Is that enough of a festive theme for you? Good, now we can move on with our lives.
It can’t have escaped your notice that this December has been significantly warmer than usual, not just because you can feel it for yourself but because it’s been most people go-to topic for awkward small at talk at the office Christmas party before those first two glasses of wine kick in. But in between considering whether it might be worth making a mudman rather than a snowman and whether that might constitute a hate crime or be just the right amount of “political-correctness-gone-mad” to get your story written up in the Daily Express, you might briefly wonder what has brought this unseasonably warm weather on. And you’d probably be wrong.
Most of us would naturally point to global warming as the reason for this frostless Christmas. Why not? Climate change is on everyone’s lips at the moment and it would be incredibly satisfying to be able to point to the remaining politicians like Graham Stringer, Peter Lilley and former environment secretary Owen Paterson who are climate change sceptics and say, “See, look at it! Deny this drizzle if you dare!”
But the truth, as always, is almost certainly a little more complicated than that. The current weather certainly feels “climate changey”, a phrase coined by Alexis Madrigal to describe the weather patterns which just seem like they should be caused by climate change but aren’t. Despite this feeling, other factors are probably more responsible for something as dramatic as December 19th being the same temperature as or warmer than nearly a quarter of the days in June.
A more likely reason for this unseasonable weather is that it is caused by the El Niño effect, where warmer water circulates in the eastern part of the Pacific, pushing the jet stream further north and letting the warmer weather below it creep up to north-eastern US states and the UK on either side of the Atlantic.
All of which isn’t to say that global warming isn’t a thing. This year was already all but guaranteed to be the hottest on record as far back as September. Nor does it completely absolve climate change as a contributor to this weather; it may have helped this year’s El Niño become one of the strongest seen for a long time. It’s just that if we insist that people use scientific fact when talking about climate change we need to apply that rigorously across the board, no matter how “climate changey” the weather feels. Otherwise it’s easy to end up looking like those US Senators who bring snowballs onto the floor of the Senate, as if the very existence of God’s bountiful ice disproves global warming.
This slew of unusual weather was perhaps nature’s way of hinting to world leaders that they should pull their fingers out at the Paris climate conference and avoid the abject failure of the Copenhagen meeting in 2009. And perhaps the warm weather has melted even their icy hearts because it might just have worked. The agreement in Paris on a deal to limit the rising of global temperatures by 2° C compared to pre-industrial levels was rightly called historic. Despite late-night wrangling and last-minute bickering a deal was forged which all nations signed up to, including the world’s biggest polluters, China and the USA. The reasons why the deal came together are probably partly to do with individual leaders recognising a need to boost their own support at home and (seeing as its Christmas) we’ll charitably assume it’s partly to do with a genuine desire to change the world for the better.
China in particular suffers terrible pollution year-round in many of its cities and particularly so at the moment where Beijing has had to issue its second red alert in as many weeks, meaning that schools are closed and cars can only be used on every other day. With a burgeoning middle class increasingly more world-aware, the majority of Chinese citizens aren’t most worried about the internet censorship or lack of democracy which preoccupy the west, nor the rights of Tibetans or Uyghur Muslim minorities, but the health risks of simply breathing outdoors. The Party machine in Beijing may have calculated that this in fact represents the greatest threat to their continued power and acted accordingly.
There was a cop-out from the emission commitments in the form of one of those last-minute alterations, which changed the assertion that the developed countries “shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets” to one that they “should” do that. An important distinction which apparently removed any legal obligation from parties to fulfil the agreement. Itself, an interesting prospect, given that the Netherlands at least have been willing to sue their Government in the past over such matters. It may however have been a clever bit of footwork by the Obama administration. By removing the legal obligation, the agreement falls under a pre-agreed framework for reducing emissions voluntarily, rather than having to be sent to Congress for ratification. The Republican controlled House of Representatives and Senate are exactly the places a climate deal would die a certain death, not least because America is currently in an electoral cycle, although much like a political Lance Armstrong they seem to be permanently on this cycle in a way that defies what is naturally possible.
Meanwhile in the UK, the Government showed a typical lack of any kind of cohesive thinking by initially hailing the success of the climate deal, but just days later began slashing the subsidies for home solar panels and in the process putting 20,000 jobs at risk. At the same time, having shifted third Heathrow runway disliker Justine Greening out of her potentially uncomfortable job as transport secretary and cleared the path for themselves to greenlight the project by the end of the year, the Government is now keeping shtum on the issue, if only so as not to hurt the chances of Zac Goldsmith, their London mayoral candidate and another anti-third runway campaigner.
To end with a more hopeful tone at this special time of year, it’s also right to say that other countries had already made impressive strides towards a sustainable energy economy, even before this deal was struck. Morocco recently put the finishing touches to the first stage of its new solar power plant which it hopes will produce 30% of its energy by 2020. The plant has the ability to store the energy captured from the Sun, releasing it slowly over time, so that a ready supply of electricity is available, even in the hours of darkness. Morocco even hopes to export some of its solar power once the connections are in place, sending the electricity across the Mediterranean to Europe, to help those countries who can’t quite manage to meet their renewables quotas on their own. So there you have it, whether we let global warming run out of control or turn to a renewable, low emission economy – one way or another we might end up with a bit of Saharan Sun in the UK.