Søren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards – we are compelled to…
“While people are very interested in records – the warmest, the hottest, the driest, the wettest – what really matters for how people live and how ecosystems function are the long term trends and the shift in the whole distribution toward warmer temperatures. The most important thing to remember is that this is part of a long-term trend. We’re not [just] talking about a one-off temperature record. We’re talking about whole stretches of time in India, Pakistan where it’s above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees F).”
Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Though they may clash over taxation and consciousness, there is one point of agreement for politicians from the left and the right, and leading scientists and philosophers: human-induced climate change is real.
Last year was the hottest year on record, according to data from NASA, eclipsing the record set the previous year. Extending this out to the turn of the millennium, fifteen out of the sixteen hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. (Put another way, since 1998 every single year except 1999 has been one of the top sixteen hottest years on record.)
And the trend is set to continue: as early as May this year, after several record hottest months in a row, Scientific American reported that there was a 99 per cent chance that 2016 was going to be the hottest year on record. While the strong El Niño has contributed to this, Scientific American states that “the primary driver has been the heat that has built up from decades of unabated greenhouse gas emissions”.
Even in the US, where scepticism towards climate change is considered to run high, attitudes are changing: a recent Gallup poll showed that 64 per cent of Americans worry a “great deal/fair amount” about global warming. The same poll revealed that 59 per cent believe that the effects have already begun, with another 31 per cent saying that “the effects are not currently manifest but will be at some point in the future.”
This leaves just 10 per cent of Americans who think that climate change isn’t happening.
While this may sound heartening, there’s one figure that will raise some eyebrows: although an eight-year high, the percentage of Americans worrying about global warming a “great deal/fair amount” is currently lower than it was in 1999 and 2000 – the years before the run of fifteen out of the sixteen hottest years on record.
We have been faced with the prospect of extinction events in the past: the Cold War; the Great Pandemic in the early 20th century; the spread of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. On each of these occasions humans managed to stave off disaster by collaborating, thinking laterally, and making tough decisions.
With climate change deniers now firmly in the minority, the question is no longer whether we need to act, but how.