We now have an answer to why global temperatures have risen less quickly in recent years than predicted in climate change models. (It's necessary to add immediately that the issue is only the rate of that rise, since the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.) Thanks to years of especially strong Pacific trade winds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, much of the extra heat generated by global warming is being buried deep in ocean waters. Though no one knows for sure, the increase in the power of those winds may itself have been set off by the warming of the Indian Ocean. In other words, the full effects of the heating of the planet have been postponed, but are still building (and may also be affecting ocean ecology in unpredictable ways). As Matthew England, the lead scientist in the study, points out:
"Even if the [Pacific trade] winds accelerate... sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect. And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the twenty-first century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end."
Despite the slower rate of temperature rise, the effects of the global heating process are quite noticeable. Yes, if you're living somewhere in much of the lower forty-eight, you now know the phrase "polar vortex" the same way you do "Mom" and "apple pie," and like me, you're shivering every morning the moment you step outside, or sometimes even in your own house. That southern shift in the vortex may itself be an artifact of changing global weather patterns caused at least in part by climate change.
In the meantime, in the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; Oslo had a Christmas to remember, and forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter. Then, of course, there is the devastating, worsening drought in California (and elsewhere in the West) now in its third year, and by some accounts the worst in half a millennium, which is bound to drive up global food prices. There are the above-the-norm temperatures in Sochi that are creating problems keeping carefully stored snow on the ground for Olympic skiers and snowboarders. And for good measure, toss in storm-battered Great Britain's wettest December and January in more than a century. Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there's heat to spare. There was the devastating January heat wave in Australia, while in parts of Brazil experiencing the worst drought in half-a-century there has never been a hotter month on record than that same month. If the rains don't come relatively soon, the city of São Paulo is in danger of running out of water.
It's clear enough that, with the effects of climate change only beginning to take hold, the planet is already in a state of weather disarray. Yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today in his powerful piece "The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon," the forces arrayed against dealing with climate change couldn't be more powerful. Given that we've built our global civilization on the continuing hit of energy that fossil fuels provide and given the interests arrayed around exploiting that hit, the gravitational pull of what Klare calls "Planet Carbon" is staggering.
Recently, I came across the following passage in Time of Illusion, Jonathan Schell's 1976 classic about Nixon administration malfeasance. Schell wrote it with the nuclear issue in mind, but today it has an eerie resonance when it comes to climate change:
"In the United States, unprecedented wealth and ease came to coexist with unprecedented danger, and a sumptuous feast of consumable goods was spread out in the shadow of universal death. Americans began to live as though on a luxuriously appointed death row, where one was free to enjoy every comfort but was uncertain from moment to moment when or if the death sentence might be carried out. The abundance was very much in the forefront of people's attention, however, and the uncertainty very much in the background; and in the government as well as in the country at large the measureless questions posed by the new weapons were evaded."