Almost every bit of news recently has been about the coronavirus and its impact. This is not surprising. Some people has an avid fascination for every little contradictory detail but many people have started avoiding the newspapers, Twitter and news broadcasts completely until it all gets a little less glum.
Surprisingly, there is other news, you may just not have seen it. From record melting of the ice sheets to swarms of billions of locusts we continue to learn more about the state of our planet, despite the virus.
Climate change impacts being felt
Right now, compared to the long-term average, an area of the Arctic the size of France is bare ocean instead of being covered with sea ice. A new study found that Greenland’s massive ice-sheet experienced the largest ever loss of ice last year, prompting fears that current models underestimate the amount of sea-level rise climate change will bring this century. If it were all to melt, this one ice-sheet would raise global sea levels by 6 or 7 metres.
Last week saw the highest ever weekly average level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in modern times, in a series measured at the top of a Hawaiian volcano since the 1950s. Levels of the main climate change gas are now over 50 per cent higher than before we started burning fossil fuels. With much of the global economy shut down there is a big short-term dip in climate emissions right now but the long-term trend is still very far from the rapid reduction in business-as-usual emissions that we need.
Global temperatures were over a degree warmer than the long-term average in March and temperatures across all of Siberia were more than 4 degrees centigrade warmer.
Driven by unusual storms and a mild winter locust swarms as big as cities continue to devastate crops in Eastern Africa, with heavy rains in March expected to cause a dramatic increase in locust numbers there and in Yemen and Iran, threatening food supplies for millions of people. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation describe the situation as ‘extremely alarming.’ Efforts to tackle the locusts are now bogged down by the impacts of coronavirus.
A week-old forest fire in Ukraine has come within a kilometre of the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, burning up contaminated materials in the 30-km exclusion zone. Firefighters have been trying to halt the blaze from helicopters, in nightmarish scenes eerily reminiscent of the reactor explosion almost exactly 34 years ago.
Is there any good news for the climate?
Have you also missed some good news? Yes, for instance, three quarters of all new electricity capacity built last year was one form or another of renewable energy, Germany just exceed 50% of its electricity coming from renewables and the city of Adelaide is going 100% renewable. The city of Amsterdam plans to use environmental and social principles to plan its recovery from the coronavirus outbreak.
An international group of marine scientists spelled out this month how we could use the lessons from successful small-scale projects to drive a nature recovery of all our oceans by 2050. The US shale gas industry is on the rocks because of low gas prices and collapsed demand. And the coronavirus connection has led to a new draft law in China banning the eating of wild animals.
Of course it is right that we pay plenty of attention to the coronavirus crisis, and the human stories that go with it, but we must not forget that the big, long-term experiment we are carrying out on the Earth’s environment is still mostly going really badly.
Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 21 April 2020.