This headline appeared in the London Independent in early February of 2005 following a conference at the Hadley Centre in Exeter, England, where 200 of the world’s leading scientists issued the most urgent warning to date, that dangerous climate change is taking place today, and not the day after tomorrow.
Floods, storms and droughts. Melting polar ice. Shrinking glaciers. Oceans turning to acid. Scientists from the fields of glaciology, biology, meteorology, oceanography and ecology reported seeing a dramatic rise over the last 50 years of all the indicators of climate change: increase in average world temperatures, in the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, extreme weather events, and in the level of the oceans.
The award winning environmental writer Geoffrey Lean wrote: “Future historians, looking back from a much hotter and less hospitable world… will puzzle over how a whole generation could have sleepwalked into disaster — destroying the climate that has allowed human civilization to flourish over the past 11,000 years.”
The overwhelming majority of scientists and international climate monitoring bodies now agree that climate change is taking place, that humans are responsible, and that time is running out. In fact, we could reach “the point of no return” in a decade, reported Lean.
Melting glaciers all across the world include: the Broggi in the Peruvian Andes, Glacier Ururashraju in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, the Pasterze in Austria, Portage Glacier near Anchorage, Alaska, Mount Hood in Oregon, Mount Kilimanjaro in northeastern Tanzania, the Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, and the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland.
The earth is getting warmer. While average warming is just under 1 degree Celsius world-wide, the Polar Regions show warming of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, due to feedback effects. As white snow and ice melt, that previously reflected some of the heat back into the atmosphere (the “albedo” effect), darker newly-exposed surfaces absorb heat, and accelerate melting of more ice and snow.
A world-average warming of under 1 degree Celsius may seem small. However the difference between warm periods and an ice age historically has been only 5 to 6 degrees Celsius. The transformation from the last ice age to the present climate resulted from a slow rise in temperature, which took 5,000 years to fully complete, allowing life on earth to adapt to the changes. We could bring about a 5 to 6 degree change in only 150 years if we don’t start constraining the use of fossil fuels.
It is not only the fundamental change in the composition of air, water and soil that we need to consider. The speed at which these changes are forced upon the planet, already lead to high extinction rates.
Scientists at the Exeter meeting agreed that warming over 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures would be dangerous — and we are almost half-way there. To burn up the world’s remaining coal reserves, they estimated, would raise the average temperature by 3 to 8 degrees C in less than 150 years.
Quite a few climate change “skeptics” — fossil fuel executives, and members of the Bush administration — are still denying that there is such a thing as human-caused global warming. Many of them claim that the sun has just gotten hotter. However, a warmer sun would have heated the stratosphere as well. In contrast, the stratosphere is cooling — suggesting a blanket of greenhouse gases that prevents the earth’s heat from radiating back into space.
We know how the greenhouse effect works. Venus, with a thick greenhouse cover is hot; Mars, with a thin greenhouse is cold. Earth’s blanket of greenhouse gases is made up of the byproducts of the industrial age and an outdated Victorian technology. Even though methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas, it is CO2 that makes up over 80% of the greenhouse gas mix. Ice core studies show that CO2 concentrations on this planet had been stable for the last millennium, never rising or falling more than 10 ppm and fluctuating between 275 and 285 ppm. Now CO2 concentrations are beginning to exceed 370 ppm, and are rising from year to year. Other greenhouse gases show the same dramatic increase — mainly in the past 40 to 50 years. We are already living under a dome of air that no one has breathed in a million years.
The average temperature of the surface waters of the oceans, extending to a depth of several hundred meters, has risen by a 1/2 degree Celsius. This has occurred in just the past 40 years. The oceans have also become more acidic, due to the uptake of anthropogenic CO2. The Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England estimates that 48% of fossil-fuel CO2, or 400 billion tons, have been absorbed by the oceans, making them the largest reservoir of carbon, a load greater than that borne by the atmosphere or the earth. CO2, while more inert in the atmosphere, becomes highly reactive in oceans, leading to physical, biological, and geological changes.
Carol Turley, head of science at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory warns that no such ph changes in oceans have occurred in the past 20 million years, and that the capacity of oceans to take up CO2 is limited.
What might the consequences of such changes in the oceans be? An August 2005 article in the Globe and Mail, on starving sea birds washing up on Pacific coast beaches from California to British Columbia, reports that scientists believe that, at least for this year, the “bottom has fallen out of the coastal food chain.” Off the Oregon coast, the waters near the shore are 5 to 7 degrees warmer than normal. A layer of warm water along the whole Pacific coastline prevents the usual upwelling of cool water rich in phytoplankton, the base of the food web for all marine life.
Zooplankton, such as krill, depends on phytoplankton. The disappearance of zooplankton in turn affects seabirds and fish from sardines to whales. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found a 20 to 30 per cent drop in juvenile salmon off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; and monitoring in Central and Northern California shows the lowest number of juvenile rockfish in more than 20 years.
The world has not yet felt the real impact of global warming since the oceans have absorbed so much heat and CO2. The US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) put out two studies in March 2005. They suggest that due to the thermal inertial of the oceans global temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise for the next 100 years — even if greenhouse gas emissions come under control.
But worse, the opening presentations at the Exeter, UK, conference gave the most comprehensive assessment of so-called “wild cards,” climate change events that risk feedback loops no longer responsive to human intervention. The run-away events, or ecological landslides include accelerated melting of the enormous ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, as well as the decline and possible reversal of the Gulf Stream that conveys heat from the tropics to Europe.
In the Hollywood movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” the Gulf Stream stops flowing in a matter of days, creating an instant ice age on the Atlantic coast and Western Europe. Scientists at Exeter said it would take at least ten years for such an event to unfold and a few hundred years to set up the conditions. But they warned that the Thermohaline Circulation, as they call the Gulf Stream has stopped flowing before and that we have already a greater than 50% likelihood of a shut down if we do not enact strict climate policies.
The amount of heat transported North by the Gulf Stream, that keeps Western Europe 5 to 10 degrees Celsius warmer than it would normally be at its latitude, equals to one million billion watts — sufficient to satisfy the energy needs of 100 earths. Even a partial failure of the Gulf Stream would have huge consequences.
The Gulf Stream picks up heat from the equatorial sun. Driven by warmth the stream flows northeast towards Europe and the Greenland ice sheet where the water cools and sinks. The cooler and saltier the water the stronger the sinking motion. Dense cool and salty water from the Gulf Stream then flows back to the tropics at a deeper ocean level.
As the Polar Regions and the oceans are warming, melt water from ice sheets and glaciers is changing the salinity of the ocean. A combination of the rising ocean surface temperature and the decreasing salinity already visibly changes the movement of sea currents that depend on differences in warmth and coolness, and the weight that higher salinity adds to the water as the driving force.
Large-scale salinity changes in the Arctic and Sub-arctic Seas were reported in June 2005, in the journal Science. Ruth Curry from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, analyzed temperature, salinity and density data collected in the North Atlantic Ocean over the last 55 years. Curry warned that excessive amounts of freshwater dumped into the North Atlantic could affect the flow of the Gulf Stream.
We know from ice core data when the Gulf Stream has stopped flowing before. The most recent collapse, 15 000 years ago during the Younger Dryas, was caused by the sweetening of the north Atlantic Ocean when glaciers covering North America melted and began flowing through the St. Lawrence waterway into the Atlantic instead of into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi. Today’s accelerated melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets may recreate these conditions, not just for the Gulf Stream, but also for other parts of the global ocean circulation.
In May of this year the London Times reported that first signs of a slow down of the Gulf Stream had been detected by a Cambridge University researcher who hitches rides on a Royal Navy submarine to one of the three areas where the Gulf Stream reverses its course. Peter Wadhams said that “until recently we could find giant ‘chimneys’ in the sea where columns of cold, dense water were sinking from the surface to the seabed 3,000 meters below, but now they have almost disappeared.”
Off the coast of Greenland, the Odden Ice Shelf once grew out into the Greenland Sea every winter, and receded in the summer. The Odden triggered the annual formation of sinking water columns in that area. However, since 1997 the shelf has ceased to form. Where Wadhams had once observed 12 giant columns of sinking water under the ice — he now found only two, and they were so weak that they were unable to reach the seabed.
Wadhams also predicts complete summer melting of the Arctic ice cap by as early as 2020. On his submarine journeys, using sonar to survey the ice cap from underneath, he has observed a 46% thinning over the past 20 years.
The biggest danger to the Gulf Stream comes from melt-water off the Greenland ice sheet, the second largest store of fresh water on this planet. If all of it were to melt, sea levels around the world would rise by 7 meters — over 20 feet. However even a partial melt down would affect the Gulf Stream by diluting the salt water right at the crucial point where the Gulf Stream sinks and returns to the tropics.
Prof. Michael Schlesinger from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, whose climate model already predicts a 50% chance of Gulf Stream shut-down if we do not enact new climate policies, and a 25% shut-down even if we limit greenhouse gases, based his estimate only on increased rainfall, due to global warming. He now says he will have to include additional melt water from the Greenland ice sheet into his next set of data, because it appears that the melt has begun.
Possible break point.
Observations on the Greenland ice sheet are done by GPS, global positioning systems, radar and laser via satellites and airplanes. GPS data of the past 5 years show accelerated melting, and even the beginning of a possible feedback effect: the more the ice sheet melts the faster it starts to move. The reason for this acceleration, it is believed, is that melt-water from the surface of the ice sheet makes its way down to the bedrock below, where it acts as a lubricant, further speeding up the slippage and disintegration.
The question now is, when does this feedback process reach the point of no return? James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that if greenhouse-gas emissions are not controlled now, the total disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could be set in motion in a matter of decades. Although it could take hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to fully play out, once begun the process would become self-reinforcing and cannot be halted.
The Gulf Stream is just one part of a complex global system of ocean currents that affect temperatures, winds, and rain across the whole planet. We now have charts of these powerful currents driven by heat and coolness, traversing all oceans, Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. And they are all interconnected via the huge circumpolar current flowing around the Antarctic.
Changes at the South Pole therefore would have an even larger effect than those in the Arctic. The Antarctic is the 5th largest continent. It holds 90% of the world’s fresh water. A comparison in scale to the Greenland ice sheet shows that if all Antarctic ice were to melt, sea levels would rise by over 169 feet. The Antarctic has had a permanent ice sheet for the last 30 million years.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge now reports rapid warming on the West Antarctic Peninsula and the WAIS, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Of the 224 glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula over 87% are in retreat. Major ice shelves have collapsed. BAS scientists believe disappearing ice shelves are now contributing to more rapid melting of the glaciers formerly protected by the floating ice shelf at their base.
Antarctica’s huge Larsen B ice shelf collapsed in just 35 days after a NASA satellite detected the first ruptures at the end of January 2002. It was roughly the size of Luxembourg. Soil sediments from that ice shelf reveal that Larsen B had been intact for 20 000 years — since the peak of the last ice age. No collapse of this size has happened since the end of the last Ice Age.
Larsen B's smaller neighbor, Larsen A, broke off in 1995. According to studies by the BAS, other much bigger ice shelves nearby, such as the Ross and Ronne, each larger than France, are also considered at risk of disintegrating.
Another troubling development in the Antarctic, according to the director of the BAS, Chris Rapley, is the accelerated flow of melt streams underneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Until recently, scientists were unable to explain the 20th century’s world-wide sea level rises of between 1 and 2 mm per year by the amount of ice that has melted from glaciers and ice sheets. Even after taking into account thermal expansion they wondered where the extra water was coming from.
Recent discoveries show a major hidden source of water comes from polar ice sheets. In the Antarctic, ice streams and a newly discovered network of tributaries underneath the ice sheets drain 33 major basins. Flow rates are much faster than previously assumed. Ice streams from the feed glaciers behind the collapsed Larsen A and B ice shelves also show accelerated flows. The BAS calls this a “cork out of the bottle” effect.
These “wild cards,” the melting of the polar ice caps and the acidification of the oceans, were only the most dramatic events on the agenda of the Exeter, UK, meeting on the dangers of climate change. The number of scientific papers recording changes in ecosystems, due to global warming, escalated in five years from 14 to more than a thousand in five years. In one presentation after another, scientists described a crisis they had dedicated their lives to avoid.
The writer Geoffrey Lean, who attended the conference, wrote that there were few in the room who did not sense their children or grandchildren standing invisibly at their shoulders. The formal conclusion of the meeting that climate change was “already occurring” and that “in many cases the risks are more serious than previously thought,” appeared in the press all over the world — except in the United States. However even in the European press, very few writers took on the scientific details of this story, without which political action and organizing are impossible. Geoffrey Lean wrote that: “Mankind is Sleepwalking to the End of the Earth”
After the Exeter meeting, in an interview for TUC Radio, the director of BAS, Chris Rapley, spoke about how, in public appearances, he bridges the gap between science and popular understanding of these dramatic changes.
He said he always refers to the picture of Earth in space taken by Apollo 17: the small blue planet, tilted back to show the Antarctic, surrounded by inky blackness. The image, he says, shows that this is all there is, no other life support system trails behind, and that on the planet all is inter-connected.
Earth is the most complex and complicated object in the universe that we know of, says Rapley, a radio astronomer by training. Only Earth has an ocean and clouds. Only Earth has physics, biology, geology, chemistry, and anthropology.
Humans have transformed the earth in a dramatic way, especially in the last 50 years. Not only have we drastically changed the carbon cycle by the burning of fossil fuel and coal, and by increasing forest fires; we have also changed the nitrogen cycle worldwide by the amount of nitrogen being fixed by industrial agriculture and fertilizer use.
We have transformed more than half the land surface through agriculture, deforestation, mining, industry, paving, and ever growing cities. These changes have altered the climate systems by the way moisture is exchanged between Earth and the atmosphere.
We have destroyed biodiversity by shifting plants and animals into places and conditions where they cannot survive. Our own survival, as humans, is only slightly more secure. We are seeing the most basic of our needs, air, water, housing, and energy, disappear before our eyes. Rapley concluded that there is no way to imagine that humans could do all these things without an effect.
The demise of our common life support system is accelerated by even more energy-intensive activities by which a privileged group of people attempts to secure its survival.
The meeting in Exeter was held explicitly, to convince the Bush administration, to join the rest of the industrialized world, and to use the July 2005 G8 meeting to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and Australia, the world’s two largest polluters, are — to this day — refusing to be part of any global agreement to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
The G8 meeting came and went. The US, with 42% of global fossil-fuel CO2, and 34% of combined greenhouse gas emissions, not only remained outside the climate- stabilization effort but also fought vigorously to prevent any progress in setting limits. Given the extraordinary amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the US, this country alone can dramatically slow climate change or bring the planet to the boiling point
Three weeks before the G8 summit, The Observer (UK) printed a set of leaked documents revealing that how the Bush White House derailed attempts to address global warming. These submissions to the G8 action plan show Washington officials deleted even the suggestion that global warming has already started.
Among the key sentences removed were: “Our world is warming. Climate change is a serious threat that has the potential to affect every part of the globe. And we know that ... mankind's activities are contributing to this warming. This is an issue we must address urgently.”
At the Exeter conference the International Climate Change task Force, UK, said that if we do nothing the climate system will collapse. Stephen Byers, the co-chair of that task force and an advisor to Tony Blair, said the point of no return could be reached in a decade. The Bush delegation to the July 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, probably even George Bush himself, is aware of that deadline.
However the warning disappeared under the same blanket of denial and outright lies produced by industry, their paid scientists and the Bush administration. Among all official documents that deny climate change, only one sends a different message: the report on “Climate Change as a National Security Concern,” commissioned for Donald Rumsfeld by Pentagon defense adviser Andrew Marshall, and made public in February 2004.
The Global Business Network wrote, for the Pentagon, “the focus in climate research has slowly been shifting from gradual to rapid change. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that human activities could trigger abrupt change. A year later, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a session at which Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two decades.”
Whether in a decade as the UK scientists say, or two decades as the Pentagon study says, a consensus is developing that we are reaching a phase of dangerous, abrupt, and irreversible climate shifts. However, for the Bush administration, this is not an ecological or humanitarian, but only a military issue. They question only how to protect US borders from environmental refugees, how to overpower nations collapsing under environmental pressures, how to keep access to food, water and energy as other parts of the world go hungry and thirsty; how to keep nuclear pre-eminence while those weapons in other countries fall into the hands of insurgents.
The eerie similarity of these goals and methods with those of the so-called war on terrorism raises the question whether the war on terrorism is really a war on the earth. And just like in the war on terrorism, the already occurring ecological disasters — as the existing Osama bin Ladens — are necessary bogeymen which are needed and promoted. And the religious fundamentalists are driving this agenda forward because God has given them dominion over the planet to do as they wish.
As irrecoverable time passes, more bad news of ecological landslides emerges: In early August 2005, the New Scientist reported that in Western Siberia a permafrost area the size of France and Germany combined is thawing for the first time since the ice age 11,000 years ago. What was until recently a barren expanse of frozen peat is turning into a broken landscape of mud and lakes, some more than a kilometer across. The area’s peat bog contains an estimated 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2 that, if released, could dramatically increase the rate of global warming.
Even in a best-case scenario, were the methane be released slowly over a period of 100 years, it would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10% to 25% increase in global warming, scientists at the Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK, said. The scientists from Tomsk State University and Oxford, who discovered the melt, said that this was yet another feedback effect, an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming.”
There may be some cynical enough to think that climate change is an interesting science-fiction experiment, or greedy enough to want to extract the last drop of oil from the dying earth for a profit.
But what about the rest of us, not cynical, not greedy and arrogant? It is pretty clear that there need to be big changes in the way we live — and that is frightening for many, since we have become so dependent on this technological civilization. However scientists tell us that the extreme weather events to come such as floods, hurricanes, sea level rise, and unprecedented heat waves are more frightening than any change in the way we choose to live now.
There is a set of figures that is both deeply depressing and hopeful. The last published World Bank data for CO2 emissions per capita indicate that, while every man, woman, and child in the US puts out 20 metric tons of CO2 per annum, those in the European Union put out 8 per person per year, China 2, and the output of Nigerians, who supply us with much of the oil that we burn into CO2, is zero — below scale. In 2002, US-Americans used over 12,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per person; Europeans used less than half the amount, while the use in China is 987 kilowatt-hours per person. The US per capita use of oil is twice that of the European Union, and more than 8 times that of China.
What if China aspires to our standard of living? And why not, if we are not willing to cut back? Europe gets by with so much less CO2 output and energy input while already planning for further cuts. Where is the measure of global justice between those who cause no harm and those whose extravagant use of fossil fuels harms everybody else?
Regardless of who is driving this: industry, the military, religious fundamentalists or any permutation of government, be it red or blue, responsibility for the approaching climate collapse will fall overwhelmingly on the United States. Since US government and corporations not only refuse to cut back but are driving eco-collapse forward, it is up to ordinary people to refuse collaboration and to control the perpetrators. For us living in the US, the opportunity and time to make a difference that will affect the entire planet is now.