2016 in review: climate change continues its deadly march

Global warming is no longer a distant problem easily ignored by wealthy countries. Evidence proves nowhere is safe.

A burnt World Heritage sign is surrounded by a singed landscape after the bushfires on Tasmania’s Central Plateau. Courtesy Dan Broun.
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When I arrived to visit my family in Tasmania, Australia, in early February, something was obviously, terribly wrong.

No one could remember a drought this bad. The hydroelectric dams, long the majority electricity suppliers, were at their lowest in history and a back-up cable that sends brown coal-driven electrons in times of need had mysteriously failed. Diesel generators had to be dusted off and switched on.

Along the coast, millions of oysters suddenly died of disease as a massive wave of hot water washed down from the north. Many oyster farmers lost their jobs.

As they discussed the weirdness they had observed around them, people had a panicked look.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, the El Niño weather cycle that periodically lifts huge quantities of warm water from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, released stored heat into the atmosphere. That extra heat dialled up the global temperature, already elevated by about 1°C due to greenhouse gases, by another 0.1°C-0.2°C.

Meteorological organisations have crowned 2016 as the hottest year ever recorded. This trounces 2015’s record and means that each of the 16 years since the turn of the millennium are among the hottest 17 ever recorded. Droughts, floods, fires and intolerable heat visited every habitable continent. But it’s all just numbers until you lose something dear.

In Tasmania, the sense of a looming crisis was realised when a massive lightning storm set fires burning across the land. The Central Plateau – normally a wet boggy forest – was set ablaze. While the fires rampaged, I visited a devastated valley in the World Heritage protected area. Blackened, 1,000-year-old trees stood like victims of war, strung up as a warning that the new regime will be brutal.

For many Tasmanians, myself included, climate change had long been a faraway problem. Mostly, it seemed, the tragedy would strike in countries that were poor and vulnerable. But in 2016, climate change entered our intimate world. It feels glib to focus on the loss of a forest, when people are dying or losing homes. Right now, 40 million people are short of food in southern Africa because the rains have failed.

Of course, these disasters outweigh the thousand smaller cuts those lucky enough to avoid them might experience. But 2016 showed us that the most stable, wealthy and apparently resilient places are also going to lose out.

Even in the Gulf, with all the wealth brought by oil industries, countries cannot be insulated from extreme heatwaves of 50°C and above, which could make them almost uninhabitable. Nowhere will be unaffected.

This is something worth considering as the largest developed economy on Earth places its faith in a president who appears to see little connection between greenhouse gas emissions and the well-being of his people.

Donald Trump’s climate agenda is unknown. But his election cast a shadow over UN climate talks in Marrakech in November. The talks were supposed to be a joyful gavelling-in of the newly-ratified Paris agreement, which was formally joined by more than 100 nations within a year of its creation. In comparison, its predecessor the Kyoto Protocol, took eight years to gather enough members to become law.

Negotiators at the conference however, watched as serious climate heavyweights in the United States diplomatic team left for the last time. US secretary of state John Kerry flew to Morocco to deliver an emotional speech and a defiant message that the process was “bigger than one person, one president”.

Certainly, the more US citizens can make connections between events at home and the warnings of scientists, the harder Trump will find it to follow through on his threats.

When we start looking, we can find the effects of climate change everywhere. Towards the end of the year I returned to Tasmania. Newly-licensed to scuba dive, I hoped to see the last remaining giant kelp forests on the island’s east coast. This great ecosystem once stretched along hundreds of kilometres of that shore. The trees, sometimes more than 40-metres tall, create a magical, waving underwater playground. Divers go misty-eyed in recounting the wonders of flying through the canopy.

But the trees are disappearing. In the past few decades, warm, nutrient-poor waters have starved the giant weeds. The great expanse has been reduced to a single patch in the corner of one bay. Knowing it might be my last chance, I had planned to visit it in November. But when I called Mick Baron, who runs diving tours to the forest, he told me the trees were gone; wiped out by a huge storm after the most intense underwater heatwave anyone on the coast could remember.

“It won’t be long before I’m doing other things,” said Baron, who has been diving for more than 40 years.

Global warming is changing the fundamental conditions that have underpinned entire lives, entire societies. There is a word for the mental anguish experienced by those whose environment is changing or lost – solastalgia. The definition is very specific. It only happens when the environment is one to which the sufferer relates to on an intimate and familiar level – when it is home.

El Niño’s most recent temperature shock has sent climate change blundering through my reality, and the things I love and hold dear are not safe. Fighting climate change is no longer is an altruistic pursuit, if it ever was one. In 2016, a year that broke new ground across the globe, I imagine there are many others around the world who have had this experience.

Each lake, farm or forest, each vegetable patch or coastal walking path, city park or fishing spot is part of someone’s home.

What is most dear to you? The idea that these fundamental elements are threatened may seem far-fetched. But that’s what I thought a year ago.

Karl Mathiesen is an environmental journalist based in London.