A frosty morning in December seems an odd time to talk about Global Warming, or, more appropriately, Climate Change. But with the UN Climate Change Conference happening in Poland, recent wildfires in the USA claiming dozens of lives, and the arrival of winter giving us the chance to reflect on the insanely hot and dry summer we've had, now is as good a time as any to discuss the issue.
The large scale threats it poses, from mass extinction of wildlife, to the destruction of entire nations, to the inundation of millions of people's homes in coastal areas, are psychologically unrelatable. Stalin (usually not someone I go to for life advice) did made a good point when he said "one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic." The fact is, human minds don’t respond well to large numbers. We are social creatures who work best at the personal, familial, or communal level. There's a reason adverts for charities focus on one or two individual's stories rather than hit you over the head with statistics of the millions, living in poverty, fear, or suffering from cancer.
So how do we bring Climate Change to a more personal level? Well, anyone caught in the sweltering weather this summer without a cool drink to hand had a very visceral experience of Climate Change. This summer was the joint hottest on record, and it’s likely we’ll be seeing more of these in the future. 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the last 16 years. These extreme weather events bring the prospect of increased food prices, and strained A&E departments across the country. It’s important to remember, however, that there is an important distinction between climate and weather. Confusing the two can lead to embarrassing faux-pas, such as when Trump declared that chilly weather over Thanksgiving was evidence against Climate Change.
Climate details longer term phenomena than daily, weekly, or monthly weather. Things it can be hard to recognise on a human timescale. But nature does a much better job than us, and carefully observing natural changes can help us appreciate the effects of Climate Change in our local area. The timings of natural phenomena – the emergence of buds on trees, insects coming out of hibernation, or the arrival of migratory birds, for example – are known as phenology. These are things that anyone can notice and record, just by observing the little things. And luckily for us, people have been doing just that for the past 200 years. The “Father of Phenology”, Robert Marsham, lived not too far from Salhouse Broad, in Stratton Strawless. Thanks in part to his records, dating from the 18th Century, scientists can see the long term changes in nature’s timings. We now know, for example, that various spring-time events have shifted 11 days earlier in just 25 years.
Whilst many might welcome an earlier spring, it poses problems for ecosystems where a delicate balance of interactions between different species is necessary for its functioning. When, for example, flowers bloom earlier than insects emerge, the former don’t get pollinated and the latter miss out on a valuable early food source. Or if migratory birds arrive before caterpillars emerge, the young chicks of early spring can go hungry. These are all things which have been observed happening, and it’s a worrying trend. Known as ‘phenological mismatch’, this is just one of the many impacts Climate Change is having.
So the message is enjoy the winter, whether it’s mild, grey and gloomy, or crisp, cool and bright. Or even if there’s a blizzard out there! But try and do more than just notice the silhouetted bare bones of an oak tree, or the final shrivelled berries in a hedgerow. Notice the changes too, the subtle messages nature gives us about its next moves; messages that still chime with the clocks we too have inside of us.
Climate Change can be a difficult subject. By understanding its effects on a highly local level it becomes a more personal issue, giving us personal motivation to do something about it. And understanding that there are things you or I can do, alongside the international conferences and decision making, helps us feel less powerless in the face of such an important issue. Exactly what those things are will be covered in a future post.