Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 38 contents

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 38, May 1999

Our ever-changing climate

IN THE LAST few years, news reports and articles about the environment have talked of the global impacts of El Niņo. It has been stated that droughts, floods and hurricanes have all been caused by this change in the weather patterns. What is El Niņo? Through the oceans of the world huge river currents flow, driven by differences in temperatures of the world's water and by winds, also driven by temperature differences. Usually, off the west coast of Peru the warm surface water flows away from Latin America towards Australia. Cold water from the ocean's depths rises in its place. This upwelling of cold water, rich in food, supports large populations of fish and birds. Peruvian anchovy fishing, for example, is based on this flow of water. The wind also normally blows westward from Latin America.

When an El Niņo occurs this pattern changes. The warm surface water stops flowing, the cold waters do not rise to the surface, and the winds cease to blow to the west. When this happens the effect is not only felt in the local area but globally. Droughts are likely in Australia and South East Asia, storms more common on the west of the Americas; and these weather changes have further effects which can reach all the way from India and China to Europe. El Niņo seems to have occurred every few years for centuries at least. So why is it suddenly news? Recent research by the British Met Office, found that in the last five centuries there have only been nine 'very strong' El Niņos and they are separated by over 20 years - except for the last two, in 1982-83 and 1997-98. There are concerns that the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, a major cause of climate change, is affecting weather patterns in general and El Niņo in particular. Richard Feely, in Nature, reports a link between El Niņo and the exchange of CO2 between the air and oceans. There is growing evidence to link the increase in carbon dioxide, climate change and more severe El Niņos.

  The 1997-98 El Niņo impacted with devastating effect world wide. A report by Paul Epstein of the Harvard Medical School, listed the following: flooding in China which made 230 million people homeless; severe flooding in Bangladesh: drought in Indonesia which contributed to the devastation of the forest fires started by businesses involved in logging and grabbing land; a drought in Brazil which prolonged the forest fires in the Amazon and caused devastation in north east Brazil; Hurricane Mitch in Central America which left 11,000 people dead and most of the crops destroyed (See Socialism Today No.34 for more); and severe ice-storms in USA.

In the first eleven months of 1998 weather-related damage resulted in 32,000 deaths, left 300 million homeless and caused losses of $89 billion. This huge devastation and suffering is mostly borne by the world's poor.

The effects of El Niņo spread further than changes in weather - with agriculture and fishing damaged by El Niņo, more widespread disease in some areas, and studies in Antarctica showing widespread deaths of penguins and seals.

All of these show how changes can spread and cascade throughout the environment. They also show how a small change in one area, such as the initial change in weather and sea temperatures off the coast of Peru, can be amplified and grow into dramatic and significant changes.

Yet many people consider the natural world as unchanging, eternal and in perfect harmony. In fact, the natural world is full of change; it has never been fixed or in balance. A danger of seeing nature as unchanging, or of only changing slowly and evenly, is that this ignores that change is itself uneven. This can blind us to how human actions that may seem small can have dramatic and unexpected effects.

  A number of factors interacting can produce changes in unexpected directions. With a model of steady and gradual change, who would predict that a change in the ocean currents in the Pacific would kill penguins in Antarctica, cause an increase in cholera in India, or an increase of disease in Canada? To understand the world and its environment science needs to abandon a simplistic and reductionist outlook which sees issues in isolation, with a model of slow constant change. Instead science has to appreciate the interconnections, the complexities and possibilities of dramatic changes.

Most health and environment controls are based on an assumption of gradual, incremental, change. This ignores the possibility of a trend reaching a critical threshold were a damaging transformation occurs or the interaction of individually relatively harmless trends or materials combine in an unforeseen and possibly damaging manner. Many of the predictions of the impact of climate change are based on assumptions of constant change. However, there are growing doubts about these. Large quantities of methane are held in the permafrost (permanently frozen ground) of northern Canada and Russia, and under the oceans' continental shelves. It is possible that, as the globe warms, the methane will be released. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so the release of the billions of tonnes of methane could rapidly increase global warming.

In a twist to the general trend of global warming there are fears that the Gulf Stream could stop. At present the warm waters of the tropics are pulled north as the cold, salt water off Greenland sinks. If the mile thick ice of Greenland melted, the water of the north Atlantic would be a lot less salty and so less heavy. This would reduce the sinking of water around Greenland and slow and maybe even stop the pulling in of warm tropical water. If the Gulf Stream stopped, then Western Europe could have winter temperatures similar to eastern Canada, about 10oC colder than now with icebergs off the coast. This may seem a fanciful future, but there is strong evidence that in the past the Gulf Stream has not flowed.

  There is growing evidence that some of the past climate changes happened very rapidly. A researcher of climate change stated that in the past the Gulf Stream had switched on and off 'without warning and virtually overnight'. Evidence on climate from cores of ice from 15,000 years ago shows a change in 5oC in only three years.

It is becoming increasingly clear that factors can combine in their impact. Many of the world's coral reefs are dead or severely damaged due to a rise in ocean temperatures in the last year. Many were already under stress due to the flow of chemicals from industry and agriculture into the oceans and other human actions. The rise in ocean temperatures and El Niņo pushed the coral over a threshold, resulting in widespread death. Damage to coral reefs in turn threatens coastlines with increased storm and flood damage as well as the loss of fishing grounds.

As well as revolution in the methods of science the drastic possible impacts of changes in the world's weather patterns raises the issue of how the world is run. In spite of growing evidence of the seriousness of climate change, the already inadequate agreements reached at Kyoto are not going to be met. Many of the big companies that rely on the use of fossil fuels continue to argue against any actions to limit the release of carbon dioxide. They are more interested in profit than the lives and health of millions of people.

The last few years have already seen damaging effects of climate change. It is possible that the next few decades will see changes far greater with food production effected, large areas of low-lying land flooded, and an increase in storms and droughts. This will devastate the lives of millions of people. Great as the suffering of the people of Kosova is, the world could see many millions more refugees, homeless and starving people. The present rulers of the world, big business and governments, cannot and will not act to end the suffering of the poor, starving and homeless. Instead, many of their actions make things worse and, unless stopped, threaten a future of even greater environmental damage and suffering for most of the world's people. The effects of climate change will be global. The reasons for a society that internationally puts the needs of people and the planet first are all around us. A genuine socialist society is needed.

Bill Hopwood

Home | issue 38 contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page