The Day After Tomorrow depicted wild temperature shifts
and spectacular weather effects, but what is happening in the
real world is a gradual yet undeniable change.
warming: Are we on a runaway train?
Six warning signals
- 1st is the news that the seabirds of the North Sea around
the United Kingdom are suffering massive losses because the
sea has warmed by about 20C over the past 20 years. This
temperature increase has caused a decrease in plankton that
has decimated sand eel populations, the primary food of most
seabirds such as guillemot, arctic terns, great skua,
kittiwakes, shearwaters and puffins. The loss of food has
resulted in a near-total collapse in breeding across all of
these species. Avian experts have called the disaster
- 2nd is the recent warning signalled by a study made by a
US Pentagon team (hardly a bunch of radicals). The study
postulates that a reduction in the Arctic ice pack could
result in a weakening or reversal of the Gulf Stream and its
associated shallow and deep currents, collectively known as
the Atlantic Conveyor. This would be caused by the
introduction of increased amounts of cold fresh water
disrupting the deep North Atlantic salt-water circulatory
system known as the thermohaline.
The collapse of the Atlantic Conveyor is capable of causing
sudden, significant changes to the climate of both Europe
and North America. Anomalies are already occurring in the
Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Gyre, another key
- 3rd is the thinning of the polar ice caps. A massive area
around the North Pole was ice-free in 2002. Greenpeace noted
a retreat in the ice shelf edge years ago. The Pentagon
study, comparing satellite data from 1970 and 2003, reveals
that 40% of the North Pole ice has melted in just 33 years.
In 2004, a massive fresh-water pool in the Arctic,
previously contained by ice, was liberated into the Arctic
Ocean. Melt rates are increasing, placing further pressure
on the thermohaline system and Atlantic Conveyor.
- 4th, in the north of Canada and Alaska, the indigenous
Inuit people are facing increasing challenges to their way
of life. Villages are collapsing as the permafrost — the
permanently frozen subsurface layer of soil and ice —
melts. It is no longer safe to hunt on the ice, as coverage
is precariously thin. The fabled Northwest Passage above
North America is being explored as a navigable passage,
something never before possible.
Reduced ice cover in turn reduces the albedo — the degree
to which sunlight, and hence heat, is reflected —
accelerating the overall warming effect. The impact of these
compounded changes on wildlife has also been catastrophic
around the polar circle, with migration routes for polar
bears, moose and caribou blocked and food availability and
feeding patterns being affected.
- 5th is the meltdown of Greenland. A new study on the
melting of the Greenland ice cap shows that ice loss is
running at about 10 metres a year. Previously, losses were
estimated to be only a metre per year. The meltdown of the
entire Greenland ice cap will raise the sea seven metres.
The introduction of more fresh water into the ocean will
further affect the Atlantic thermohaline.
- 6th, look south. In the Antarctic, similar patterns are
emerging. Penguins are dying because of unprecedented shifts
in ice shelves, blocking their traditional breeding grounds
and isolating them from their food supply. Large sections of
the massive Larsen B ice shelf broke up in 2002. Other areas
of ice shelf are also showing instability and the Ross Shelf
has been singled out as being at risk. If the Ross Ice Shelf
breaks up, it would release a massive amount of ice from the
interior, and raise global sea levels by between five and
Perhaps the most chilling news comes from Antarctica. The
analysis of a recent ice core from the deep ice domes of the
inland Antarctic ice shelf gives an unprecedented glimpse
into our climatic history over the past 720 000 years. This
is the most accurate and comprehensive climate record ever
retrieved from nature. Earlier core analyses going back 420
000 years linked atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to
the warmth of the earth and sea level changes caused by
melting and accumulation of ice cover in response to
During the last ice age, which ended around 12,000 years ago
(around the time of Noah’s flood), the sea level was 150
metres lower than at present and CO2 levels were at an
historical low. Analyses of ice cores show that atmospheric
CO2 levels have fluctuated between 200 and 260 parts per
million (ppm). Temperature peaks happened during times of
high CO2 concentration, ice ages during low periods.
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1700, when
people began to liberate CO2 by burning fossil fuels, CO2
levels have increased from around 270 ppm to 360 ppm in the
1990s and are now 372 ppm, escalating at around 3 ppm per
Atmospheric CO2 has increased by more than 100 ppm over the
past 300 years — 75% of this over the past 50 years! The
last time CO2 levels were this high was around 55 million
years ago, when the earth was very warm, with no ice cover
A grim reality
It is clear we are heading for serious trouble. Despite the
denialists and sticky statisticians, the reality should be
whacking us about the head. Professor James Lovelock, the
co-originator of the Gaia hypothesis and a “godfather”
of the environmental movement, warned that global warming is
the biggest single environmental problem facing us. He went
so far as to suggest we use nuclear power, despite its
inherent dangers, and stop burning fossil fuels immediately.
The symptoms are everywhere. The southwestern United States
is in the grip of a five-year drought — the worst in 500
years, according to historical and natural records. Over the
past five years, weather patterns across Europe have varied
from severe floods to extreme heat, causing deaths and
runaway bush fires. Even the forests of Alaska are burning,
something never seen before. Desertification threatens
China. The snows of Kilimanjaro are melting.
These concerns are not the rantings of raving nutcases. They
have been expressed by hundreds of experts, including two
prominent advisors: Sir David King and Andrew Marshall. The
former is Tony Blairs' Chief Scientist, who said in January
2004, “In my view, climate change is the most severe
problem we face today, more serious even than the threat of
terrorism.” He has been politely told by the establishment
to shut up.
Andrew Marshall is head of the Pentagon's secretive Office
of Net Assessment, which analyses all security risks to the
USA. He helped to compile a Pentagon report on global
warming and the breakdown of the North Atlantic thermohaline
conveyor. Marshall is a hard-headed, non-partisan Department
of Defense analyst, nicknamed Yoda after the sage Star Wars
character, and has briefed every US president since Nixon.
His report remarks on the risks of global insecurity and
political instability caused by climate change in the near
For most people, the magnitude of this problem is difficult
to grasp. Some claim it may only become manifest during the
lives of our children’s children’s, but it appears that
the process has already begun. And is this truly the legacy
we want to leave our grandchildren?
A blind empire
We seem to live in the shadow of an empire blind to the
consequences of its profligacy. The richest and most
powerful corporations on Earth manufacture motor cars,
extract oil and fund other profitable but destructive
practices. They effectively control global political
systems, perpetuating the problem. Perversely, these
corporations are legal individuals, but most are in
self-interested denial. A concerted campaign by professional
PR companies and media empires, controlled by the very
interests responsible for the destruction, distorts reality
to protect profit. An example is the ongoing débâcle in
Time for change
Yet this state of affairs need not continue. We have, by
most accounts, reached peak oil production. We will never
have cheap oil again. There is talk of a shift to low-grade
coal and even worse options, but the idiocy and futility of
this route is clear to all but the blind. We need to move
toward a way of life so radically different it is hard to
consider possible today, but we also should not believe such
change is impossible. Radical change is essential for the
future of all of life on earth.
How do we embrace this change, which threatens the very core
of our culture, our current way of life? More to the point,
can we continue to rely on a system that is inevitably
moving toward atrophy? Yet, precedents for radical change do
in fact exist.
Lessons from the past
In our grandparents’ youth, at the turn of the 20th
century, they never dreamed anyone would be able to fly
around the world in an airliner, complete with movies, meals
and 400 other cramped souls. The possibility of men walking
on the moon was explored in the new literary genre of
science fiction, but seen as mere flights of fancy. Even in
their middle age, the power of computers, now available to
almost everyone, was incomprehensible.
So much of what we take for granted: the ubiquity of motor
cars, of mobile phones, television from anywhere on earth
beamed into your home — this and much more was beyond
their wildest imaginings.
We are the problem
Most of these monumental changes took place in the past
fifty or so years. Collectively, they have brought about the
terrible danger we now face — a danger entirely of our own
Just as Germans denied complicity with Hitler, as white
South Africans denied the horrors of apartheid, so too do we
now deny that each one of us must take responsibility for
our part in climate change, yet we are putting our very life
support system at risk.
Become the change
We can no longer stand back. Not only must we stop producing
so much CO2, but we need to devise efficient ways to
sequestrate it from the atmosphere. Some models suggest,
even if no more CO2 were to enter the atmosphere, the rise
in temperature will continue almost unabated.
We must cover the world with trees and not raze any more
forests. The stripping of our green global lungs is similar
to smoking; we know the dangers, yet live in denial, hoping
for last minute redemption.
Beware junk science
The rational brigade would have us believe they have
“sound science” on their side. But can we believe in
science undertaken at the behest of and paid for by the very
system that lies at the root of our problems?
“Sound science” is Orwellian doublespeak for science
that works on behalf of vested interests. It is not sound
science; it is junk science.
A global democracy
Democracy is not a perfect system but it is the best option
we have. It is perhaps our only defence against the creep
towards fascism (in the sense of a coalescence of state and
corporate power), towards a global oligarchy, towards a
militaristic empire driven by hubris.
We need to shift our perspectives away from national
democracy and a true global democracy, run by equals, among
equals, to address global concerns. Each nation should have
a weighted vote according to the size of its population. No
nation should be allowed to veto the global democratic
consensus in the way the UN does.
Who’s in charge?
The time has come for ordinary people to retake and reshape
the public space. We, the people, must vote with our
wallets, with our feet and by example. We must car pool, we
must create sensible public transport systems. We must
revive the bicycle. We must plant trees like never before.
We must pursue and harness new energy sources that reduce
our increasing reliance on corporate interests. We must not
just put a Kyoto treaty in place; we must enforce a radical
revision of the use of fossil fuels.
We must reclaim our waste and use it wisely before
extracting more raw materials. We must remove the nutrients
from our sewage and reuse the water and not pump this
precious resource into the sea. We must farm with care for
the land and for our domesticated animals.
Our only choice
These are just a few things we can — indeed, must — do
to reduce our direct and indirect effect on our biosphere.
We can no longer deny our individual complicity in the
attack on our spaceship Earth.
We must become the difference we envision. We cannot sit
back; we must make our actions count, not just make our
We stand at the threshold of a time of revolutionary change
that can go either way. We owe it to our children and their
children to make it go the right way — it is the only
choice we have.