Obama and climate change

As I heard from lots of friends Tuesday (I think I’m getting to be known in my community as being slightly obsessed about this topic!), Obama didn’t have much to say about climate change in his State of The Union speech (just like last year).  This is a calculated strategy to avoid the negative political consequences of taking this issue head on.  LAME . Obama needs to be a leader on this front.  Scientist-bloggers like us cannot swing the tide of America’s misperceptions about climate change without the assistance of our nations leaders.

I try not to get overly political in my blogging, but Iv’e gotta say it; on most the political issues I really care about – gay rights, gun control, war, the environment – this administration is totally disappointing.

Joe Romm has been blogging a lot about this and has a great post today with a long piece by Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University on why Obama’s “don’t use that nasty C word” strategy is unlikley to work:

In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for a big boost in low-carbon energy, but didn’t mention carbon, climate or warming, as I noted last night. Other people noticed, too.

Matthew Hope, a researcher in American politics at the University of Bristol, found that Obama has mentioned ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or the ‘environment’ fewer times on average than his two predecessors, as an article today by the UK’s Guardian notes. That piece, which quotes my post, also quotes Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, “an expert on environmental communications,” saying Obama’s “approach has several major drawbacks.” I asked Brulle for all of his thoughts on Hope’s key word analysis and Obama’s speech.  Brulle has a lot to say that is worth reading. Here it is:

From a political viewpoint, it is clear that Obama is not talking about climate change. The analysis based on key word counts is interesting, but not definitive. The idea that both Clinton and Bush are more “green” than Obama cannot be maintained from just a key word analysis. With all of the Obama administrations faults, this administration has done more than either Clinton or Bush in actually implementing regulations and standards to encourage actions to reduce GHG emissions.

What I see going on here is that Obama is following the rhetorical advice of David Axelrod and groups like ecoAmerica, who argue that the American public is unwilling to deal with climate change. [See Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing].

So rather than make the case for climate change and the necessity of action, this approach focuses on “clean” energy and research and development as a way to make a transition to a different energy mix. This is considered the popular, no pain, “energy quest” approach that relies on a mystical belief in R&D to address climate change. The Obama administration appears to have bought this approach completely as the politically popular way to address this issue. In my opinion, this approach has several major drawbacks, and effectively locks in massive and potentially catastrophic global climate change.

Read the complete post here on Climate Progress

And tell us what you think!  Are your political leaders ducking this issue?

Who’s to blame for blocking progress on global warming?

Wonder no longer – Rolling Stone has made a list: 12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming.

It’s far from exhaustive, but gives a pretty representative sample of the main players in the US, as well as some more familiar faces.

Rupert Murdoch takes the (coveted?) #1 spot, thanks to the continued efforts of The Australian and Fox News to obscure debate and promote doubt in climate science (but it’s always important to consult the experts when reporting on serious matters).

The Koch brothers’ bankrolling of last year’s Proposition 23 (later defeated by a a 23% margin) in California prompted then-Governer Schwarzenegger to aggressively defend the state’s climate legislation, prompting this response to the oil companies’ claims they were trying to protect jobs:

“This is like Eva Braun selling a kosher cookbook. It’s not about jobs at all. It’s about their ability to pollute and protect their profits,” he said.

Bjørn Lomborg now seems to think that climate change is a problem, but just don’t ask how his new film fared.

And then there’s Sarah Palin.

Who would make it onto an Australian-flavoured list? I have a few ideas.

1. Rupert MurdochCEO, News Corporation

2. Charles and David Koch CEO and Executive VP, Koch Industries

3. Sarah PalinRetired half-term governor, Alaska

4. Gregory Boyce – CEO, Peabody Energy

5. Tom Donahue – President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

6. Rex Tillerson – CEO, ExxonMobil

7. Tim Phillips – President, Americans for Prosperity

8. Ken Cuccinelli – Attorney general, Virginia

9.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller – Democrat, West Virginia

10. Rep. Darrell Issa – Republican, California

11. Bjørn Lomborg – Author, “Cool It”

12. Rep. Fred Upton – Republican, Michigan

“Climate Change Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems” session at the NCSE meeting

Ove and I organized a session on climate change impacts on ocean ecosystems at the NCSE  “Our Changing Oceans meeting” this week in Washington, DC.

Session summary: Rapidly rising greenhouse gas concentrations are driving ocean systems toward conditions not seen for millions of years, with an associated risk of fundamental and irreversible ecological transformation. Changes in biological function in the ocean caused by anthropogenic climate change go far beyond death, extinctions and habitat loss: fundamental processes are being altered, community assemblages are being reorganized and ecological surprises are likely.

The speakers included myself, Ove, Dr. Mary O’Connor (an assistant prof at UBC) and Dr. Steve Gaines, the dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, at UCSB.

Ove’s awesome talk from the conference is below.  You can download many of the papers referred to in the talks here (including the Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno Science paper on “The Impact of Climate Change on the World’s Marine Ecosystems” and several of Mary O’Connors papers.)

Note, you can also link to the talk at Vimeo here

Why was it so cold in Europe and North America if climate change is meant to be real?

We have seen record cold weather over the past few months in Europe and North America.  I keep getting asked:  why is this so if climate change is meant to be happening?  Our inept denialist ‘friends’ continue to trumpet this as evidence that climate change is not happening.  The experts, however, think very differently.  Here is some of what they say.

The strongly negative NAO is back again this winter. High pressure has replaced low pressure over the North Pole, and according to NOAA, the NAO index during November 2010 was the second lowest since 1950. This strongly negative NAO has continued into December, and we are on course to have a top-five most extreme December NAO. Cold air is once again spilling southwards into the Eastern U.S. And Europe, bringing record cold and fierce snowstorms. At the same time, warm air is flowing into the Arctic to replace the cold air spilling south–

temperatures averaged more than 10°C (18°F) above average over much of Greenland so far this month. The latest 2-week forecast from the GFS model predicts that the Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern will continue for the next two weeks. However, the coldest air has sloshed over into Europe and Asia, and North America will see relatively seasonable temperatures the next two weeks.

Severe winters in eastern US and E. Asia are related by teleconnections to changes in atmospheric pressure and winds following loss of Arctic sea ice

Hot Arctic-Cold Continents

Dr. Jim Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, one of the world’s experts on Arctic weather and climate, [has] demonstrated that the Arctic is normally dominated by low pressure in winter, and a “Polar Vortex” of counter-clockwise circulating winds develops surrounding the North Pole. However, during the winter of 2009-2010, high pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air around the pole. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward. This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar–the refrigerator warms up, but all of the cold air spills out into the house.

The North Atlantic Oscillation NAO

This is all part of a natural climate pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation NAO, which took on its most extreme configuration in 145 years of record keeping during the winter of 2009 – 2010. The NAO is a climate pattern in the North Atlantic Ocean of fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. It is one of oldest known climate oscillations–seafaring Scandinavians described the pattern several centuries ago. Through east-west oscillation motions of the Icelandic Low and the Azores High, the NAO controls the strength and direction of westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. A large difference in the pressure between Iceland and the Azores positive NAO leads to increased westerly winds and mild and wet winters in Europe. Positive NAO conditions also cause the Icelandic Low to draw a stronger south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward. In contrast, if the difference in sea-level pressure between Iceland and the Azores is small negative NAO, westerly winds are suppressed, allowing Arctic air to spill southwards into eastern North America more readily. Negative NAO winters tend to bring cold winters to Europe and the U.S. East Coast, but leads to very warm conditions in the Arctic, since all the cold air spilling out of the Arctic gets replaced by warm air flowing poleward.

The winter of 2009 – 2010 had the most extreme negative NAO since record keeping began in 1865. This “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern”, resulting in a reversal of Polar Vortex and high pressure replacing low pressure over the Arctic, had occurred previously in only four winters during the past 160 years—1969, 1963, 1936, and 1881. Dr. Overland called the winter of 2009 – 2010 at least as surprising at the record 2007 loss of Arctic sea ice. He suspected that Arctic sea ice loss was a likely culprit for the event, since Francis et al. (2009) found that during 1979 – 2006, years that had unusually low summertime Arctic sea ice had a 10 – 20% reduction in the temperature difference between the Equator and North Pole. This resulted in a weaker jet stream with slower winds that lasted a full six months, through fall and winter. The weaker jet caused a weaker Aleutian Low and Icelandic Low during the winter, resulting in a more negative North Atlantic Oscillation, allowing cold air to spill out of the Arctic and into Europe and the Eastern U.S. Dr. Overland also stressed that natural chaos in the weather/climate system also played a role, as well as the El Niño/La Niña cycle and natural oscillations in stratospheric winds. Not every year that we see extremely high levels of Arctic sea ice loss will have a strongly negative NAO winter. For example, the record Arctic sea ice loss year of 2007 saw only a modest perturbation to the Arctic Vortex and the NAO during the winter of 2007 – 2008.

For more information

The NOAA web page, Future of Arctic Sea Ice and Global Impacts has a nice summary of the “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents” winter pattern.

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card is also a good source of information.

Francis, J. A., W. Chan, D. J. Leathers, J. R. Miller, and D. E. Veron, 2009: Winter northern hemisphere weather patterns remember summer Arctic sea-ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

From Climatesignals

Bleaching risk increases as warm seas continue.

Warmer than average seas continue to dominate Australian tropical waters. Here are two important datasets we need to keep our eye on as we go into summer.  The first shows positive anomalies (“HotSpot“) in sea surface temperature (SST) measured by NOAA satellites.  Basically anything over + 1°C to more than four weeks is likely to be accompanied by mass coral bleaching.  A formal translation of the SST anomalies into bleaching risk provided by Coral Reef Watch is contained in the second figure.  Both these datasets will provide important information as we go into this extremely unusual summer.

2010 ties with 1998 and 2005 as the warmest years on record.

Geneva, 20 January 2011 (WMO) – Press release.  The year 2010 ranked as the warmest year on record, together with 2005 and 1998, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Data received by the WMO show no statistically significant difference between global temperatures in 2010, 2005 and 1998.

In 2010, global average temperature was 0.53°C (0.95°F) above the 1961-90 mean. This value is 0.01°C (0.02°F) above the nominal temperature in 2005, and 0.02°C (0.05°F) above 1998. The difference between the three years is less than the margin of uncertainty (± 0.09°C or ± 0.16°F) in comparing the data.

These statistics are based on data sets maintained by the UK Meteorological Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit (HadCRU), the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Arctic sea-ice cover in December 2010 was the lowest on record, with an average monthly extent of 12 million square kilometres, 1.35 million square kilometres below the 1979-2000 average for December. This follows the third-lowest minimum ice extent recorded in September.

“The 2010 data confirm the Earth’s significant long-term warming trend,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.”

Over the ten years from 2001 to 2010, global temperatures have averaged 0.46°C (0.83°F)   above the 1961-1990 average, and are the highest ever recorded for a 10-year period since the beginning of instrumental climate records. Recent warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic, with many subregions registering temperatures 1.2 to 1.4°C (2.2 to 2.5°F) above the long-term average.

2010 was an exceptionally warm year over much of Africa and southern and western Asia, and in Greenland and Arctic Canada, with many parts of these regions having their hottest years on record.

Over land few parts of the world were significantly cooler than average in 2010, the most notable being parts of northern Europe and central and eastern Australia.

December 2010 was exceptionally warm in eastern Canada and Greenland. It was abnormally cold through large parts of northern and western Europe, with monthly mean temperatures as much as 10°C below normal at some locations in Norway and Sweden. Many places in Scandinavia had their coldest December on record.  December in Central England was the coldest since 1890. Heavy snowfalls severely disrupted transport in many parts of Europe. It was also colder than average in large parts of the Russian Federation and in the eastern United States, where snow also severely disrupted transport.

Recent significant weather and climate events

The year 2010 was characterized by a high number of extreme weather events, including the heatwave in Russia and the devastating monsoonal floods in Pakistan. These were described in WMO’s provisional statement on the status of the global climate issued December 2010 (http://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_904_en.html)

There have been many major weather and climate events in late 2010 and early 2011. These include:

  • In early January floods affected more than 800 000 people in Sri Lanka according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Philippines were also severely affected by floods and mudslides during January.
  • Flash floods in the mountain areas near the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in the second week of January resulted in more than 700 deaths, many of them in mudslides. This is one of the highest death tolls due to a single natural disaster in Brazilian history.
  • Severe flooding occurred in eastern Australia in December and the first half of January, associated with the continuing strong La Niña event.  The most extensive damage was in the city of Brisbane, which had its second-highest flood of the last 100 years after that of January 1974. In financial terms it is expected to be the most costly natural disaster in Australia’s history. Previous strong La Niña events have also been associated with severe and widespread flooding in eastern Australia, notably in 1974 and 1955.

World food prices at fresh high, says UN

BBC World News – 5 January 2011 Last updated at 19:42

Global food prices rose to a fresh high in December, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Its Food Price Index went above the previous record of 2008 that saw prices spark riots in several countries.

Soaring sugar, cereal and oil prices had driven the rise, the report said.

The index, which measures monthly price changes for a food basket composed of dairy, meat and sugar, cereals and oilseeds, averaged 214.7 points last month, up from 206 points in November.

It stood at 213.5 points at the high of June 2008 – sparking violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Haiti and Egypt.

There were further riots over food prices in Mozambique in September last year.

However, despite high prices, FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian said that many of the factors that triggered food riots in 2007 and 2008 – such as weak production in poor countries – were not currently present, reducing the risk of more turmoil.

But he added that “unpredictable weather” meant that grain prices could go much higher, which was “a concern”.

‘Tight situation’

The current spike in prices is being caused primarily by increases in the cost of sugar and, more importantly, cereals, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The price of wheat in particular has risen sharply. This is because wildfires last year in Russia, which accounts for 11% of global exports, resulted in an export ban, the institute’s director of markets, trade and institutions, Maximo Torero, told the BBC.

The recent floods in Australia, which also accounts for 11% of global exports, has compounded the problem, he said.

The price of corn has also risen, because of greater support for biofuels in the US and the increased price of oil, which makes biofuels more attractive.

Droughts in Argentina, the world’s second biggest exporter of corn behind the US, have also pushed the price up, Mr Torero said.

“The situation is very tight. If we have more natural disasters, we could have a problem,” he said.

Australian floods

Overall global food prices have risen by an average of more than 80% in the past 10 years, according to figures from the FAO released last year.

Analysts say that as well as environmental issues, fast-growing world population and the increased demand for biofuels has further put pressure on crop supplies.

“Rising food prices will have an effect almost all over the world but especially in poor countries where food and energy are the major things people spend their money on,” said George Magnus, senior economic adviser to UBS.

“There’s a risk, I wouldn’t say a huge risk, but some risk of higher energy prices and higher food prices being very destabilising in some countries.

“We saw that in 2008 and in Mozambique last year and it’s something to watch.”

‘Particularly worrisome’

The news came amid concerns about inflation in the prices of other key commodities.

Copper prices went into 2011 at record highs – in a rally driven by increased demand from the global economic recovery and that fact that most countries are holding low stockpiles.

And the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Wednesday that the current high price of oil would threaten economic recovery in 2011.

Oil import costs for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development had risen 30% in the past year to $790bn (£508bn), it said.

Mr Magnus said that if oil returned above $100 a barrel this would be “particularly worrisome”.

“It could make central bankers nervous, leave them thinking that inflation was getting out of hand and prompt them to raise interest rates faster than they should. That would damage an already fragile recovery,” he said.

“And higher commodity prices could sap the world’s ability to consume because more and more of our income will be going on energy and food.”

A Sunrise climate clanger – what has pussy got to do with climate change?

By Graham Readfearn (original title modified)

SO you’re the news producer on a prime time Australian television breakfast show that’s been breathlessly covering the devastating affects of the Queensland floods and you’re looking for a new angle. How about a crack at climate change?

For television, the floods are the epitome of the story that has everything. Dramatic footage, a constantly evolving story with several drawn-out climaxes and a literally captive group of people with genuine against-all-odds tales of sadness, stoicism and bravery in the face of adversity.

In towns including Rockhampton, Emerald and Bundaberg hundreds of homes and businesses have been inundated with water. The Queensland Treasurer, Andrew Fraser, believes the clean-up bill could top $1 billion, saying the disaster has now taken on “biblical” proportions.

But back to Channel Seven’s Sunrise show, which earlier this week decided it was time for a segment which asked whether or not all this “crazy  weather” has anything to do with climate change. A fair and important question to ask but, unfortunately for the few hundred thousand viewers of this flagship show, Sunrise instead served-up an overcooked and unappetising “Greenie vs Sceptic” breakfast TV segment which was well beyond its best before date. Watch it here.

The first mistake was to make no genuine attempt to answer the question they posed. Rather than speak to experts in climate science to answer the question, they chose two people who were predisposed to present two sides of an argument – something the producers must have known. Predictably and almost instantly the segment came down to two opposing sides arguing that climate change was, or wasn’t, real. False balance in all its unedifying glory.

On one side was Nick Rowley, a climate policy consultant and one of a number of former climate change advisors to Tony Blair. There’s no doubt Rowley knows a lot about the subject, but why not ask a scientist?

But the real error was in their selection of New Zealand “weather expert” Ken Ring who has no formal training either in meteorology or climate. I suspect had they known what I’m about to tell you about Ken Ring they would have pawsed for thought before booking him.

Ken Ring was a new name to me, so I thought I should find out a little more about him. That’s when things started to get a little surreal. A chance web-hit coughed-up this little hairball. In 1998, a book was published by Penguin Books New Zealand with the title Pawmistry: How To Read Your Cat’s Paws and Ken Ring was listed as the co-author.

On the back of the book, it says

Ken Ring is a mathematician and a long-time magician, mind-reader and public speaker with a passion for the ancient discipline of palmistry. Ken stumbled upon his peculiar calling at a psychic party several years ago, where he was able to deliver a reading of a cat’s paw that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Now surely this couldn’t be the same guy Sunrise chose as a weather expert, could it? To be sure, I called Ken Ring in New Zealand to ask him and he confirmed he had indeed written that book. He claimed, however, that he had written the book “as a joke” and it had “nothing to do with my work in weather” which is comforting to learn.

You can still buy the book on several online stores and there’s nothing which immediately would suggest that it was in any way a joke. The book has been re-printed at least once. Among other things, the book reveals that cats have seven different types of paw and those bearing the “Earth Paw” are courageous, spontaneous and should not be cornered because they become “disorientated and confused”, the latter part of which brings us neatly back to my conversation with Ken Ring. He went on

I’m not sorry I wrote it. I am willing to discuss it with people and people still ring me up and I’m happy to help them where I can. I’m pleased that they have found something in life to give them pleasure. If the book works then that’s fine. It’s a part of my life that’s finished… just like my clowning and school magicianing.

No, that’s not a misquote. Ken Ring also revealed that before being a “weather expert” he was a school teacher and also a clown and a magician. He was a school magician at the time of writing Pawmistry. I asked on what basis was he now a weather expert? How do you go from being a school magician to being an “expert” on the weather with several dozen books behind him? He explained he was making a living fishing when he “started to realise” that tides seemed to coincide with storms. He constructed a theory from that point.

Ken Ring uses moon and solar cycles to try and predict the weather and his predictions carry little to no respect among serious forecasters or climate scientists. On Sunrise, he dismissed the notion of anthropogenic climate change as having “no proof” and claimed that a solar minimum was to blame for “the cold” that we’ve been seeing in the last two years. Neither of the Sunrise hosts bothered to point out that 2010 is likely to be among our planet’s top three warmest years on the instrumental record, adding a big full-stop to the warmest ever decade.

I asked why he hadn’t bothered to mention that it’s widely known that the current flooding in Queensland has been caused primarily by the La Nina weather pattern in the southern Pacific Ocean. He said he only had a couple of minutes on Sunrise, but added

It’s got nothing to do with La Nina. That’s a name that they dreamt-up in order to identify a new anomaly in the weather to get research funding for, and to issue reports on.

Back to the Sunrise segment, where host Natalie Barr made the observation that both sides of the argument seemed compelling and  ”I think this is why people are confused… ” about climate change.

Well yes, Natalie. But the reason people are confused is because your treatment of the issues has just confused them. One of the most serious challenges facing world leaders and currently facing thousands of flood victims has been handed over to a man who once wrote a book about how to read cat’s paws.

One for the litter tray, wouldn’t you think?

For a simple and reliable explanation of La Nina in the context of the floods, watch the video on this link produced by the BBC. As far as understanding the link between single extreme weather events and climate change, that will have to wait for another post.

Believe it or not, climate debate heats up.

Sydney Morning Herald, January 1, 2011

Climate scientists want us to understand the world is burning, writes Adam Morton.

THE climate scientist Neville Nichols has long believed his role was research, not advocacy. But when he woke on the morning following the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, turned on his TV and caught his breath after witnessing the shocking aerial footage of what was once Marysville, he instinctively blamed himself.

”My initial thought was ‘Is this my fault? Has this happened because I haven’t been out there saying that this stuff is going to have catastrophic consequences for us?”’

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”It is the first time I have ever been shaken from my belief that I shouldn’t be an advocate on climate change.”

Nicholls – an Australian Research Council professorial fellow at Monash University and an author and reviewer with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – resolved to take more responsibility to be a public voice; not to lobby for a particular political response, but to explain and defend the science that is his life’s work.

He was not alone. Increasingly, as the first decade of the century unfurled, Australia’s most decorated scientists in climate fields were concerned that published evidence in their areas of expertise was being misused or ignored. Believing they faced a calculated misinformation campaign driven by fossil fuel interests and an intransigent political system, they formed Climate Scientists Australia as a means to improve the quality of public information and decision-making.

The public debate over climate change has yielded its share of controversies, confected and otherwise, but in the eyes of leading scientists the royal commission into the bushfire’s response – which barely mentioned climate change – is emblematic of the biggest of the past 10 years: the failure to convince policymakers and shapers to take the warnings of the world’s most reputable scientific agencies seriously enough to respond effectively.

The global public’s awareness of climate change grew significantly over the decade, but by this year, according to some polls, its acceptance of the science had diminished.

The decline was particularly marked in Britain and the United States. Britain was home to the affair in which senior scientists were accused of manipulating data after ambiguous emails were leaked from the University of East Anglia. The scientists were exonerated of the most serious claims of dishonesty by a series of inquiries, but the damage was done – the findings clearing their names received only a fraction of the media coverage of the initial allegations.

A separate investigation by the InterAcademy Council recommended changes to the IPCC, including greater transparency, but found its work synthesising published climate science was mostly successful.

In the US there was a concerted attack from the resurgent Republican Party and influential parts of the media claiming climate science was a hoax and conspiracy. A University of Maryland study published last month found Fox News viewers were 30 percentage points more likely to incorrectly believe that most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring, or that views are split.

The public mood was not helped by the debacle of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009, which left people with the not unreasonable perception that the world’s leaders had no idea how to tackle the problem. The recent follow-up meeting in Cancun managed to glue the pieces of the broken talks back together, but left the most challenging issues in forging a new treaty to build on the Kyoto Protocol – which covers little more than a quarter of global emissions – to a later date.

Meanwhile, the claims made on climate change’s behalf continued to mount. Delegates in Cancun were handed a report by the aid agency Oxfam that quoted the insurance agency Munich Re. It linked 21,000 deaths in the first nine months of 2010 to climate change. It was twice the number of casualties caused by extreme weather events in all of 2009.

The mid-year floods that soaked a fifth of Pakistan alone killed about 2000 people and affected the lives of 20 million. The same weather system caused extraordinary summer heat in near-Arctic Russia that wiped out crops, caused rampant wildfires and doubled the usual summer death rate for Moscow.

These events rang alarm bells for those familiar with the IPCC’s projection, based on more than 20 climate models that to date have proved remarkably accurate, that a significant temperature rise above pre-industrial levels will increase the likelihood of floods in southern Asia and the risk of heatwaves and wildfires in Europe.

Munich Re reported that its database of natural catastrophes showed that the number of extreme weather events such as windstorms and floods had tripled since 1980 ”and the trend is expected to persist”.

It should be noted that not everyone working in the area is comfortable with linking the present shift in extreme events with greenhouse gases. According to one view, there is little to no change in the proportions of people affected once population growth is factored in.

What does not remain a contested area in the scientific literature is that the planet is becoming hotter. Analysing the data from the world’s three temperature data sets, the World Meteorological Organisation reported in November that the past decade was the warmest since instrumental measurement began in 1850, and 2010 was on track to be the hottest – regardless of the extraordinary snow dumps clogging European and US cities over Christmas.

(In fact, there is significant evidence to suggest that global warming is responsible for the extreme northern winters of the past two years. An increase in air pressure in the Arctic atmosphere caused by warmer heat coming off a relatively ice-free ocean is pushing cold air south.)

Eighteen countries broke their records for the hottest day ever this year. Only one year in the 20th century, 1998, was warmer than any so far in the 21st.

The noughties was the decade of the killer heatwave. Western Europe was hit in August 2003, when extreme heat was estimated to have contributed to the deaths of 46,000. There were widespread crop failures and forest fires, particularly in southern Europe. About a tenth of Portugal’s forests burned.

In Australia, Victoria had never had three consecutive days above 42 degrees until January 2009, when there were three above 43 degrees. The January heatwave is estimated to have killed 500 people in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Perhaps the biggest change came in Russia this past northern summer, when at least five days in Moscow topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38C) – a barrier that had never been crossed. An estimated 15,000 people died and the country’s massive grain harvest was devastated by wildfire.

The Russian state weather service chief, Alexander Frolov, said it was the country’s worst heatwave in a millennium. ”Nothing like it can be seen in the archives.”

Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Last month the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed that atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached 390 parts per million – a 40 per cent increase on pre-industrial levels.

All of this is in line with the IPCC’s most recent assessment report, published in 2007, which found that there was at least 90 per cent certainty that most of the increase in the globe’s temperature since mid-last century was due to the rise in industrial greenhouse gases.

There is, of course, still significant uncertainty about the future effect of climate change. But the fundamentals predicted by climate models – marked declines in Arctic sea ice in summer, rising sea levels due to thermal expansion and glacier melt and increases in temperature – are being matched by observations.

That is the science. The response, the politics and economics, remains a thornier question still.

The preferred model under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is carbon trading, under which emissions are capped and pollution permits exchanged so that the cheapest way to meet the target can be found. This method has been adopted in haphazard fashion across Europe, New Zealand and a band of US states, and several more countries including Australia and China are looking at signing up.

There is near universal agreement among economists that a carbon price is the most efficient way to reduce emissions, but carbon trading faces criticism that, while nice in theory, it is ineffective in the real world when it includes poorly policed offset schemes. The US Congress has rejected a national trading scheme; Japan and South Korea have postponed the decision on theirs.

What are the hopes of a global solution to this diabolical problem? A recent prognosis by the Paris International Energy Agency found the national targets submitted under the loose Copenhagen Accord of 2009 would put the world on a path of 3.5 degrees warming by the end of the century. Even if you assume that countries introduce policies to back their international promises – Australia and the US, to name just two, at present have no way of meeting their targets – few scientists or policymakers expect the temperature rise to be kept within two degrees, the goal agreed under the UN process.

In Australia this year there will be a concerted effort from Labor, the Greens and parts of the business world to introduce a carbon price – most likely a tax that could evolve into carbon trading. Attention is then likely to turn to the challenge that has only just begun to find its way into the public debate, but will increasingly become apparent over the next decade: adapting to unavoidable change.