Welcome to the whirligig


Who will win the race against time, in seconds or in years? Warplanes can be shot down in seconds. Global warming is measured in years but those years seem to be slipping by faster and faster, with increasingly devastating consequences and victims. The Australian bush fires that have raged over past months, bringing the koala population to the verge of extinction and endangering other species, were speeded up by global warming. A koala is shown above. It’s as if time and the events it contains is accelerating everywhere

THE ten seconds that the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force had to decide whether to shoot down the Ukrainian passenger plane over his military base last week, typifies today’s superheated digital world. The plane was misidentified as a cruise missile. After it was shot, killing all 176 passengers, he was quoted saying that once it became clear what had happened, he thought: “I wish I was dead.”

This ten-second event has similar characteristics to the 15 seconds Israelis in the southern Israeli town of Sderot had in August 2018 to get into bomb shelters or reinforced rooms after the rocket warning siren sounded, when 150 rockets rained down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Today, digital media like Twitter spreads knowledge and opinions – both falsehoods and truths – planet-wide instantly. Some of it is immensely beneficial, but it’s an instantaneousness that is also dangerous. The master at exploiting it, United States president Donald Trump can, with a malicious word via Twitter insulting his opponents, cause ructions in global politics raising a risk of war.

Everything is speeding up, challenging our ability to ruminate and contemplate before taking action. So many dramatic events cram each month, it’s hard to notice time passing. Among the latest is panic about containing the Australian bush fires caused partly by rising atmospheric temperatures due to climate change. Bush fires have happened before but never on this scale. Nearly a billion animals have been affected. The nature of Australian life has to change.

In the Middle East, Israeli life has always been frenetic, to its credit. Israelis’ ability to deal with rapid change is a part of their strength. Now there is concern that weather patterns are becoming so unpredictable that it will affect how people live. The 2020s opened with a blast regarding climate change’s effect on rainfall. In the week of January 5 more than 20 percent of Tel Aviv’s average annual precipitation fell within three hours, breaking records. Low-lying roads, some in major arteries, became impassable. A second storm days later flooded cities in northern Israel. More heavy rain followed. Cars drowning up to their rooftops under fallen trees were seen.

Israeli forecasters had predicted stormy weather and warned people to avoid low lying areas. But they hadn’t expected anything so dramatic, so fast. Previously in 2013, the Ayalon – the highway cutting through Tel Aviv – had become a torrent because of what they called a “once-in-100-year storm.” But now it’s no longer a 100-year storm. It happened again the following year, and again in 2018.

Scientists don’t know how the multiple impacts from global warming will play out internationally. There is a consensus that in decades to come, extreme weather events will become the new normal. The atmosphere’s predictability will lessen. A once-in-50-year storm might become once a decade, or once a year.

In South Africa, it seems that we’ve always lived in our own bubble, politically at odds with trends in the outside world. This applies no less today regarding climate change, as our corrupt politicians squabble stupidly over their power. It is bizarre that while other countries are trying to reduce carbon emissions, South Africa is still building new coal-fired power stations – Medupi and Kusile – which will add to the amount of carbon it puts into the atmosphere.

Taking a distant view: What do an Iranian air defence operator and an Israeli meteorologist have in common? Time. The Iranian had to act within ten seconds. The climatological equivalent of this catastrophe might be the world’s climate deadline but the stakes are much higher: the whole planet.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za