Is this the legacy we want to leave our children?
Glenn Ashton
21 January 2005 10:02
Global warming: Are we on a runaway train?
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.

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 “unprecedented”.

  • 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 circulatory system.

  • 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 seven metres.

    Core problems

    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 temperature changes.
    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 year.
    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 at all.

    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 future.

    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 Iraq.

    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 making.

    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 voices heard.

    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.

All material copyright Mail&Guardian.
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