I am writing this article in February 2014 in the midst of what many people are calling ‘extreme’ weather events in the UK. It has certainly been very stormy, with the highest amount of rainfall in the period since records began. Strong winds and abnormally high rainfall has led to coastal flooding and damage, and to numerous rivers bursting their banks. Many homes in the Somerset Levels have been flooded for over a month and there is currently no railway connection from Devon and Cornwall to the rest of the UK due to extensive storm damage to the railway infrastructure.
You won’t be surprised to learn that many people are wondering whether there is a link between these ‘extreme’ weather events and human activities on the planet. To be a little more exact, the issue that keeps popping up in the media is whether there is a link between these ‘extreme’ weather events and human-induced global warming. However, the issue of real importance is slightly different to this. The issue of real importance is surely whether there is a link between these ‘extreme’ weather events and global warming (the aggregate of non-human induced global warming and human-induced global warming). If there is a causal link between these ‘extreme’ weather events and global warming, then this means that the immediate technological regulation of the atmospheric temperature would have immediate benefits; it would enable global warming to be stopped in its tracks and would thereby stop an escalation of ‘extreme’ weather events in the immediate future.
The mainstream view seems to be that these ‘extreme’ weather events are probably caused by, or are at least made more severe by, global warming, but that this cannot be known for sure. It certainly seems to be a fact that a warmer atmosphere will cause a change in the climate in various parts of the Earth, and that this change will include weather events which people consider to be ‘extreme’ compared to what came before. However, when it comes to the current weather events in the UK, one cannot conclude with certainty that the cause of these events is global warming. So, we are left with the mainstream view that the causal link is a ‘probable’ one.
Saying that something is ‘probable’, as is widely done with regards to this possible causal link, isn’t particularly satisfactory. This could mean that the degree of certainty in the causal link is 50.1 per cent, or it could mean that the degree of certainty in the causal link is 99.9 per cent. Can we make any progress in thinking about the nature of this causal link?
The first thing to consider is timescales. People inevitably have a very short-term memory, because in the bigger scheme of things people don’t live very long. The climate in the UK, and the associated nature of the weather events (‘extreme’ or ‘mild’) in particular locations, has varied immensely in the past. Over medium to long timescales big changes in climate are normal; such change is inevitable; such change is to be expected. When ‘extreme’ weather events occur they are typically labelled as such because people cannot recall many, if any, similar events in the handful of decades that they have been alive. Our cumulative weather records themselves only go back a few hundred years. Considerations such as these seem to lend weight to the idea that the current weather events which have been labelled ‘extreme’ are actually normal weather events; they are not caused by global warming.
However, this conclusion doesn’t immediately follow. After all, global warming has been a phenomenon affecting the climate of the Earth since the Earth was formed. At a broad scale, the entire history of the Earth can be seen from the perspective of the interplay between non-human-induced global warming (the increasing output of the Sun) and responses to this phenomenon made on the Earth (responses which result in the homeostatic regulation of the atmospheric temperature). This interplay has inevitably been one of the main factors changing the climate (thereby generating ‘extreme’ weather) in particular parts of the Earth over decades, hundreds of years, and thousands of years. So, we cannot think of any ‘extreme’ weather event as being wholly divorced from global warming. Furthermore, this interplay has reached the stage in which the Earth’s (non-technological) homeostatic regulatory capacity is weakening; given this current state of weakness, this current difficulty in ‘smooth’/‘easy’ regulation of the atmospheric temperature, an increase in climate variability can be expected. In other words, the current ‘extreme’ weather events can be causally linked to non-human-induced global warming, not just to global warming.
The second thing to consider is that we are currently living through the epoch of technological birthing. This entails the coming of a point of realisation for the human species:
- The realisation of the extent of the perturbations that the human species has made to the Earth.
This point is followed by three further realisations:
that the human species needs to deploy
technology to regulate the atmospheric temperature of the Earth.
- The realisation that this is a wonderful thing for the totality that is life on Earth.
- The realisation that such regulation is the purpose of
There is a gap between the initial realisation – the realisation of the extent of the perturbations – and the three later realisations. We are currently in this gap. Within this gap there is confusion about our place on the planet and our relationship to non-human life-forms. Within this gap there are also forces in play which seek to stimulate our progression to the later realisations. One of these forces is an increased number and severity of ‘extreme’ weather events. There are two factors of importance here:
1. The increase in the number and the severity of ‘extreme’ weather events caused by the reality of the perturbations caused to the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth by human activities in tandem with non-human-induced global warming.
2. Human concern that particular ‘extreme’ weather events are caused by human activities.
Either, or both, of these factors can stimulate our progression to the later realisations. The second of these factors is in play in the UK at the moment. The ‘extreme’ weather currently affecting the UK could have no causal link to global warming or human activities, yet this isn’t important, it is the concern itself which can be a catalyst to the later realisations. In other words, the concern might or might not be reflected in reality and the reality isn’t important; in this case being a catalyst is more important than the truth.
Let us now consider the first of these factors. One thing seems to be certain: If the human species is ‘slow on the uptake’, if it does not move speedily to the later realisations, if it ignores the concerns, if it doesn’t push ahead with the technological regulation of the atmospheric temperature, then the first of these two factors will become more severe and pronounced until we get the message. In other words, the longer we delay technologically regulating the atmospheric temperature, the more ‘extreme’ weather events we will be letting occur; we will effectively be ‘inviting’ them to occur. So, whilst there is no certainty concerning the cause of the current ‘extreme’ weather events in the UK, there is certainty that global warming will cause a plethora of such events in the future if we are not successfully technologically regulating the Earth’s atmospheric temperature.