In 2010, the global temperature was about 0.53°C (0.95°F) above the long-term average, according to the World Meteorological Organisation's estimates, putting 2010 in a tie with 2005 and 1998 as the warmest years on record.. For the most part I realise I was blissfully unaware of this and the consequences of my lifestyle.
I can't remember how old I was exactly when I first heard of the problem of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and potential impacts on climate change. I suspect I was in high school, about 17, the year 1990. Evidence seemed to point one way, and then the other. Maybe a year or two before the headlines had been filled with information about the coming ice-age, that the cycle of warming and cooling made it look as if we were due for another cold spell. I lumped carbon dioxide and global warming into media sensation box and got on with my life. The melting ozone layer had me more concerned. That and the ending of apartheid.
Mandela was eventually freed, South Africa held free and fair elections, I went to university and life continued. But at the same time I was becoming aware that places that had been green and fair were now no longer so – urban creep and informal settlements had swallowed up grasslands where I used to ride my bike. Independent cities were now connected by endless urban sprawl and there was no longer a way to tell where one started and the next began. I'd spend a weekend a month at Pilanesberg National Park helping clear alien vegetation. As a kid the family had to drive hours over dirt roads to get to this isolated ancient volcano. Now we could get there in a couple of hours over good roads. Now houses were pushing up against the fences designed to keep rhino and lion in – but served more now to keep hungry poachers out. Trips to the Kruger National Park would similarly take us past factories who's chimney poured out smoke and fire, in a scene that closely resembles the scenes of Saruman's fires of Orthanc from the Lord of the Rings. My last year of school coincided with the Gulf War in 1991 – the first war that seemed to me more about controlling oil than liberating a nation.
I was diagnosed asthmatic at the age of 20. Nothing too severe, more annoying. Brought on perhaps by cycling 20km to university along dual carriageways choked with traffic. By then I had a car and was driving more anyway, the legacy of a middle class white South African. In 1999 I headed to London. Still on my bike, I explored much of southern England and cycled through western Europe. But I also became addicted to the pound, with its massive spending power that took me across the globe from Malaysia to Canada, places previously unaffordable. Climate scientists were gathering evidence, but struggling to be heard. Who wanted to hear them after all? I had money and there was a long list of exotic destinations to be ticked off.
On one of those journeys I went to Iceland and Greenland with a group of geologists. We walked over melting glaciers and watched an iceberg break apart like some prehistoric beast exploding from within. Our guide showed us where the glaciers used to reach to. In some instance we could not even see the retreating faces of some of them they had melted so far into the mountains. I was on a ship between Greenland and Iceland on 11 September 2001. I was glad it was the northern lights that lit up my skies rather than smoke and fire of distant war.
But by that time enough information was starting to get through to me that something was not right. I learnt that our modern oxygen rich atmosphere was created thanks to cyanobacteria (in stromatolites) that basically just farted oxygen over millions of years. It dawned on me – our atmosphere is limited and contained, so if air as we know it was made by such a simple life form, then us billion cell organisms with our massive carbon dioxide farting cars, planes and combustion engines must have some effect on the atmosphere. Kind of like burning a candle in a sealed jar – it soon turns its local atmosphere into a concoction unsuitable to continue.
As the mythical evidence for Iraq's 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' started to accumulate during 2002, I decided there were better places to be in the world than the UK – a country becoming the centre of attention of the ire of the Arab world, and started my cycle home. It would begin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and end in the Peruvian Amazon 3 months later where my bicycle was left discarded as I became hypnotized by the beauty of the Amazon Rainforest.
I was not there long before I realized that the litany of woe of rainforest destruction taught to me at school 15 years earlier had far from abated. At the end of the dry season forest cleared by slash-and-burn small scale agriculturalists blazed and the air was full of red-grey smoke. Areas of forests I had watched birds and monkeys in were an Armageddon-like wasteland within a matter of weeks. Trees a thousand years old or more were felled and turned into charcoal. It was no surprise to learn that carbon dioxide emissions from tropical rainforest destruction was second only to anthropogenic oil based emissions. The passion ignited by the nature around me first working on a project looking at the impact of tourism on wildlife, and then furthering my own academic credentials with a PhD on parrots kept me in and out of the forest for seven years.
I missed the 2006 premier of 'An Inconvenient Truth', Al Gore's perhaps too dramatic presentation of the state of our knowledge on the link between Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse effect. But by the time I did see it the evidence for climate change had become an avalanche of information, perhaps overwhelmingly so. Yet despite the fact that 95% of scientists are convinced by the evidence that climate change is happening and linked to human activity, so many people I have met have been sceptical about the link between climate change and human activity. While a degree of scepticism is always healthy, it is clear to me that the exceedingly rich oil related interest groups have done a dangerous job of disseminating misinformation and doubt when in reality there has hardly ever been a field where scientists have agreed more on a topic! Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have grasped climate change as an easy target to attack, as it is easy to confuse weather and climate and so cloud the real issue that this serious subject is – to continued life on earth as we know it.
So now, coincidently or inevitably, I find myself working for the Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation group at the University of Cape Town. While I realise my story probably won't change any opinions, I think it's worthwhile reviewing where one's own view on the subject originate from. Are your sources good ones? Do you even care? After all, if each one of the 7 000 000 000 people on earth are ignorant, denialist, or selfish in their actions, then there is little hope for our future. So this is a subject that gets me hot under the collar these days!
And it may get me even hotter over the next few months – as I hike and cycle up and down the Cape's most famous passes, documenting the Fynbos bird life along the way. Watch this space as the story unfolds.