A beginner’s guide to understanding the Apocalypse.

In light of recent natural disasters across the globe, Peter Cox sets out to explore the harsh reality of climate change

In recent months, we have seen catastrophic natural disasters worldwide with hurricanes Irma and Harvey leaving large areas devastated. The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Yet the reasons for them are still being debated in the public forum. Just recently, Kirk Cameron claimed that the hurricanes were a “display of God’s immense power” and actress Jennifer Lawrence found it hard not to “feel Mother Nature’s rage and wrath”. Neither of these people are experts in meteorology. Few of us are. Thus the public debate on climate change has been one that is poorly informed. It has been my experience that the majority on either side of the discussion rely on faith arguments, with little understanding of the evidence. Climate change has the power to threaten our very existence on this planet and is immensely complex – so how can we begin to understand it?

The Apocalypse as a Political Issue

Having a largely uninformed populace in relation to climate change allows it to be turned into a partisan issue. It is an issue derived from solid irrefutable reasoning, based entirely on evidence, and yet we see politicians in the USA and in the UK denying the human-caused acceleration of climate change. In the UK, 18 MPs in the previous parliament denounced human-caused climate change publicly, 16 of whom were Conservative. Part of the confusion may be that we are bombarded with what appear to be disconnected facts that mean little by themselves. Without much explanation as to how conclusions were reached, it is easy to believe that facts are fabricated. Sometimes information on climate change even seems to be contradictory. In addition, it is hard to see how we, in such a small country as Ireland, can make a difference or how we will be affected. However, a working knowledge and understanding of the science of climate change isn’t beyond anyone.

The Apocalypse as a Hot Earth

Let’s start with increased temperature on land. On average, the temperatures on land have increased by 1˚C globally from pre-industrial levels and 0.8˚C in Ireland. Let’s be honest and admit it’s hard to know what exactly this means. Even if we were to guess about the effect, it sounds small. To introduce some context, the global mean temperature during the last Ice Age was about 5˚C lower than it is today, that Ice Age being about 11,700 years ago. It took about 11,550 for this measurement to rise by 4˚C.  Since then, in less than 150 years, that temperature has increased by a full 1˚C globally.

How do we know what the temperature was 11,700 years ago? It is calculated by looking at marine animal remains. Foraminifera, a type of marine plankton, create their shells using oxygen. There are two types of oxygen that are important in this process: oxygen 16 and 18. Oxygen 16 evaporates more easily than 18. The ratio between the two types in the little plankton allows scientists to calculate the temperature of the time when they died, in the area where the remains were found.

So, how will it affect us? Warmer weather in Ireland can’t be anything but a good thing, right? Not exactly. The issue is not so much the temperature increase, but rather the speed at which this increase occurs. Ecosystems evolve over millennia and do not adapt quickly, meaning animals and plants being put under pressure by rapidly changing conditions will not be capable of surviving. All that pales when compared to the human devastation seen in the United States of America. 

The Apocalypse as Floods

Rainfall. How does a warmer world change that? Warm air holds more water, thus prolonging the time before the rain falls, and increasing the volume when it does. This means an increase in flooding across the country. The recent devastating flood in the northwest is evidence for this. Michael Creed, Minister for Agriculture, commented: “I think with climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events of this kind and it is questionable what any State and what this government can do.”

Significant changes to the timing of floods have also been measured across 38 countries, in a recent study collecting data from over 4000 hydrometric stations going back 70 years. The data suggests that the west coast of Ireland will flood later and the east will flood earlier. This will affect the farming yields, water supplies and infrastructure like hydroelectric dams. All this change from as little as an 0.8˚C increase in Irish land temperature.

The Apocalypse as Empty Oceans

The Irish fishing industry is under threat from climate change too. CO2 is increasing ocean acidity. The oceans are thought to mitigate the amount of carbon dioxide we produce, as they have stored about a third of the CO2 created by humans since the Industrial Revolution. However, we now know that CO2 has increased the acidity of the oceans by 30%, a hundred times faster than has been seen in millions of years. In these acidic conditions animals that use calcium cannot form shells as easily. These animals are an integral part of the food chain and they no longer live in the deeper areas where they used to. This is already affecting marine food chains. It is also important to point out that there is no known way to reduce the acidification of the oceans. It is a wound that will take millennia to heal and is getting worse.

The Apocalypse in Ireland

Seemingly contradictory information can cause doubt  as people either think they don’t understand the information, or that the information is wrong. Here is what we know in Ireland. Ireland lies very far north, further than parts of Canada which suffer from extreme cold. The reason why Ireland has a milder climate than some more southerly areas is largely due to the Gulf Stream. It works as a cycle of warm water traveling at the top of the ocean towards the Arctic. Cooled water travels back to the tropics underneath. It is this cycle that powers the stream. If lighter fresh water is introduced to this system it rises to the top and breaks the pattern. An influx of freshwater from melting ice could be doing this. Alternatively, in some areas of the Gulf Stream the salinity has increased because evaporation has increased, and rainfall has decreased. Whichever the cause, the effects are obvious: since the 1950s the Gulf stream has slowed markedly. These complex systems are confusing, and can make you question if we know as much as we think we do. However, admitting what isn’t known does not diminish what is.

Is Ireland really adding to the problem? As of 2015, Ireland imported 85% of our energy, 97% of which was fossil fuels. The Irish government agreed to reduce our CO2 emissions by 20% under 2005 levels by 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that we are projected to reduce our emissions by 6–11%. We are one of only four EU members that are set to break their commitments. This also affects us economically, as the punishment for not reaching the goals will mean hundreds of millions in fines.

It is easy to think that living in a mild climate, we are not going to be adversely affected by climate change. Or that there is room for doubt. It is something that can be seen as a problem for others to solve and that a small nation such as ours cannot make a difference. These assumptions are wrong. We are already seeing the effects of climate change and we are adding meaningfully to them. It can be easy to proclaim religion or some greater consciousness as responsible for the events happening, and it can also be comforting, but we must admit that there is only one conscious force behind these events. Our own.