarctic ice, and so on. What happens in one place can affect what happens far away.

Climate is very variable

Earth experiences large scale but slow changes – ice ages and more temperate eras. Climate (rainfall, temperature, etc) also varies from year to year, from day to day and from place to place. This variation can be large, and so we can get (especially in Australia) severe droughts and destructive floods, sometimes one after another.

Defining climate trends isn’t easy

Because climate is so variable, we need long periods of data to be able to predict trends. Anyone who predicts a trend on a short period generally doesn’t know what they are doing. The length of time needed depends on what you’re measuring, but to say the world is getting warmer, or not, requires decades of data – shorter periods may give a wrong impression.

Models not graphs

A graph gives a good picture, but it can give the wrong impression, and it doesn’t explain causes. Scientists use computer models based on known physical laws to make their predictions and to define causes. As computers get faster and models get better, and as we gather more data, the predictions get better. But they aren’t infallible, just probably right within certain limits of accuracy.

The models that predict global warming are coming true

All but a handful of climate scientists accept the models and the conclusion that extroardinarily rapid increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by human activity (predominately burning of fossil fuels) has caused unprecedented global warming that will (among other things) melt polar ice, raise sea levels, increase storm surges, change weather patterns and have disastrous consequences for many nations – e.g. low lying coastal land and already dry North Africa are going to be badly affected. The model predictions haven’t been perfect, but they are getting better, and they all point in the one direction.

The usual suspects

Opposition to the consensus scientific view comes, in the main, from companies earning profits from fossil fuels (there is evidence that they are using similar tactics to those once used by tobacco companies to distort the truth about smoking and lung cancer) and media magnate Rupert Murdoch (e.g. the Murdoch press in Australia uses anecdotes and snide comments about occasional weather anomalies, which are expected, rather than serous analysis of scientific data). These diehards are compromising the lives of billions of people by their often dishonest opposition to positive action on climate change.

The latest news

NASA updates data on world climate every year. Here is a graph of their latest global temperature data, from 1880 to 2014. This graph presents annual average temperature expressed as a deviation from the 1951-80 mean. (Note that different data sources give slightly different figures because there are many ways to calculate an average temperature across the entire globe. As long as the calculation is consistent, the data will be meaningful.)

Global climate graph

What do we see?

This graph illustrates many of the facts about climate change.

Average annual temperature varies a lot

It is easy to see the graph jumps up and down a lot. A cooler year doesn’t change the fact that temperatures are rising overall, and all the hottest years on record are recent. And 2014 was the hottest of all.

Trends over several decades

Since 1880, there appear to have been several different trends – a cooling trend (1880-1910), a warming trend (1910-1944), generally constant (1945-1970), then a sharp rise (since 1970). There may be a slightly slowing of the rising temperatures since 2000, but it is too soon to know.

It’s way hotter than it was a century ago

In the last century, average global temperatures have risen more than a degree Celsius. Scientists say this is significant, and is already having significant effects on the earth.

It’s really happening

We should trust the scientists and their models. But the graph is clear. Just look at it. Despite what the sceptics say, the world really is warming, our weather is changing, and the effects are becoming serious.

Christians and climate change

For some reason, many christians are sceptical about climate change. I’m not sure why.

But the data is clear. We don’t know how long people will be living on this planet, but we cannot presume to know that God is proposing to end the world any time soon.

Caring for God’s world, and especially for vulnerable people in North Africa, Bangladesh, Pacific Islands, Nepal and many other places requires us to be willing to act, even if these is a cost, and to support politicians who will act.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. There’s a lot of material in those two references, and I haven’t read every word. And I’m certainly not an expert.
    But I would say they are largely right. Here’s a few off the cuff reflections.
    If we are going to properly tackle climate change, it seems we need to leave most of the coal in the ground. That would be a massive change. Sure, renewable energy is getting cheaper and better all the time, but to provide alternative energy (wind, solar, etc) we need highly sophisticated equipment which needs interesting and sometimes difficult-to-mine minerals, which isn’t totally sustainable either. So it may be hard for poorer countries, or even middle countries to go renewable like say Germany is.
    So things are difficult. It is likely we’ll all have to take a cut in standard of living – give up our third wide screen TV or whatever! Since our material standard of living has risen sharply in most western countries in my lifetime, that shouldn’t be too hard. But we probably won’t do it. And emerging nations probably won’t give up their aspirations unless we lower our material stand of living. But unless we do something soon (really) we will have larger disasters in the future.
    My totally non-expert guess is that two principles will operate. (1) Selfishness will predominate and the richer countries will hold on to their profligate lifestyles and condemn poorer countries to horrendous outcomes. The refugee problem will grow alarmingly. (2) We’ll come to our senses at the very latest moment we can, and finally do something about it when much of the damage has been done.
    I’ll be dead before all that, but your generation will have to grapple with what my shameful and selfish generation has bequeathed you. Sorry.

  2. Right, I see. I am not as pessimistic, but the difference may be due to the context. Overall the EU is doing reasonably okay policy-wise, with exceptions.
    And I think the articles’ use of the model averages is somewhat misleading. A lot of pathways still overlap at this time, so there should be several options still open.
    And no need to apologise on behalf of your generation, I think the problem isn’t due to an intergenerational divide. National issues play a far bigger role.

  3. My pessimism may not be well founded. I don’t have a deep knowledge of where things are at, just an awareness of how conservative governments and the Murdoch press here in Australia are fighting tooth and nail, with ridicule more than facts, to slow down effective action as long as they can. But it could change overnight I guess, and Australia isn’t typical of the world, fortunately – we have become a very selfish, smug and inward-looking country, I’m afraid.

  4. You know more about Australian media than I do about European!
    Rupert Murdoch owns quite a few newspapers in Australia. The Telegraph, based in Sydney is a really puerile, nasty and biased newspaper. It has favourite targets and it goes after them in really nasty, coordinated, controlled and dishonest ways. If the newspaper reflects the owner, he must be a really awful person.

  5. Well, I have the advantage that the Australian media are a lot less diverse. But I reckon that is a disadvantage for Down Under.
    What media do you think are the most balanced on climate change, global warming and renewable energy? The ABC and the SMH?

  6. Many people I know say the ABC and SMH are “leftie”, but I think they have been biased by the Murdoch media. The ABC tends to be a little leftist, but being a state owned broadcaster they are required to be reasonably even-handed and to be able to demonstrate that. So I think the ABC is pretty fair in its coverage, even if the reporters lean to the left a little..
    I really like SMH. They have columnists from both left and right and no apparent editorial slant that drives cartoonists, columnists, selection of letter and headlines in a concerted and directed way like the Telegraph does. I would say their only slant is to be more intelligent and modern intellectual than the Telegraph which is populist to the point of being crass and nasty.
    My other source of information is the Climate Council, formerly a government body that the resent government closed, so the same people continued via crowd funding (we have donated several times). They have top Aussie scientists contributing and they put out generally reliable information.

  7. The complaint that the ABC is too left-wing reminds me of two things:
    1. Journalist bias is of limited importance compared to corporate or institutional bias and media frames.
    2. People are prone to overestimating journalist bias.
    I’m not sure where I learnt that, but I can check for some reference, if you like. And my experience is that even public media tend to give too much attention to the cranks’ views on global warming/climate change.

  8. Why are Murdoch and his papers so biased against climate change when the evidence for it is so convincing ? What has he got to gain ? He once said climate change was an important issue that needed to be addressed.
    Is it just that he sees C.C. as a topic of the ‘Left’ and a way to increase taxes on poor unfortunates like himself ?
    I find that Murdoch’s tactics (concerning elections anyway) are to spout his opinions until he discovers that most people disagree with him, then he will swap sides and go with the majority, not wanting to be on the wrong side of history.
    I think he will do the same on this issue.

  9. Hi, thanks for visiting. I don’t know why Murdoch papers are like that. The Sydney Telegraph seems to have a certain ethos: to always take sides, to take every opportunity to mock and criticise the people they don’t like, to be rather nasty in their comments, and to minimise any good news for people and topics they disagree with. I read the Telegraph often while visiting an aged relative (say 4 times a week) and I can say that readers don’t get news there much, but rather very selective, curated and biased news with very strong comments – it is a viewspaper more than a newspaper.
    But that doesn’t explain why they have chosen to oppose climate change, and it’s a silly position to take because eventually they’ll have to back down – either when Murdoch dies or the truth is plain to all their readers. I’m guessing they will have an exit strategy (I’ve already seen hints of it), something like “we have never opposed the science of climate change, only the premature statements by some rabid greens” etc.
    I presume you live west of the Blue Mountains? Are you seeing much change in weather where you live?

  10. I live in the Orange area and I suppose we could get into a weather vs climate discussion, all I can go on is my impressions and I don’t think it’s been as hot so far as it was 2 years ago, because then we had a run of about 10 days or so where the air con went on at 10 am and didn’t go off until about 10 pm. I’ve only had to use the air con once so far this year but I may be speaking prematurely.
    On the other hand I think the winters have been warming. We used to get Julys where the temp didn’t go over 3 degC for the whole month but my impressions are that it’s not as bad lately. I won’t complain about warmer winters though. 🙂
    But judging by the amount of natural disasters in this country, fires floods and droughts and the fact that my home insurance premium has about doubled in ten years something is definitely changing and not for the better.

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