Global Events, Global Warming

22/11/2016 17:01 | Updated 23 November 2016
Dale Robins

People who work with nature, in conservation and in science, will look back on 2016 as being a uniquely challenging year. Just as it had seemed people were waking up to the dangers our planet faces, reactionary forces have thrown those considerations aside in favour of economics, fear and short-sightedness. It is clearly not only us Brits who, in the words of Michael Gove, 'have had enough of experts', are sick of charts, statistics, and facts. We are now in an era where emotion triumphs over intellect, and rhetoric shatters reason. This is also the first year in 15million with levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide consistently higher than 400PPM. 2016 is yet again the hottest year since records began. As was 2015. And 2014. And 16 out of the last 17 years. And now the most powerful person on the planet announces that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Well, if facts and evidence are losing their impact, let me speak instead of what I see and feel. As I've been traveling for a living for more than twenty years, I have some perspective of how places have changed over time. I don't think of myself as being an old man. Yet the world's population has nearly doubled since I was born, and more than tripled since my parent's birth. Every one of those new people has increased demands on the world's resources, and increased impact on the world around them; and you can SEE it. I decided to put together my oral history of situations where climate change has been much more than esoteric figures on a graph, but instead has been something tangible that you can touch and feel.

On my first big solo trip in 1991, I hitchhiked the length of Vietnam, and spent some time in the glorious historic capital of Hanoi. Back then, Hanoi was a silent city; the only sounds the whirr of bicycles, and hawkers selling baguettes filled with pate. Folk moved their stalls and even homes around by pedal power, and it had unparalleled tranquility for such a huge metropolitan centre. In 2001, I went back to film the discovery of a new species of primate for National Geographic. The change over just a decade was cataclysmic. Hanoi now seemed the noisiest place on the planet. Every bicycle had been exchanged for a chugging two-stroke moped, on which people were cramming their entire families. I saw seven people on one moped. The air was thick with smog, the roar continued throughout the night.

Borneo is another place I've been back to repeatedly over time. Also in 1991, I took a small plane across Borneo and all I saw below me was rainforest. It was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen, and filled me with a lust for adventure. In those forests Orangutan, proboscis monkeys, gibbons and clouded leopards lived, along with pygmy elephants that when they're cross, will reverse at you, spectacularly farting in your general direction, presumably hoping you'll be too doubled over with laughter to be any more nuisance to them. I returned here in 1997 while writing the Rough Guide to the region. This was the year of the 'Great Burn' where slash and burn agriculture raged out of control. The forests of Southeast Asia were disappearing faster than the Amazon, being hacked down legally and illegally, before the vegetation beneath was burnt away to make way for agriculture. The scale of it was so extraordinary that a layer of smoke covered 1.25 million square miles for most of the year, (the same size as the entirety of India). In the cities there were days you couldn't see the other side of the street. Everyone wore facemasks to protect themselves from the fumes. It cost an estimated 8 billion dollars, and far more in the long-term respiratory complaints people developed. Perhaps 24% of carbon gases come from deforestation, and on this occasion you could taste it in the back of your throat. When I went back to Borneo in 2005, my plane journey was the most depressing of my life. Where before it had been unending forest out to the horizon, now it was nothing but the regimented lines of the oil palm plantations. And once down inside them, you realized the starkest horror. The jungles of Borneo ring with a cacophony of sound, the whooping songs of gibbons, bandsaw roar of cicadas, burps of frogs and ugly squawks of unseen birds. These oil palm plantations were utterly eerily silent, devoid of life.

My most recent expedition was to attempt to make the first descent of the mighty Baliem river in Papua. I'd traveled much of it back in 1997, and found a tumultuous river created by the equatorial glaciers of a mountain chain that is longer and higher than the Alps. The glacier that the Baliem river originates from however has gone, and I would be gobsmacked if there are still any equatorial glaciers around the world when I reach my dotage. In the Indian Himalaya I returned to an iconic glacier to find it had retreated nearly a mile since my last visit. In Alaska, we compared photos of several glaciers to historical photos taken two decades previously. It was a struggle to even line the photos up as the ice had receded so far. On that same trip, a climate scientist friend showed me that in the northern tundra of Alaska, permafrost had sealed the soil frozen since the last ice age. It was now soggy defrosting mud, and the vegetation was starting to rot. She collected huge bin liners full of methane pouring from the once frozen soils (methane is an even more potent climate change agent than CO2) and set them spectacularly on fire. We abseiled down into moulins, huge whirlpool plugholes in glaciers, where icy meltwater tumbles down into the guts of the glacier. These moulins are getting bigger, form earlier in the year and have increased in frequency, and every one sends water to the bottom of the glacier, lubricating its movement, speeding its demise, ultimately increasing the amount that calves off at the end to become icebergs. Down in Antarctica, we came across a few ancient icebergs where the ice was as clear as diamonds. When you stuck a chunk into your whisky, it vaguely fizzed, as compressed microscopic air bubbles were released. Air that had been trapped in the ice for 10,000 years. With 70% of the world's freshwater sealed in glaciers, ice caps and permanent snow, it's clear that drastic melting will make sea levels rise. Anyone who doubts that should go and dive or snorkel in the Cenotes of Central America. These limestone caves were formed during times when more of the world's water was bound up in ice, and world sea levels much lower. There I've swum alongside stalagmites and stalactites that can only be formed in air, yet are now thirty metres below the surface of the sea.

Climate change for me has been most real in the Arctic and Antarctic. Here, temperatures are increasing twice as fast as elsewhere around the world. In Baffin Island I met local Inupiat peoples, who have an oral tradition dating back thousands of years, and an intimate relationship with their land. Their calendar is based around the arrival of the Charr, the blooming of the sourdock, fireweed and cotton grass, and crucially the breakup of the sea ice. These timeless landmark occasions had been the same for millennia and dictate every waking hour. The Inupiat are utterly bewildered that anyone in the outside world could doubt climate change. One friend took me on a tour around the bay in front of his house. 'Up there was a glacier until the late 1980s' he pointed, 'the ice here is forming a month too late, and breaking up a month too early. Polar bears come into the garbage dump to feed and we have to shoot them. We have fish in our seas we've never had before, others that we used to rely on have not been seen for years, and there are now insects here we don't even have names for.'

In Alaska, I worked with a biologist who was studying their wild mountain goats and Dall's sheep. In the summer they are plagued by biting blackfly, and move up to the highest slopes to evade their attentions. With every 200m of vertical ascent it gets a degree cooler, and eventually the blackfly cannot follow. However the increase in temperature has already meant the parasites are comfortable even on the highest peaks, and the goats simply have nowhere higher to go. The goats now wander round tormented in incessant circles, unable to feed during the crucial time of summer plenty, and thus their breeding success plummets.

There are also very real challenges for whales. Some of my greatest ever wildlife encounters have been with humpbacks, heading to the north to gluttonise and gargantuate on the summer glut of herring, arguably the finest wildlife spectacle on the planet. But the lives of the whales are tied to those periods of summer prosperity, and their prey moves in accordance with vast complex currents, driven by the ever-changing salinity and temperature of their seas. In Iceland earlier this year we worked with perplexed cetacean specialists who reported that warmer sea temperatures meant the normal food fish had moved further north, and been replaced by explosions of mackerel, which the whales don't seem to eat. As a result, their whale sightings have plummeted. Even greater challenges face the true Arctic whales, the bowhead, beluga and narwhal. As the sea ice fragments, it is allowing more boat traffic into their once sacred seas. Hunters can reach them, there are more oil spills, and the introduction of novel pathogens they have no resistance to. Unpredictability in ice formation leads to more animals getting sealed into the ice, and their one predator other than man - the orca - now has unfettered access to them and their calves.

We have such an anthropocentric view of the world. We see animals that can survive in seas at -1.8 o C and under Arctic ice as being tough and rugged, because it would be such a challenge for us. But they are a result of millions of years of natural selection that means these wild waters are perfect for them. Existing in such a narrow niche leaves them vulnerable as it changes. The animals that may seem to us the most robust are in some ways the most fragile.

And what of the Arctic icon the polar bear? A polar bear gains two thirds of its annual calorie intake from a few precious months out on the pack ice hunting for blubber-rich seals. This June, there were half a million square miles less pack ice than the long-term average, and it broke up 70% faster than normal. A summer with zero Arctic pack ice is imminent; many experts suggest next year could be the first ever. Polar bears are being driven onto land ever earlier and are not only starving, but hybridizing with grizzlies to form so-called 'pizzly' bears. I've been lucky enough to film these extraordinary animals many times, even to be stalked by one when sea kayaking out amongst the Arctic ice. But my most memorable encounters were with bears in the lean times of the summer, when they are eking out a living by whatever means possible. A polar bear climbing vertical cliffs to feed on bird's eggs and hatchlings, and a skinny injured bear eating seaweed, and making half-hearted attempts to attack huge walrus that were clearly much too ambitious prey. She already bore stark wounds from their tusks emblazoned on her flanks.

And what of the iconic images of a polar bear set adrift on a tiny fragile iceberg on endless Arctic seas. These melancholy tableau have become shorthand for climate change, yet skeptics point out they are disingenuous. A single lonely polar bear on a glacier is no more a result of climate change than that right now I'm outside in shorts and t-shirt in November. After all, polar bears have been stranded as the ice breaks up every single year since the last Ice Age. To this sensible challenge, I must refer to the great philosopher Agent K out of Men In Black; 'A person,' he said, 'is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.' Recent world events would seem to confirm this is true. People respond to scenarios of great magnitude in a visceral, emotional and personal way. It takes the story of one tortured lion to force us to confront the cruelty of canned hunting, the image of one dead child on a beach to make us connect with the migrant crisis. Perhaps the image of one stranded polar bear cub could succeed in making people wake up to global warming, where facts and figures have failed.

The time for debating whether it's real is long, long gone. The time has come to do something about it. Thankfully, we have a precedent. When I was a kid, CFCs were the talk of the town, these propellants and coolants were near universal and leading to a catastrophic hole in the ozone layer. So they were banned, and the threat was averted. The HFCs that replaced them are now also a target for global action. We CAN act to make big changes and save our planet. The first step, has to be making the people believe. Let's make our Planet Great again.