Editorial: Stats don't lie - heed the warming signs

The bitterly cold weather in the United States this week has sparked inevitable comments from climate change sceptics that the big freeze proves global warming is a myth.

These pithy jokes, often made on social media, may appear correct or even clever at first, but are, of course, misguided.

Global warming, which has been used interchangeably with climate change to explain what is happening to our planet, does not mean everywhere in the world will become hotter than it was.

Rather it will mean as a whole, globally, there will be warming. This will lead to greater extremes of weather, summers will be hotter, cold snaps colder, wet seasons wetter and dry seasons drier.

We are already seeing the results of this, from superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy to the sub-zero temperatures gripping the American Midwest. In Palmerston North, and across New Zealand, we have just experienced the second-warmest year since records began, according to research by climate scientist Jim Salinger. The average temperature in the city last year was 14.1 degrees Celsius, 0.85 above normal.

The only year it was hotter was 1998, when Palmerston North had an average temperature throughout the year of 14.2C.

Dr Salinger says if the temperature rise continues it could mean changes in the way farmers use their land, with increases in cropping. That's if sea level rises don't take away that land. Horizons Regional Council has commissioned research into the impact of rising sea levels on the region's communities.

According to reports in National Geographic last year, coastal settlements such as Tangimoana, Foxton Beach and Himatangi could be under water within 5000 years. That's a long timeframe. Massey University climate change scientist Ralph Sims said last year there would be noticeable changes to the coast within the next 50 to 100 years.

"I certainly won't be buying a home on the Horowhenua or Kapiti coasts any time soon," he said.

Back in 2010, the US National Academy of Sciences said the case for warming was so strong they labelled as "settled facts" that "the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities".

The recent literature review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that scientists are as certain that humans are warming the globe "as they are that cigarettes kill".

It's irrefutable that climate change is happening, and that humans have helped cause it. The next question is what do we do about it.

Step one would be for the sceptics to do away with the inane jokes.

Manawatu Standard