2016: The Warmest Year On Record And One Of The Most Politically Traumatic.


(A report from Adrian Shaw, Church of Scotland Climate Change Officer)

2016 is on track to be the warmest year on record. Temperatures are likely to be on average approximately 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. This follows on from two years, 2014 and 2015 that were themselves record breaking.

2016 was also a year of momentous political developments. On the positive side the Paris climate agreement of 2015 came into effect  on the 4 November 2016 following a signing ceremony at the United Nations in April in New York and ratification by 55 countries accounting for over 55 % of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Elsewhere less auspicious political developments were taking place with the election of Donald Trump to become president of the USA, a man who has previously expressed scepticism about climate change and has apparently little enthusiasm for the Paris agreement.

Why does this matter?

The impacts of climate change can hardly be overstated.  Three examples illustrate this.

The oceans are getting warmer.

Ocean scientists point to one little understood fact about climate change:  over 90% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases has been stored in the oceans.  As water warms it expands slightly and this, combined with glacial melting, contribute strongly to global sea level rise.   The rate of sea level rise varies locally according to local circumstances but is now estimated to be about 3mm. a year, a figure that looks likely to increase.

For the residents of low lying island and coastal areas the consequences or rising sea levels are serious as is the likely increase in the severity of tropical storms.   Not surprisingly the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has been one of the most vociferous advocates for climate action at recent UN conferences.  There are also range of other consequences affecting habitats and species.

Rainfall patterns are changing around the world.

Warmer oceans, changing ocean currents and higher air temperatures are contributing to changing rainfall patterns around the world, with chaotic consequences. In the UK winter rainfall is increasing but summer rainfall in the south of the UK is predicted to fall.  One consequence of this is very likely to be increased winter flooding, which comes at a high human and financial cost. To quote the UK Committee on Climate Change summary of impacts on the UK:

Insured losses from flooding and severe weather events have cost an average £1.5 billion per year over the past twenty years.  In 2007 widespread flooding affected 55,000 homes, killed 13 people and cost the economy £3.2 billion.

According to a House of Commons Library report of 2014 some 5.2 million properties are at risk of flooding in England and maintaining existing levels of flood defence would require spending to increase to over £1 billion per year by 2035.  Overall the cost of responding to climate change has been estimated by the Stern Report to be about 1-2% of GDP annually if we act now but rising to a much higher figure if we delay action.  Whereas in the UK we have a range of options for adapting to climate change, the economic impact on the most vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh could be enormous.  And these are countries with far fewer resources to address the challenges of climate change.

The Arctic Ice Cap is shrinking

One of the most dramatic consequences of a warming change is the reduction in summer sea ice in the Arctic.  The extent of sea ice is monitored daily by satellite and data from the summer of 2016 shows it was the second lowest area ever recoded. Ice reflects over 90% of the sun’s light and energy but seawater absorbs most of it, so loss of summer sea ice leading to further warming of the Arctic Ocean.    IPCC projections suggest that by mid-century the Arctic Ocean will be will be free of sea ice.

This has a number of consequences both local and regional.  The effect on Arctic ecosystems will be profound, typically stressing populations of iconic species such as polar bears but there will be regional effects, some difficult to predict, possibly affecting Scotland  and other countries close to the Arctic.  The Met Office predict that winter weather will become milder and wetter in Scotland but an ice free Arctic introduces a new element of uncertainty into predictions.  There is also evidence of a slowing down in Atlantic currents in recent years – consistent with predictions from the IPCC.   The uncertainty about the impact of changing currents is high but the potential risks in terms of a much cooler Scotland are large.

Meanwhile in politics….

The Paris agreement marked the culmination of over twenty years of climate negotiations. Cautionary voices have been raised about the agreement: it cannot guarantee international action and the plans submitted by governments to limit emissions still add up to nearly three degrees of warming; the mechanisms and finance to help developing countries adapt to a changing climate and grow low carbon economies need to be put in place and  recompense for loss and damage due to climate change remains an outstanding issue.  But the agreement now in place provides a robust structure within which to address these issues.

In the UK, the rest of the EU and the USA other political priorities and challenges have come to the fore.  All have ratified the agreement but all have been diverted by other crises including Brexit, migration, economic uncertainty and the US Presidential election. Since the General Election of 2015 the UK Government has removed a range of financial measures designed to promote a low carbon economy and in the USA the future of measures introduced by Barack Obama is now uncertain.

How should we respond?

Churches and members of congregations now face a number of challenges.  The science of climate change as described in the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear in its essentials.  Climate change is happening; it is anthropogenic (human activity is causing it); and it leads to a range of significant risks, risks that become more severe and more numerous as global temperatures increase. The time for denial or avoidance of climate change is long past and politicians or other leaders who can’t face up to this should be shunned or challenged.    Christian Aid and Church of Scotland partner churches around the world have repeatedly pointed to the injustice at the heart of climate change: the richest countries have been responsible for the great majority of greenhouse gas emissions while the poorest suffer the worst consequences.   This demands a practical and theological response.

There are many opportunities for churches and members of congregations to get involved.  Here are three suggestions.

Become an eco-congregation.

Join the largest and most rapidly growing community environmental movement in Scotland with a network of local groups and a range of online resources.  Eco-Congregation Scotland can help you respond to climate change in worship, in action and in advocacy.

Who is looking after your money?

If you have a bank account, savings, investments or a pension you may be financing climate change.  By carefully choosing where to put any savings or by engaging with your pension provider you can make a difference.  Christian Aid and the Church of Scotland are both investigating this issue. Careful and ethical investment can help us move more quickly to a low carbon economy.

Meet your MSP.

The Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office (SCPO) is encouraging churches to ‘Meet Your MSP’ to tell them of your concerns and aspirations.  You can help organise a meeting with your MSP or MP in your church to ask them to help make Scotland a low carbon economy.