Arctic on fire as temperature records broken

Ablaze: Arctic wildfires are raging – while May temperatures broke all records. © Berkeley Earth

Are we facing the end of the world? Or a new beginning? With a heatwave in Siberia, the climate crisis is more alarming than ever – but many see a moment of opportunity.

Beside a once-frozen lake on the Arctic Circle, an alligator slithers through the lush vegetation and into the warm water of a tropical swamp. Overhead, macaws call to each other from the top of palm trees, while howler monkeys fill the air with frenzied chatter; a three-toed sloth hangs from a vine-draped branch. A turtle dives where wolves used to walk across impenetrable ice.

This, according to some scientists, is how the coldest part of our planet could look 200 years from now unless the climate emergency is checked. The latest data from Siberia suggest that they are right: this Saturday, the town of Verkhoyansk registered the highest temperature in the Arctic since records began: 38C.

The scientists argue that, thanks to our use of fossil fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere could reach a point not seen since dinosaurs walked the earth.

And, says Professor Dan Lunt of Bristol University, the consequences might be worse. “Due to nuclear reactions in stars like our Sun, over time, they become brighter. This means that, although carbon dioxide concentrations were high hundreds of millions of years ago, the net warming effect of CO2 and sunlight was less.”

That is not the only threat. Dramatic fluctuations in temperature could damage our immune systems and affect the behavioural patterns of animals and insects, making it easier for them to pass on deadly diseases like Covid-19.

But, as Pope Francis writes in a new essay, a crisis is also an opportunity: “We have to slow down our rate of production and consumption, and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world […]. I see early signs of an economy that is more human. This is the time to take the decisive step.”

The former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, agrees. He argued in an interview yesterday that, since the pandemic is forcing businesses to rethink their futures, it is logical for them to accelerate moves to become carbon neutral.

“It can be part of the solution to the economic challenges […], bending the emission curve and in the process creating greater prosperity.”

He believes, too, that the pandemic has made businesses more aware of their responsibilities to society.

Are we facing the end of the world? Or a new beginning?

Crisis management

The end, pessimists say. It is too late for the climate crisis to be reversed. As the ice caps melt and the ground beneath becomes accessible, it will just give people more terrain to exploit. Rising water levels will force an expanding global population closer together, making deadly diseases even more likely. We are caught in a vicious cycle.

A new beginning, say the optimists. Humans are brilliant at adapting to emergencies. The true story of the pandemic is incredible co-operation, miraculous science, and a resetting of the natural balance. If we address the climate crisis in a similar way, we have every chance of beating it.

You Decide

  1. Is it more courageous to hope or to expect the worst?
  2. Who would be the best person to lead a global answer to the climate crisis?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to Greta Thunberg, asking if you can interview her. Make a list of 10 questions to ask.
  2. Draw a map of the world using the Mercator method. Then draw another with all the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic melted, and an equivalent area of water redistributed across the rest of the world.

Some People Say...

“Times of crisis […] are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) Russian novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
During the crisis of World War Two, Britain’s coalition government led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee commissioned a report by economist Sir William Beveridge on how the country could recover. Beveridge identified five problems to be tackled simultaneously: want, ignorance, idleness, squalor, and disease. Because his findings had the support of both the Conservatives and Labour, they provided the basis for social reform for the next 30 years, regardless of which party was in power.
What do we not know?
Whether a similar consensus can be reached in the current crisis. The historian Peter Hennessy has proposed another five priorities: social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, and preparing for artificial intelligence. The pandemic, he argues, has sharpened our sense of duty to each other to a degree not seen since the war: “The early 2020s could be one of the most creative and productive patches in our history.”

Word Watch

Macaws
Large, brightly coloured parrots with huge hooked beaks, which they use to crack open large nuts.
Sloth
A tree-dwelling animal found in Central and South America. Because it moves so slowly, it is equated with laziness.
Siberia
A northern region of Russia, known for its harsh winters. It has a long history as a place of exile for criminals and political prisoners.
Fluctuations
Alternate rises and falls. The term comes from a Latin word meaning to move like waves.
Pope Francis
The head of the Catholic Church since 2013. An Argentinian, he is the first non-European to hold the position since the 8th Century.
Mark Carney
A Canadian economist who was governor of the Bank of England from 2013 until March this year. He is now the United Nations’s special envoy for climate action and finance.

Subjects

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