Climate in 2021: La Niña & COP26

2020 saw some of the most extreme weather events ever recorded. What's going to happen in 2021?
12 January 2021

Interview with 

Jenny Turton, Friedrich-Alexander University


The sun shining through clouds.


Although the coronavirus is still everyone’s primary concern, 2020 saw some of the most extreme weather events ever recorded, as well as being virtually tied for hottest year on record. And the fact that we hear this almost every year nowadays gives you some idea of the accelerating state of the catastrophe. So what’s going to happen this year? Jenny Turton is an atmospheric scientist from the Institute for geography at Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany, and she discussed the subject with Phil Sansom and special guests Barbara Sahakian and Giles Yeo...

Jenny - Well, it does seem like year on year in the Arctic we're having record breaking circumstances: record sea ice levels, fastest melt, something like this. So it wouldn't surprise me if 2021 followed in the same vein. Just over September last year we had the second lowest sea ice record, so perhaps we could see another record low sea ice year. It also froze up quite slowly this year - normally it starts to freeze in about September, this year it was mid-October - so potentially it's not as thick or as solid as it normally is, and so maybe we'll have quite a lot of melting in the sea ice this year.

Phil - What about other types of extreme weather across the world? Because in 2020 we had wildfires in Brazil, and western North America, and Australia; might it be the same sort of story?

Jenny - I've been reading up on the hurricane prediction for next year, and that doesn't seem to be as extreme. They do predict that it's going to be above average; so average is around 12 storms, maybe six or seven of them are hurricanes, and I think for the next year - or this year - they're predicting around six. So we're having more than normal, I believe, but maybe not as extreme as 2020, where we had over 30 tropical storms.

Phil - And we've also got La Niña, is that correct - this weather phenomenon across the world, and the Pacific especially?

Jenny - Yeah, that's right. It started last year and I think there are thoughts that it will continue onto this year. La Niña is where you get a buildup of cold water along the coast of Chile, and then you get a lot of different weather patterns happening because of that. So typically you get slightly drier in the United States and wetter in Australia, that's kind of a big cause, but you also get... globally during La Niña it's a little bit cooler. So it was quite interesting that 2020 was still one of the hottest years even though we had a La Niña phase.

Phil - Barbara, I'm thinking of the environmentalist Naomi Klein, who talks about all the different ways there are to look away from this catastrophe because it's so painful. What psychologically do you think is behind that?

Barbara - Obviously, one thing to do is to direct your attention from something that is giving you a lot of anxiety, so some people will choose to do that. What I'm pleased about is that so many people have chosen to engage with actually trying to do something about this; themselves, and with institutions and things like that. So I think we're in a much better shape. I think it's very difficult for people to deal with uncertainty. Hugo Critchley has done some marvellous experiments showing that, with uncertainty, we get activations in areas of the brain. And we have a difficulty dealing with uncertainty and with... I was listening to the radio just the other day and they were talking about the fires that they'd had in Australia, and every time now it gets hot people begin to wonder, "oh, is it going to start up again?" So the sort of constant stress... it's almost like a chronic stress that people are under worrying about these things, and sometimes if you don't feel you have any resilience or mastery over it, the preference is to avoid dealing with it at all. But fortunately, I think many people have realised it's just time now to engage. We all have to engage. We have to do what we can do as individuals, and then we have to force governments and institutions to also do what they should do.

Phil - Jenny - ring a bell?

Jenny - Yeah, that does sound quite right. Sometimes I even find it hard to spending day after day researching these things; sometimes it's nice to distract myself with a YouTube video of a cat or something! But no, it does seem that now is the time when a lot of countries are getting on board with the climate crisis; including China, and hopefully once Joe Biden becomes president, they will rejoin - as well - the climate talks.

Phil - Here he is in fact promising to do exactly that, for the Paris agreement....

Joe Biden - First thing I would do, day one, as president: I'd rejoin the Paris climate accord, which we - Barack and I - put together...

Phil - Jenny, what does that mean? This is obviously the second biggest carbon emitting country in the world.

Jenny - Yeah, so it was quite a shock for a lot of people when Donald Trump decided to pull out, because like you say, they're the second biggest emitter ,and they had joined the Paris agreement under Barack Obama.

Phil - Could you explain exactly what the Paris agreement means?

Jenny - Yeah, the Paris agreement is a legally binding treaty that was signed by 196 countries back in 2015 with the aim of tackling climate change. Every four or five years, the countries that are in the agreement will give an update on what they have done to tackle it, and also put further targets in place to try to reduce their emissions.

Phil - And what kind of targets are we talking about, do you know?

Jenny - Well it varies depending on the country, because obviously some countries will be able to do a lot more - should do a lot more - than others. So the UK for instance: their target is to use electric cars only by 2040; and also pledge to go net zero, which means the amount of CO2 they're outputting, they will intake with something like forests or some offset projects.

Phil - As we're recording this, in fact, we've just found out that Trump has just signed a document allowing looking for oil and gas in protected Northern lands. What's going on in this area of the world, do you know?

Jenny - Well yes, I did see earlier that there was some idea that Trump might be allowing people to mine or to put in some pipelines in the Arctic. I think partially it's a long line of other things that he's already done in the environmental sector; I think there are seven agreements or important treaties that he's pulled out of or dismantled while he's been in power. So I do think that it's kind of a last ditch attempt.

Phil - We've also got a big climate change conference coming up; that was supposed to be 2020, it's now 2021, and this is going to be in Scotland. What is that going to be? Because I think people are tired of hearing commitments and resolutions, and feeling like that's just hot air.

Jenny - Yeah. So it's the COP26, and the COP stands for the Conference Of the Parties, and it's the 26th meeting. But like you say, people seem to speak a lot and not too much happens at these conferences. Almost every year people are not quite happy with the outcomes, that maybe they don't reach enough, or they don't agree enough. The hope is in the Glasgow one this year that the UK and other nations will be able to provide financial aid to developing countries to help them really tackle climate change, which they might not be able to afford and which they probably also didn't contribute largely to. And also we're hoping this time to look at efforts of how to offset CO2, so how to pull out some of the CO2 from the atmosphere that we already have there,

Phil - Those of us who aren't listening to this and are leading a country, I think we'll still probably be thinking, "is there anything I can do?" Giles, I believe that one of the best things that a single person can do is change their diet?

Giles - It is! We - particularly here in Western Europe, Australasia, and United States - we eat far too much meat. Look, I am not a diet evangelical or zealot; I eat meat. But I think it's undoubtedly true that we eat way too much meat per capita. And the problems with meat are twofold. First of all, there is deforestation in order to make sure that we can actually keep the various ruminants, and cows, and sheep, and what have you, in grass. And there's also the gases that are released by these animals in and of themselves. So actually, if we as a species are able to drop our meat intake even by 10/20% - I'm not talking about turning everyone vegetarian - the actual impact on carbon emissions would actually be enormous. Enormous.


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