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It’s getting hot in here...
Some might like it hot, but it's going to be very unpleasant for a vast majority of us.
Trigger Warning - this issue is going to be a sombre one. Plan something fun to see/do/eat afterwards!
It’s official. The past nine years of our lives - three of which have been spent in a weird, pandemic-fuelled haze - have been the warmest since record keeping began in 1880, according to NASA.
The UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), using six international datasets including NASA, concurred, although it said the past eight years instead of nine.
And guess what? Despite devastating wildfires in Europe and the U.S., record-shattering temperatures in the Antarctic, heatwaves in China and South America, and a long-lasting drought in the Horn of Africa…
2022 is “only” the fifth or sixth warmest on record, according to the WMO. This is because of the presence of a cooling La Niña event for the third year in a row.
Nevertheless, Europe, where I now live, experienced its hottest summer ever, with vast swathes of fertile agricultural land across the region suffering from terrible drought.
Between the beginning of the year to September 3, the region also lost almost three times as much land to wildfires as it did every year between 2006-2021.
This in turn led to a sharp rise in emissions from wildfires, which include carbon gases and particulate matter, with France, Spain, Germany and Slovenia notching up highest summer wildfire emissions for at least the last 20 years.
We’re also having a very warm winter right now. You must have seen hordes of articles on ski resorts shutting their doors due to a lack of a snow as well as the spectre of the world’s elite converging at Davos with the possibility - gasp! - of not being able to go skiing.
Unfortunately, the heat situation isn’t about to end anytime soon. NOAA estimates there’s an 82% chance that La Niña will have ended around Spring but we don’t know what will replace it. FYI - NOAA = the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The two options are El Niño, which usually has the exact opposite impact from La Niña, or ENSO-neutral, which, as the name suggests, is neither of the two.
Both the WMO and NOAA have suggested that it is likely to be ENSO-neutral but others have warned of El Niño returning later this year. If so, we are looking at what is likely to be an extremely uncomfortable time.
We often overuse the term “perfect storm” but this time, it fits. Imagine what could likely be in store for us after three years of a deadly global pandemic, a year of war in Ukraine, increasingly erratic weather patterns (see: the unprecedented floods in Pakistan) and the cumulative impacts of all these things on people’s health and livelihoods and nations’ coffers.
The Dreaded Droughts
The fear is that El Niño, on top of a warming trend, will lead to even more frequent, longer, and harsher droughts.
Farming is extremely susceptible to the vagaries of weather and rice, wheat and maize, three key staples that feed much of the world, are all sensitive to heat stress and drought.
Different plants respond differently to these stresses but a new paper by researchers from Peru and Pakistan found that the impact are wide-ranging, affecting productivity, growth and nutrient update, just to name a few. In other words, we’re going to face both quantity and quality issues.
According to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, last year’s unusually warm weather, “combined with a lack of rain, clear skies and dry soils, brought drought conditions especially to the southern and central parts of the continent”. The result?
Massive drops in wheat and rice production in Italy, slashing fruit, cereal and wine production in France, and a plunge in olive oil production in Spain. Agricultural powerhouses Argentina and Brazil were also affected.
In the U.S., the winter wheat and its pasture and rangeland were in “poor to very poor condition” and more than 60% of the nation’s topsoil - the most fertile layer - was dry or very dry.
Let me add this just to underline how terrible droughts are - seen those headlines about California’s deadly flooding? Well, the state is still battling drought which is linked in part to the floods. Downpours following dry conditions tend to create flash floods. Have a look at this short video below from an academic at University of Reading which illustrate this point very clearly.
Of course, the litany of losses I cited above wasn’t the first time weather extremes have devastated harvests. Most farmers I have spoken to throughout the world have told me they’ve witnessed changes in these patterns for years.
But the losses last year were way more tangible to wealth consumers in the first world than previous years. So if El Niño does make an appearance later this year, it will be to our detriment.
Regardless, 2023 is - yet again - likely to be one of the hottest years on record, said the UK’s Met Office.
“The average global temperature for 2023 is forecast to be between 1.08°C and 1.32°C (with a central estimate of 1.20°C) above the average for the pre-industrial period (1850-1900),” it said.
Yet another study this week caught my eye and although this has a much longer time span - nearly three decades from now - it still made me realise how the stakes are getting higher and higher with each passing day.
This research, by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, found that by 2050, trapped sediments will reduce the capacity of about 50,000 dams worldwide by more than a quarter. Dams in the Americas and Europe are likely to experience larger storage losses compared to Asia and Africa.
Whether we like it or not, large dams provide electricity, irrigation and drinking water in many places, and losing any amount of capacity is bad news.
Three Good Reads
I enjoyed recommending the good reads last week so here are three more. Will try and keep this as a weekly feature.
This is all the gas industry’s fault - Heated
If you’ve suddenly noticed a lot of articles and discussions around gas stoves in American media and wondered why, read this. It started with a throwaway remark of sorts that was then seized by the folks who would rather be asleep at the wheel, because being ‘woke’ could actually save us.
Emily Atkins, one of the original superstars of climate newsletters, traces America’s obsession with gas stoves to efforts by a gas industry group in the 1930s.
The Day the Food System Went to the Doctor - Corinna Hawkes
Corinna, professor of food policy at City, University of London, is someone who I really respect. In fact, I’ve published one of her commentaries on Thin Ink before.
This piece, which she published in her own blog, The Better Food Journey, is adapted from a speech she gave last year. It is simple, powerful and vivid in explaining what’s wrong with our current food systems.
The World is Growing More Crops - but Not for Food - World Resource Institute
Long but illuminating read from the folks at WRI on the shocking findings that only 37% of the harvested area of major crops are used for direct food consumption.
The rest goes to feeding animals, became biofuels, in industry for textiles and pharmaceuticals, processed into products like soap or alcohol, grown for seed or exported to other countries.
“If all harvested crops were used for food, they could meet the daily caloric needs for all of humanity. But because there is so much competition for how crops are used - and ever-increasing demand for non-food crops - they don’t.”