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El Niño + Climate Change = 'Uncharted Territory'

Climate
El Niño + Climate Change = 'Uncharted Territory'

A "mature and strong" El Niño event, which is contributing to extreme weather around the globe, is expected to be one of the strongest on record, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced Monday.

"Peak three-month average surface water temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean will exceed two degrees Celsius above normal," said the WMO, making this El Niño one of the top three strongest in the last half century.

The 1997-98 El Niño is currently the strongest on record, causing "billion-dollar economic losses." And 1972-73 and 1982-83 were the next two strongest El Nino years.

It's still too early to tell exactly where this El Niño will rank because the weather phenomenon typically peaks late in the calendar year with maximum strength between October and January of the next year. And they often stretch into the next year before "decaying."

“Severe droughts and devastating flooding being experienced throughout the tropics and sub-tropical zones bear the hallmarks of this El Niño, which is the strongest for more than 15 years,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said.

Jarraud said that the agency is more prepared than ever before, as officials warn countries to brace for El Niño's impacts on sectors like agriculture, fisheries, water and health.

Despite increased awareness and preparedness, the WMO remains concerned about dealing with El Niño's impacts because climate change is only exacerbating it.

Jarraud explained:

“Our scientific understanding of El Niño has increased greatly in recent years. However, this event is playing out in uncharted territory. Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change—the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometers of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere.

“So this naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced. Even before the onset of El Niño, global average surface temperatures had reached new records. El Niño is turning up the heat even further."

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Still, Jarraud cautioned that it isn’t clear if climate change is causing a record El Niño. “We cannot establish a link at this stage between climate change and the occurrence of El Nino," he told Climate Home. "What I have said is that we are in uncharted territory because some impacts are interacting with the impacts of climate change.”

Jarraud released the update on the eve of an international scientific conference in New York, co-sponsored by the WMO, which seeks to better understand El Niño and its impacts and increase affected countries' abilities to adapt. At a press conference Monday, Jarraud linked the record-breaking Pacific hurricane season and peat fires in Indonesia—which released the equivalent of Brazil's annual emissions in just three weeks—to El Niño. The WMO Secretary-General said to expect hotter and more frequent heat waves, more flooding and more of the most severe storms.

The WMO also blamed El Niño for the ongoing major coral bleaching event, which may become the worst global coral die off in history, as well as droughts in Southeast Asia, Australia and parts of Africa, and flooding in South America.

As for the timing of El Niño, just before the COP21 Paris climate talks, Jarraud offered a fresh perspective. “It is not because of the COP, but because of the laws [of] physics and the interaction of the ocean and atmosphere," he said. "Nature doesn’t know about the timing of the COP, but the COP knows about the timing of nature."

At least by one measure, this El Niño hit a new record, though. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that "the region of the Pacific generally used to gauge El Niño’s strength has officially surpassed the 1997-98 super El Niño in terms of warmth," reports Climate Central.

The region where the measurement was taken—the Niño 3.4 region—hit a new weekly record of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (three degrees Celsius) above normal. That surpasses the previous weekly record of five degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 degrees Celsius) set by the 1997-98 event. "It remains to be seen if this is the peak and if so, how long it lasts," said Climate Central.

By at least one measure, this is the strongest El Niño on record. Photo credit: Climate Central

Climate Central offered a fair warning, though, for anyone ready to clock this year as number one:

While everybody loves a good record, it’s worth keeping any debate about the strongest El Niño on record in perspective. The Niño 3.4 region is an important one to monitor in terms of global impacts, but it’s only one of a handful of regions scientists monitor to assess El Niño’s strength and characteristics. Areas off the coast of Peru and the far eastern Pacific were warmer during the 1997-98 El Niño. It also remains to be seen if this year’s event will set an all-time monthly or seasonal record, which would bolster its case for strongest, biggest or whatever-ist on record.

For a better understanding of El Niño, watch this video from the WMO:

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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