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Tarmo Soomere: Complex pattern of climate change contributing to inequality

Tarmo Soomere.
Tarmo Soomere. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Presient of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Tarmo Soomere writes in a comment originally published in Õpetajate Leht about what could be an adequate way to view climate change, how it affects us and its indirect effects on education.

My good colleague Ain Kallis has characterized the difference between the weather and climate with a fitting comparison. A person thinks about the climate and how it changes when they go clothes shopping for the next season, while the weather report helps you decide what to wear that day.

The weather is always changing. Even years differ from one another. Actual spring (the time when plants start growing and the average daily temperature stays above 5 degrees) on average arrives on April 22 in Estonia. But it has also happened a month earlier, on March 21, and also much later, for example, on May 17.

Even having two or three uncommon years in a row is not enough to conclude that the climate has changed. Because climate is much more than a weather average, be it average temperature, wind speed or snow cover in February. To be perfectly honest, climate is rather a category of mathematical statistics.

Climate is reflected in statistical properties of weather values: averages, standard deviations, quantiles, extreme values; more generally, the probability scales of these values and the parameters of those scales but also the spatial patterns of such properties. For example, how spring usually arrives ten days earlier in Võru County compared to Hiiumaa.

In other words, if the weather changes in a matter of hours and days, climate change is a very long process the perception and measuring of which requires an excellence memory or accurate tracking, mathematical knowledge and the ability to learn from the past. But memory has a bad habit of letting us down.

Newer experiences always seem to take precedent over older ones. But the temperature this year is no more important than what we measured 100 years ago. Our schools opting for a narrow treatment of mathematics means there will be fewer people capable of adequately describing and interpreting climate change.

How does climate change affect us?

Today, we have a number of clearly perceived and scientifically proven facts, for example, from NASA. It is quite certain that the temperature in Earth's atmosphere has risen noticeably since the 19th century. This warming has picked up speed in the past 40 years. Practically all the warmest years on record are from this century. Snow cover is retreating rapidly in the northern hemisphere.

The oceans are becoming warmer. Their top layer up to a depth of 700 meters has warmed by 0.17 degrees since 1969. It holds 93 percent of new warmth the Earth has accumulated since then. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting. Oceans are rising. The area and thickness of sea ice in the Arctic is also dwindling.

Extreme weather phenomena are becoming more frequent. The oceans are becoming acidified due to higher concentrations of CO2. It is almost certainly (99 percent) the result of human activity. While there is a trifling chance these are natural occurrences, betting on it would be like winning the natural lottery with a single ticket.

A number of changes have been recorded in Estonia. The average temperature is growing much faster in Estonia than it is in the world (at nearly double the average rate). Summer tourism is on the rise and heating costs in the winter are down. There is more precipitation, while snow- and ice cover is retreating, rivers have more water and high water comes earlier.

Several crops are showing better yields and we can cultivate cultures that could not grow here before. Some who we don't like have come to like Estonia. Jackals have already settled in here. Parasitic species and new plant pests are moving in. The coastline often experiences storms, while lowlands have to put up with flooding and beaches are hit by erosion.

What should principals, teachers and students know about climate change?

The global pattern of climate change is controversial by nature both on the level of communities, mankind and the Earth's ecosystem as a whole. Some regions will benefit. Vast stockpiles of natural resources are becoming accessible in the Arctic, both on land and at sea. Oil, gas and other industries could flourish there.

The melting of ice constitutes a great opportunity for countries in the Arctic, Norway's oil and energy minister has said. Having an Arctic shipping route would be a sensible alternative to the Panama Canal.

Farming will start to pay off further north. The southern edge of polar regions will become greener and forests will also move further north. Trees, plant life and marine biomass will flourish that will likely benefit the world's fish reserves.

It is small wonder Donald Trump wants to buy Greenland. The resources it holds – not so much oil and gas but fisheries, tourism, agriculture, cheap hydro energy provided by melting glaciers and perhaps even export of clean water down the line – could make it a rather wealthy part of the world.

Next to this peachy outlook, it is quite clear global warming has already contributed to global inequality. Growing inequality could cause serious problems for the entire world if nothing is done about it. Wealthy countries have disproportionally benefited from processes behind climate warming, while poorer countries are increasingly threatened by it.

While some people and regions will benefit from climate change, this benefit will be rather short-lived. We will all lose in the long run and the global perspective because the negative sides will very likely outweigh gains.

The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. Some places will almost certainly be rendered uninhabitable. It remains unclear how we will handle the migration pressure this will create. More pessimistic forecasts suggest over a billion people will have to leave their homes by 2070. We can be quite sure in this context that no region, including Estonia, is immune to the negative effects of climate change.

What could be the indirect effects of climate change on school life (for example, as concerns integration of immigrant students)?

The understanding of the significance of climate for mankind has changed a lot over the years. In the far past (up to about the first half of the 19th century) a purely anthropocentric view prevailed.

Climate was seen as a set of parameters suitable for human activity, for society and civilization to exist. In the formative years of climate science (ca 1850-1900), it was held that climate is statistics of weather phenomena and a neutral system removed from society.

Today, we have realized that climate is a system affected by both nature and man. That is why climate change has become an arena for political struggle. However, science cannot be a political phenomenon and scientific results cannot be decided by voting.

And so, the ability to separate facts (even if we don't have all of them) from political discussions over opinions, values and worldview is becoming increasingly important.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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