Some initial news reports indicated that wind speeds had reached nearly 320 kph (200 mph), figures that seemed scarcely credible, even in sudden gusts in an exceptionally strong storm. Soon, more detailed data became available, including two separate reports of sustained wind speeds lasting for ten minutes, making them a more reliable basis for assessment of typhoon Haiyan. The Hong Kong Observatory put the sustained speed prior to landfall at 275 kph (170 mph), and the Chinese Meteorological Administration at 270 kph (167 mph). These may possibly be the highest speeds of a tropical storm ever recorded; they certainly mean that typhoon Haiyan was exceptional by any standards. In the nine weeks that followed the Philippines' typhoon there were further remarkable weather events across the world: among them the highest temperatures for almost a century in Buenos Aires, record low temperatures across central areas of north America, and a series of storms affecting the coasts of north-west Europe. In Britain, for example, the Meteorological Office was publishing weather warnings every day for six weeks.
What appears to be happening is best described as the development of a more "energetic" climate, with increasingly intense weather activity stemming from more energy in the atmosphere due to carbon emissions. It follows the almost unnoticed report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in Geneva, published in July 2013, on the trends of 2001-10 and comparisons with earlier decades. The significance of this WMO report - The Global Climate 2001-2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes - was that it eschewed predictions stemming from computer models (however sophisticated they might be) in favour of actual measurements and comparisons with data on previous weather stretching back well over a century. This approach, rooted in experience, observation and comparison, generated some notable findings for the first decade of the 21st Century:
- It was the warmest decade on record for both land and sea surface temperatures and for both northern and southern hemispheres
- it saw sea levels rising twice as fast as the trend in the last century
- It saw a rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, and an accelerated decrease in the net mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
The WMO commented that during the decade the world had "experienced unprecedented high-impact climate extremes". The words can be seen as an informed forecast of typhoon Haiyan and the other events of 2013-14.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Climate Change Chart
The aforementioned column cited the clear evidence in the WMO report of an increase in the severity of weather events, and reflected on whether this might be enough to incite strong intergovernmental action. Its conclusion - suggesting that "a truly serious shift in political outlooks" was needed, but that it appears such a transformation might "only come in the wake of great misery" - was hardly optimistic. Early January, 2014 British Prime Minister David Cameron, responding in Parliament to queries about the extensive flooding that has hit many towns and coastal areas, said: "Colleagues across the [House of Commons] can argue whether [the flooding] is linked to climate change or no. I very much suspect that it is. The point is that whatever one's view it makes sense to invest in flood defences". If climate change does have to be stopped and carbon-dioxide emissions cut by 80%, then the great majority of the fossil carbon in proved and exploitable reserves of coal, oil and gas cannot be used. This would make the value of these reserves - on which fossil-fuel industry investment is based - essentially worthless: the industry would become a house build not on carbon but on sand. This is simply unacceptable to the industry, which therefore must argue that human-induced climate change simply cannot be happening - end of story. Against this industrial, political and propaganda background, it is striking that Cameron could even suggest a link between the floods and climate change. But the indications are that he still does not grasp the scale of what needs to be done. There is no doubt that flood defences do need to be improved - but in itself this will only help stop climate change if it is accompanied by radical moves towards low-carbon economies. The improvement of flood defences would mean only installing barriers that in due course will be overwhelmed - it puts off the evil day, nothing more, and in isolation achieves absolutely nothing for the long term.
The problem in many of the industrial countries is that the climate-change denial lobby is so strong, so well funded and so effective that it is politically difficult for any major figure to stand up and say what needs to happen. The latter requires a degree of political leadership that is currently absent across the spectrum. There is no pretending that it would be easy, because moving to an ultra-low carbon economy requires major short-term changes that might be singularly troublesome in order to prevent longer-term disaster. David Cameron's remark is a small step. But it still looks as though far worse weather events over the entire world will have to be experienced before the political classes come to their senses.
Scientific Milestones in Climate Change:
1712 - British ironmonger Thomas Newcomen invents the first widely used steam engine, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution and industrial scale use of coal.
1800 - World population reaches one billion.
1824 - French physicist Joseph Fourier describes the Earth's natural "greenhouse effect". He writes: "The temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat."
1861 - Irish physicist John Tyndall shows that water vapour and certain other gases create the greenhouse effect. "This aqueous vapour is a blanket more necessary to the vegetable life of England than clothing is to man," he concludes. More than a century later, he is honoured by having a prominent UK climate research organisation - the Tyndall Centre - named after him.
1886 - Karl Benz unveils the Motorwagen, often regarded as the first true automobile.
1896 - Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius concludes that industrial-age coal burning will enhance the natural greenhouse effect. He suggests this might be beneficial for future generations. His conclusions on the likely size of the "man-made greenhouse" are in the same ballpark - a few degrees Celsius for a doubling of CO2 - as modern-day climate models.
Svante Arrhenius unlocked the man-made greenhouse a century ago
1900 - Another Swede, Knut Angstrom, discovers that even at the tiny concentrations found in the atmosphere, CO2 strongly absorbs parts of the infrared spectrum. Although he does not realise the significance, Angstrom has shown that a trace gas can produce greenhouse warming.
1927 - Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach one billion tonnes per year.
1930 - Human population reaches two billion.
1938 - Using records from 147 weather stations around the world, British engineer Guy Callendar shows that temperatures had risen over the previous century. He also shows that CO2 concentrations had increased over the same period, and suggests this caused the warming. The "Callendar effect" is widely dismissed by meteorologists.
1955 - Using a new generation of equipment including early computers, US researcher Gilbert Plass analyses in detail the infrared absorption of various gases. He concludes that doubling CO2 concentrations would increase temperatures by 3-4C.
1957 - US oceanographer Roger Revelle and chemist Hans Suess show that seawater will not absorb all the additional CO2 entering the atmosphere, as many had assumed. Revelle writes: "Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment..."
1958 - Using equipment he had developed himself, Charles David (Dave) Keeling begins systematic measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii and in Antarctica. Within four years, the project - which continues today - provides the first unequivocal proof that CO2 concentrations are rising.
1960 - Human population reaches three billion.
1965 - A US President's Advisory Committee panel warns that the greenhouse effect is a matter of "real concern".
1972 - First UN environment conference, in Stockholm. Climate change hardly registers on the agenda, which centres on issues such as chemical pollution, atomic bomb testing and whaling. The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) is formed as a result.
1975 - Human population reaches four billion. US scientist Wallace Broecker puts the term "global warming" into the public domain in the title of a scientific paper.
1987 - Human population reaches five billion. Montreal Protocol agreed, restricting chemicals that damage the ozone layer. Although not established with climate change in mind, it has had a greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions than the Kyoto Protocol.
1988 - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change.
1989 - UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - possessor of a chemistry degree - warns in a speech to the UN that "We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere... The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto." She calls for a global treaty on climate change. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach six billion tonnes per year. The CO2 concentration, as measured at Mauna Loa, has risen steadily
1990 - IPCC produces First Assessment Report. It concludes that temperatures have risen by 0.3-0.6C over the last century, that humanity's emissions are adding to the atmosphere's natural complement of greenhouse gases, and that the addition would be expected to result in warming.
1992 - At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments agree the United Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its key objective is "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". Developed countries agree to return their emissions to 1990 levels.
1995 - IPCC Second Assessment Report concludes that the balance of evidence suggests "a discernible human influence" on the Earth's climate. This has been called the first definitive statement that humans are responsible for climate change.
1997 - Kyoto Protocol agreed. Developed nations pledge to reduce emissions by an average of 5% by the period 2008-2012, with wide variations on targets for individual countries. US Senate immediately declares it will not ratify the treaty.
1998 - Strong El Nino conditions combine with global warming to produce the warmest year on record. The average global temperature reached 0.52C above the mean for the period 1961-1990 (a commonly-used baseline). Publication of the controversial "hockey stick" graph indicating that modern-day temperature rise in the northern hemisphere is unusual compared with the last 1,000 years. The work would later be the subject of two enquiries instigated by the US Congress.
1999 - Human population reaches six billion.
2001 - President George W Bush removes the US from the Kyoto process. IPCC Third Assessment Report finds "new and stronger evidence" that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the warming seen in the second half of the 20th Century.
2005 - The Kyoto Protocol becomes international law for those countries still inside it. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair selects climate change as a priority for his terms as chair of the G8 and President of the European Union.
2006 - The Stern Review concludes that climate change could damage global GDP by up to 20% if left unchecked - but curbing it would cost about 1% of global GDP. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry reach eight billion tonnes per year.
2007 - The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report concludes it is more than 90% likely that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change. The IPCC and former US vice-president Al Gore receive the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change". At the UN negotiations in Bali, governments agree the two-year "Bali roadmap" aimed at hammering out a new global treaty by the end of 2009.
2008 - Half a century after beginning observations at Mauna Loa, the Keeling project shows that CO2 concentrations have risen from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to 380ppm in 2008. Two months before taking office, incoming US president Barack Obama pledges to "engage vigorously" with the rest of the world on climate change.
2009 - China overtakes the US as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter - although the US remains well ahead on a per-capita basis. Computer hackers download a huge tranche of emails from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and release some on the internet, leading to the "ClimateGate" affair.192 governments convene for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen with expectations of a new global agreement high; but they leave only with a controversial political declaration, the Copenhagen Accord.
Before and After
Stormy Seas in the South West of England
Major floods have been taking place in the UK during the begining of 2014. South-west England has been worst hit, with many homes still flooded and part of a key railway line destroyed.The accelerating pace of extreme weather events is an acute challenge to political leaders. On November 8, 2013, a devastating typhoon struck the south-central islands in the Philippines. There were early warnings of what was to come, but over 6,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed.
2010 - Developed countries begin contributing to a $30bn, three-year deal on "Fast Start Finance" to help them "green" their economies and adapt to climate impacts. A series of reviews into "ClimateGate" and the IPCC ask for more openness, but clear scientists of malpractice. The UN summit in Mexico does not collapse, as had been feared, but ends with agreements on a number of issues.
2011 - A new analysis of the Earth's temperature record by scientists concerned over the "ClimateGate" allegations proves the planet's land surface really has warmed over the last century. Human population reaches seven billion. Data shows concentrations of greenhouse gases are rising faster than in previous years.
2012 - Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum extent of 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi), a record for the lowest summer cover since satellite measurements began in 1979.
2013 - The Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii reports that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in 1958.