The First Decade: Mankind's race against time to halt climate change

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In the final part of our essay series taking stock of the changing world in the 21st century, Michael McCarthy offers a personal insight into the realities of climate change – and the perils of denial

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Although the date of 10 August 2003, is engraved on my brain, I've never found anyone else who instantly recalls it or has it fixed for its significance in the forefront of their mind. I still find that strange. I once thought that what happened that day would be a marker for everyone in Britain, that it would enter into the collective psyche almost as a piece of folklore, and yet it seems to have been instantly forgotten, expunged from the record of interest or importance. For virtually everyone reading this, I imagine, the date is meaningless.

But if we look back on the decade now ending, the first decade of the 21st century, and try to assess what it has meant as a whole for the Earth and for the environment, 10 August 2003 seems – at least from where I am sitting in Britain – the most significant date of all. It marked out the Noughties, in a powerfully symbolic way, as a decade that was different. It was different in essence from the Nineties, and all those which had gone before: it was the first decade of a new age.

The age we have been living in for the last 12,000 years has a name: it is referred to as the Holocene. This is the most recent geological epoch (the name means "wholly recent") and it is the period of general climate stability since the ending of the last glaciation, the last ice age, within which human civilisation was able to emerge: first agriculture, then towns and cities, and then writing, money, law and all the other appurtenances of a complex settled society which we now take entirely for granted.

But the beneficent stability of the current "interglacial" has by no means been the norm throughout the Earth's climate history. Data from Antarctic ice cores representing the last several hundred thousand years show that the planet is extremely sensitive to changes in its energy balance, and has frequently been "flipped" between extreme climatic states, with rapid cooling alternating with rapid warming, not least because of the positive feedback mechanisms which are inherent in the Earth's system. There are several, but a typical one is the melting of sea ice. Ice on the Arctic ocean reflects back the heat of the sun. But if it begins to melt, it reveals the dark surface of open water, which absorbs more of the sun's heat, which causes more ice to melt, which reveals more dark surface, and so on and so on into a runaway process which can cause a wholesale alteration in the climatic make-up of the earth in a relatively short time – sometimes merely decades.

Our view of history, or at least, of the long-term history of the Earth, is understandably limited: we take climate stability as a given, just as much as we take writing as a given, and money and law and all the other aspects of civilisation which 12,000 years ago did not exist. Our sense of that stability is largely maintained by boundaries; we have an instinctive feel for, and indeed an instrumentally measured record of, just how much heat and cold and rain and wind we are likely to expect in our homeland, whether we live in Russia or Peru, in England or Ethiopia, and we also have a feel for the extremes we are likely to encounter from time to time: the driest summer, the coldest winter, the most violent wind.

But what if the boundaries are broken? What if even the extremes are broken, and decisively left behind? What does that tell us about the way the world is working? For in August 2003, in Britain, that is what happened.

It was a temperature record, a new air temperature record for the United Kingdom, and one which I had been anticipating for 13 years, since the brow-wiping, sweltering summer of 1990. On 3 August that year, the mercury in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, hit 98.8F, or 37.1C, smashing the previous British record air temperature of 98.1F (or 36.7C) which had lasted for most of the century after being set on 9 August 1911, simultaneously at Raunds in Northamptonshire, Epsom in Surrey and Canterbury in Kent.

I had a professional interest in air temperatures that summer. Eighteen months before, I had begun writing as a specialist about the environment, just after the first concerns about global warming had taken off, and the issue of man-made climate change had left me fascinated. This was not least because the new climate concerns had coincided with (or even been awoken by) what seemed to be a sudden surge in global temperatures in the late Eighties: 1987 was the second-hottest year ever recorded up until then, with 1988 following close behind, and indeed it was on 23 June 1988 that the world woke up to the idea of global warming when – in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave, with the Mississippi running dry – the leading American atmospheric scientist, James Hansen of Nasa, announced to a US Senate inquiry that global warming had already arrived, and his words went round the world.

My own experience a few months later was a singular one: I began reporting on the idea of rising temperatures in the warmest winter in Britain for at least 330 years. The winter of 1988-89 was bizarre; I remember roses blooming in Christmas week, and sitting in shirtsleeves at an outside café table in London's St Katherine Dock in balmy weather, in mid-February. A few months later Government scientists produced an official report confirming that this was indeed the warmest winter in Britain since 1659, the beginning of our historical temperature records. The summer which followed was glorious, with some days so blisteringly hot it felt odd – a different atmosphere, the colours of the landscape more intense in the air, more like the Mediterranean – and then came 1990, which broke all temperature records, in Britain and around the globe. And when, in the first week of August, that new British record from Cheltenham came in, that incredible 98.8, three-quarters of a degree up on the last record set 79 years previously, I had what was to me a novel and reverberating thought: "What if it were to hit 100?"

One hundred degrees Fahrenheit. To feel about that, like I felt about it, I suppose you had to have grown up with Fahrenheit as your everyday temperature scale. Although degrees F is still what TV weathermen use in the US, in Britain Centigrade now rules, and I have younger colleagues for whom Fahrenheit figures are meaningless; to cheer them up you have to tell them that tomorrow it will be 25. But my generation absorbed, from years of listening to Fahrenheit forecasts and then feeling the air on your face, the intuitions that 60 was pleasantly warm, and 70 was really lovely weather, and 80 was seriously hot, while 90 represented the sort of dramatic heatwave which by no means occurred every year, and was a significant event. Anything approaching 90 would prompt front-page headlines in the Daily Express proclaiming: "88 ... 89 ... 90! Phew! What A Scorcher!"

The point about 100 was, it was off the map. It was quite definitely off the map in meteorological terms; in the records of daily temperature which for Britain go back to 1772, it had never been registered. It was off the scale completely. But never mind it not being in the meteorological history; it wasn't in the cultural history. There was no cultural reference point for it: no stories, no memories, no jokes, no newspaper headlines. In the temperate Britain for which we all have an instinctive feel, this land of showers and cool summers, this land on the latitude of Labrador only kept from freezing by the Gulf Stream, an air temperature of 100° Fahrenheit represented an unknown country, an elsewhere. The round figure helped with that, to be sure. In Centigrade terms, 100F is 37.8, and of course 37.8 as such isn't any sort of figure the mind will register, any sort of boldly-marked frontier whose breaching will seem significant; but once you represent it in Fahrenheit, the move up from two digits to three has a symbolical significance of real power. It is a true cultural border, as well as a meteorological one. Above 100 is new territory.

If we ever hit that, I thought, we truly are in a different place, a different world, a different age – and the reality of global warming will be brought home to everyone at once. And in 1990, watching what appeared to be the steady upward climb of world temperatures, I thought that the ton, as it were, was on the way, sooner rather than later; perhaps it might even arrive in 1991. It did not. I was pretty sure, at least, that it would arrive before the Millennium. It did not. It became clear that global warming does not proceed in a linear fashion; it moves forward in leaps and bounds, and each spring I wondered if this would be the year with the three-digit temperature, and each summer the 1990 record remained resolutely unbroken. Until 2003.

The European heatwave of August that year is one of the most remarkable meteorological events ever recorded. Over a great rectangular block of the continent stretching from west of Paris to northern Italy, taking in Switzerland and southern Germany, the average temperature for the summer months was nearly 4C above the long-term norm, and new temperature records were set for Portugal, Germany and Switzerland. In France, although the national record was not broken, the country suffered gravely from La Canicule, the heatwave, especially with the hot nights and especially in Paris; the night-time temperature in the French capital never dropped below 23C (73.4F) at all between 7 and 14 August, and the city recorded its warmest-ever night on 11-12 August, when the mercury did not dip below 25.5C (77.9F). Imagine. Nearly 80F, at four in the morning. Air conditioning is not the norm in Parisian apartments, and for thousands of old people, especially those with breathing difficulties, it was too much, and France suffered about 18,000 excess deaths in a few days, with perhaps 35,000 such deaths occurring across Europe as a whole. It is one of the very few weather events whose cause has (in part) been confidently ascribed by scientists to climate change.

Britain was on the edge of this, but being on the edge was enough. On Thursday 7 August the temperature in central London hit 95.7F (35.4C), the highest figure ever for the capital; and on Sunday 10 August, the moment came. I was working that day, and I remember when I left home at 9am it was already asphyxiatingly hot; by lunchtime, to go outside onto the terrace of The Independent's staff restaurant overlooking the dock at Canary Wharf was like walking into an oven. In mid-afternoon, the record went, and the ton came up: the figure of 100.F (37.9C) was recorded at Heathrow airport, to a mild cheer from the forecasters at the Met Office. Later that day, an even-higher figure was recorded at Gravesend, of 100.6F (or 38.1C). But that wasn't the end of it. A couple of weeks later it was found that a thermometer at Brogdale, near Faversham in Kent, which was not read on a daily basis, had recorded (on 10 August) 101.3 Fahrenheit, or 38.5 Celsius. Not only had the 100 degree boundary, the once-distant frontier, been crossed; the record had risen by two-and-a-half Fahrenheit degrees, a staggering leap.

I knew what this meant. It meant we were in new territory indeed. You can say it's only Britain, but Britain is a perfectly good proxy for the rest of the planet. With this temperature recorded in the United Kingdom, we were all in a different place, a different world, a different epoch. It meant that the Holocene, the 12,000-year-long era of climate stability and peace, if you like, during which our civilisation had emerged, was coming to an end, and the Anthropocene was beginning.

The latter term, not universally accepted but powerfully resonant, has been in use for several years to describe an epoch where the dominating influence over the earth, its climate and its ecosystems, is that of humans. It is sometimes used to refer to the period since the Industrial Revolution, sometimes even to the era which followed the development of agriculture, but to me it seems entirely suited to describe the current age with its twin mortal threats to the health of the planet: man-made global warming, and what we might call the increasingly overpowering scale of the human enterprise.

One of the most profound moments in all the long history of our culture occurred in December 1968 when the crew of the American spacecraft Apollo 8 flew to the moon and back (seven months before the actual moon landing by Apollo 11). Their lunar voyage was an immense technological achievement, of course, but even more meaningful was the view which Jim Lovell and his fellow astronauts recorded: for the first time, we saw the earth from a distance. It was a shock: it was so unutterably beautiful, the glowing blue globe with its filmy wisps of white cloud, hanging in the vast cold black emptiness of space, and more than that, it was so clearly fragile, and so clearly finite. Anyone who looks properly upon that image cannot but know that there is only so far that human activities can expand their impact, yet the expansion has not only gone on regardless since then, it has gone on faster and more frenetically than ever. Now the planet is beginning to be overwhelmed: oceans strip-mined, fish stocks collapsing, forests chainsawed and torched, rivers polluted and exhausted, wildlife extinguished – all by us. And over it all hangs the spectre of the climate we are changing with our greenhouse gas emissions, with such potentially disastrous consequences.

Anthropocene is the only word for the era we have entered now, and for me, that is what the years since the Millennium, the Noughties, have represented: its first decade. These years have increasingly manifested Anthropocene signs, from the emergence of a whole new island out of the dissolving ice of Greenland, to the discovery that there were Indian tiger reserves with no tigers left in them, from the new phenomenon of serious flooding which has afflicted Britain, to the first of the climate refugees leaving Africa in rags in rickety boats, from the opening of the north-west passage through the Arctic, to the slide towards extinction of the orang-utan in Indonesia, from the terrifying impact of the exploding Chinese economy on the natural world, to the sudden, deep pessimism about the future felt by James Lovelock, the first scientist who worked out how the earth regulates itself to support life, and who, constitutionally the most cheerful of souls, feels that with our excesses, we are turning that mechanism against us.

I confess I felt everyone would feel like this, when the ton was up, when the 100° Fahrenheit boundary was breached in Britain, so powerful did the symbolism seem; but maybe it was powerful only for me, since I resignedly recognise that what happened on 10 August 2003 appears to have left the population wholly unmoved. People noticed, and nodded, and promptly forgot all about it, and I am left on my own with my feeling – which remains unshakeable – that on a summer Sunday in London six years ago, with the creeping of the mercury past a particular point on an old-fashioned temperature scale, one of the greatest and most menacing shifts in the history of the Earth, the fragile blue sphere hanging in the darkness, was unmistakably signalled.

The decade digested

The fastest-rising search terms for the years 2001 to 2009, according to Google's "zeitgeist" service, were, respectively: Nostradamus; Spiderman; Britney Spears; Britney Spears; Myspace; Bebo; iPhone; Sarah Palin; Michael Jackson.

British Airways pilot Mike Bannister flew Concorde on its return to service in July 2001 after the Air France crash a year earlier. Bannister was at the controls on 24 October 2003 when Concorde made its ceremonial final flight from New York to London. Of the 20 aircraft built, nine remained in service.

In January 2000, Harold Shipman is found guilty of 15 murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. He hangs himself in prison in 2004. The Shipman Inquiry decides he was responsible for 250 deaths.

Entering the Big Brother house, in May 2002, Jade Goody is described in the press as a "pretty dental nurse, 20". Headlines, until her death in March 2009, include: "Vote out the pig"; "Beauty V Bigot"; "Jade has cancer"; "Wed before I'm dead"; "Mummy's in heaven".

"Metrosexual" becomes one of the neologisms of the decade in 2002 when the journalist, Mark Simpson, who coined it in a 1994 article in The Independent ("he's everywhere and he's going shopping"), ascribes it to David Beckham.

A Russian explorer almost triggers an international incident in August 2007 when he plants a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in a symbolic bid to claim Arctic oil and gas reserves. "This isn't the 15th Century," responds the Canadian foreign minister. "You can't just plant flags and say 'we're claiming this territory'."

Damien Hirst ignores building economic gloom in 2008 when he sells 223 lots at Sotheby's auction for £111m, a record for an auction dedicated to a single artist. Hirst's The Golden Calf fetches £10.3m. "I'm totally exhausted and amazed that my art is selling while banks are falling," he says.

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