System Change, not Climate Change
System Change, Not Climate Change
Oops, ‘we’ (climate scientists) goofed. ‘We’ underestimated the rate of global warming. All this wasn’t supposed to happen till the end of the century. IPCC projections have been too conservative. Let’s briefly run through the new scientific data. (Mainly taken from M. Le Page, ‘Global Warning’, New Scientist 17/11/12, pp. 34-39, unless where otherwise stated).
Arctic Ice Loss
2007 the consensus was the Arctic would not be ice-free in summer until the end of the century. At the end of last summer only a quarter of the Arctic was covered in ice, a record low, and the total volume of ice was just a fifth of what it was just three decades ago.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Climate models clearly underestimated the rate of change. Older models lacked important details such as the melt ponds on the surface of sea ice that absorb more sunlight, leading to more melting in a positive feedback loop.
Melting ice is in itself a positive feedback loop leading to more ice melting because of the heat absorbed by the now ice-free dark water.
This intensifying Arctic ice loss will have many knock-on effects, e.g. more extreme weather in the northern hemisphere (like hurricane Sandy), faster melting of the Greenland ice sheet, greater release of carbon and methane now locked away in permafrost. Other, even nastier surprises might also lie in store.
It is not clear if the newer climate models are any better than the old conservative ones. They also may be giving us a false sense of security.
More Extreme Weather
The weather is also becoming more extreme than was predicted in the scientists’ models.
New studies have found the global water cycle has increased at double the pace projected by models, that rainfall intensity over the past three decades has in fact been an entire order of magnitude greater than the models predicted, that extreme events like the European heatwave of 2003 (70,000 deaths) were only projected to occur towards the end of this century. While extremely hot temperatures covered 0.1-0.2% of the globe from 1951-80, they now cover about 10% (J. Hansen, SMH 7/8/2012, p.11).
By altering the distribution of heat in oceans, rising numbers of hurricanes can also act as positive feedback loops, ultimately flipping global climate into a different state – as they did about 4 million years ago when the world was 2-4 degrees warmer than today.
Lower Food Production
Reality is again contradicting the 2007 IPCC models. The latter predicted that a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees would increase food yields in temperate regions, whereas only a rise of 3.5 degrees would lead to a big drop in food production.
With current warming at an average 0.8 degrees, extreme weather has already been hitting harvests (drought in US, floods in UK) and global food prices are soaring once again.
Melting Ice Sheets & Rising Sea Levels
Until recently, it was thought it would be centuries before Greenland lost a significant amount of ice and the Antarctic ice sheet was even expected to grow with increased snowfall. The 2007 IPCC report predicted that the two ice sheets would contribute just 0.3 mm a year to sea-level rise for the next century.
Measurements have since shown that the two sheets are already losing enough ice to raise sea levels by over four times that projection, i.e. by 1.3 mm a year and climbing.
In the summer of this year the Greenland sheet melted faster than at any other time in recorded history. In just over four days virtually the entire sheet showed signs of thawing. Scientists at first thought the satellite data so striking that they must have been an error. (‘Greenland ice sheet shrinks at record rate’, Guardian Weekly 3/8/2012, p. 33).
Most glaciologists now think sea levels will rise by anywhere from one to two metres by 2100, enough to flood many low-lying cities or make them vulnerable to storm surges.
Ocean Warming & Goodbye Barrier Reef, Giant Kelp
A new landmark study has found that a full half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has already disappeared in the past 27 years, two thirds of that loss only since 1998. If nothing changes in regard to nutrient runoff from agriculture and ocean warming (bleaching, increased crown-of-thorn outbreaks, more intense cyclones), the reef’s coral could halve again within a mere eight years. (N. Phillips, ‘Dying beauty: half Great Barrier Reef coral gone, rest in danger’, SMH 2/10/2012, p.3).
For the first time, a marine ecological community has been listed as endangered in Australia. The ecologically productive giant kelp forests in the waters off south-east Australia are gravely threatened by climate change. In some areas off eastern Tasmania they have already shrunk by more than 95%. There, minimum winter water temperatures have risen 20% over the past twenty years. (D. Wroe, ‘Protection to help save shrinking undersea jungles’, SMH 18-19/8/2012, p.4).
South-east Australia is now a marine ‘global warming hotspot’ with a strengthening of the East Australian Current by about 30% since the 1950s, the southward migration of tropical seaweeds, phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish and declines in temperate species, as well as the first signs of the effect of ocean acidification on marine species with shells, all becoming very evident only in the last three years. All this will have impacts on ocean productivity in terms of fish stocks, oxygen-producing and carbon-absorbing plankton etc. (D. Wroe, ‘Some like it cold as sea life moves south’, SMH 17/8/2012, p. 5.)
Thawing Permafrost: the Ticking Time Bomb
Methane is a twenty-five times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
No IPCC models included the possibility that the carbon and methane locked away in permafrost and in methane hydrates in the seabed might also be released, although this happened during past global warming periods. It was thought that permafrost was melting too slowly to make any difference to temperatures this century.
The latest studies show that large-scale thawing of Arctic permafrost and release of carbon and methane may in fact already have started, another positive feedback loop where warming releases gases which increase warming. (B. Cubby, ‘Where even the earth is melting’, SMH 28/11/12, p. 1).
About 1700 billion tonnes of organic carbon is estimated to be locked up in frozen northern soils, about four times more than all the carbon so far emitted by humans in modern times and twice as much as is present in the atmosphere now. The impact of thawing soil on the speed of climate change will be similar to the total rate of logging ALL the world’s forests.
The last time most of the permafrost carbon was released, global temperatures increased by six degrees. Six degrees is a totally different world and the collapse of civilization.
In other positive feedback loops leading us towards the tipping point of collapse into run-away climate chaos, a warmer climate is also speeding up the release of carbon from soils, the breakdown of forest leaf litter and forest fires, making forests potential or actual sources of carbon emissions instead of carbon sinks. (J. Randerson, ‘No easy answer’, New Scientist 13/4/2002, p. 16; cf. also N. Jones, ‘Green lungs feel the heat’, New Scientist 11/11/2000, p. 28).
Welcome to Collapse: 6 Degrees
Emissions are rising, now climbing more rapidly than ever, near the IPCC’s worst-case scenario. Fossil fuel exploration, mining, export and use is expanding. Most governments continue to actually give away billions of our money to subsidise fossil fuels and ensure our collective demise.
1.5-2 degrees of global warming over pre-industrial levels is considered the level at which climate change might still be manageable. While the IPCC in 2007 were still looking at a worst-case scenario of plus 4 degrees by 2100 if emissions were not limited, we are now on track for 4 degrees by the 2060s-70s and ‘best estimates’ are now between 5 and 6 degrees by 2100, and a 10% chance of 7 degrees. Even these estimates do NOT include the effects of thawing permafrost or the methane hydrates bubbling up from the warming ocean.
What do all these overwhelming data mean? They mean: climate chaos and the collapse of civilisation within the possible life times of anyone under thirty.
Starting about seven thousand years ago, civilisation evolved globally in a more moderate climate. At 6-7 degrees of warming, eventually vast swathes of Australia, Africa, China, Brazil, India and the US will become literally uninhabitable for at least part of the year.
The New Scientist article concludes: ‘Far from being alarmist, most scientists have underplayed the significance of the emissions story to make their message politically more acceptable.’
Translation: ‘politically more acceptable’ can here mean nothing else but kowtowing to the unquestioned ‘realities’ of capitalism and its institutions as defined by both the general ideology of economic growth (capital accumulation) and the interests, power and wealth of the power elites in government and big business.
System Change, not Climate Change
The question for any concerned citizen of planet earth is, logically, thus: are we going to continue to also kowtow to these unquestioned ‘realities’ or are we going to do something about them? It should by now be abundantly clear that our economic system and our so-called leaders all over the planet are in fact security risks to our survival on a livable Earth, and probably have been since the dawn of the nuclear age. We must quickly dismantle an ecocidal system and find a social alternative. All these climate data implicitly raise one stark alternative: Post-Capitalism or Ecocide, Post-Capitalism or Barbarism.
Well that’s a bit radical, isn’t it? Aren’t there a whole range of international environmental treaties, and more that we should be lobbying for, as mainstream environmentalists would probably ask? Forget it. The record is perhaps surprising but very clear: the more environmental agreements and conventions, the GREATER the ecological destruction. (The following from J. Vidal, ‘Ecological web is badly tangled’, Guardian Weekly 15-21/6/2012, p.1).
‘World leaders have signed up to an impressive 500 internationally recognised agreements in the past 50 years, including 61 atmosphere-related; 155 biodiversity- related; 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substances and waste; 46 land conventions; and 196 conventions broadly related to issues dealing with water.’
All not worth the paper they’re printed on: ‘…we have never had so many environmental goals and objectives but ecosystem decline is increasing, climate change is speeding, soil and ocean degradation continues, air and water pollution is growing, rubbish and waste is growing, and we are still getting sustainable development disastrously wrong.’
‘In other words, governments spend years negotiating environmental agreements, then wilfully ignore them. It’s a dismal record.’
One hand signs the environmental agreement for a bit of PR or electoral capital, the other the free trade agreement that trashes the former. Nothing, ever, can stand in the way of profits, jobs, consumerism, capital growth and attendant class, wealth and power relationships. As a result, nature, our life support systems, our globally benevolent climate, as well as liberal democracies and general well-being, all are collapsing.
Time to step up to the plate. Time to come together, dissent, resist, boycott, occupy, talk, support, build local resilience, live more simply, organize. System Change, not climate change. Over to us.
‘The world has enough for each person’s need but not for greed.’ (Gandhi)
‘If you really loved your children you would make a revolution.’ (Jiddu Krishnamurti).
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on December 30, 2012.