A few years ago I worked as a bicycle tour guide in Sydney. Each day I took groups of a dozen or so riders on tours that took us along the shores of the harbour and through the CBD, stopping for lunch at a pub in the Rocks. This being Sydney, the weather was always on the menu: either it was perfect or it wasn’t, and either way people had something to say about it.
Often these conversations led to the guests talking about the weather in their hometowns. Whether they were from Amsterdam, London, New York, San Francisco, New Delhi or Tokyo, they invariably had stories to share of bizarre, unseasonal weather: snowfall in summer, heatwaves in autumn or cyclones in the dry season. On many occasions I saw groups of tourists with nothing in common, living in completely different climates, united by shared observations of the bizarre. Far from its usual role as boring filler, talking about weather got everyone going.
When I stopped working as a tour guide and travelled to India, a place I’ve visited many times, I noticed that people had become troubled by the unpredictability of the annual monsoon. In Mumbai I was told that traditional ways of predicting rainfall, which had kept people in good stead for many years, had suddenly stopped working. One year the monsoon arrived more than a month later than usual, and with much greater ferocity, causing floods in which hundreds of people died. The year I was there the rains arrived, but then stopped after a week, leading to widespread confusion among farmers who didn’t know what to do with their crops.
When I travelled north to Nepal I heard the same stories again. I stayed in a small village called Palubari, where people were still talking about a single day, two years earlier, when snow had fallen long after the end of winter. The villagers in that area rely heavily on potatoes: to give you an idea, the house I stayed in had a dedicated “potato room” where the year’s harvest was stored for several months. As well as making up a large part of the local diet, the potato harvest provides the village with one of its few opportunities to make cash money in the markets of Kathmandu. That one unseasonal day of snow had wiped out that year’s harvest, freezing the saplings and leaving the village critically short of both food and money.
These stories are of course anecdotal, but they start to form a pattern. When we put anecdotes like these together with the overriding scientific consensus, we begin to see that the strange weather events taking place in cities across the world are in fact part of a larger pattern. Across the world, uncertainty is the new norm.
Five or so years later, I find myself living in the USA, where a series of extreme weather events have paralysed cities across the country. I’m not completely on top of my American geography but all the news I’ve seen has been sensational: Snow here! No snow there! Power lines down here! Random hot days there! Homeless people dying everywhere! All of it has come with the message, sometimes implicitly but more often than not explicitly, that this is not normal. When it snowed in Tokyo last week I heard the same message.
The message I haven’t heard is that all this weather is part of something much larger. Every day weather forecasters get on TV and say “we’re going to have some unseasonal rain this week, because of this low pressure system”, or “well you might have thought it would never snow at this time of year, but tomorrow it will!”, but rarely do they go any further. What caused this unseasonal low pressure system? Where did this weird and wacky summer snowfall come from? Why is it that these “once in a century” events seem to be happening every second week?
We certainly don’t know everything about climate change, and not every abnormal weather event is a shining example of it. Of course there were ice ages, fires and floods that we couldn’t understand long before we started filling the skies with tremendous amounts of CO2: that’s half the reason we have gods.
But we do know, now in 2014, that every bit of weather that ever happens, anywhere on the planet, is in some way connected to climate change, and that climate change is in some way connected to us. When it’s colder than it would normally be, that’s climate change. When it’s warmer, that’s climate change. When there are no bananas for a year, that’s climate change. When monsoons fail and millions starve, that’s climate change. When it’s a perfectly normal, seasonal day – and there are less of them every year – that’s a reminder of what we stand to lose.