COP21 blog

Who feels the heat first?

Brian Snyder/Reuters

At yesterday’s COP21 science briefing, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins displayed a chilling (pun intended) colour-coded world map. Nation by nation, it showed which countries are already experiencing obvious effects of climate change. Hawkins’ map isn’t published yet, so I can’t reproduce it here — but read on to find out who’s feeling the heat.

If you live in a place whose climate generally stays the same from year to year, long-term trends in temperature, timing and amount of rainfall, and so on become obvious pretty quickly. But if your climate normally changes a lot from one year to the next, it’s harder to notice the trend. In such a place, cold, wet years come along pretty often. They can wipe out the memory of warm, dry ones, and make you wonder whether anything’s really changing.

Where are year-to-year climates steadiest? In the tropics and around the Equator: Central America, much of South America and Africa, the Indonesian archipelago, southern India — in other words, the global South.

Where are they most variable? In the northern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes: the United States, Europe, Russia, China.

You can see the difference clearly in Hawkins’ graphs of national temperature swings versus global trends.

Feeling the heat in Britain and Kenya. Ed Hawkins, Author provided

In the United Kingdom, temperatures bounce around so much that without the graph, you might not be sure to notice the warming trend.

In Kenya, things look much different. Comparing its annual swings with those of the UK, you can easily see how much more stable the Kenyan climate is. After the 1970s, as the global trend begins to rise, the Kenyan trend moves right along with it, almost in lockstep.

It’s not a large leap to wonder how things might have turned out, especially in the United States, if this situation were reversed. What might climate politics look like if the global North had felt the heat first?

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