By Daniel Margrain
The 2015 National Security Strategy sets out the tier-one threats faced by the UK. These are international terrorism, cyber-crime and climate change. The characteristics of the latter are extreme weather patterns and rising temperatures. These are becoming more frequent and unpredictable.
Nine days before the world’s largest populated city, Shanghai, experienced its hottest day in its recorded history, the planets biggest ice berg, Larsen C, broke away from the Antarctic ice shelf. This followed the collapse of the more northerly Larsen A ice shelf in 1995 and Larsen B in 2002.
Climate change is likely to be contributing to the altering of wind patterns and weather throughout the world. With temperatures in the Arctic rising at twice the rate of the planet as a whole, the sea ice area is already below what would have been a yearly low in the 1980s with nearly two months still left in the melt season remaining.
The comparison highlighted in the graphic below shows the clear long-term decline of Arctic sea ice fueled by the global rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The dramatic shrinkage of sea ice over the past few decades is driving major changes, from the loss of crucial Arctic habitat, to the potential influence of weather patterns around the world.
Current Arctic sea ice area compared to the averages from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Sea ice level in mid-July is already below the annual low of the 1980s.
Source: Zack Labe/JAXA
Arctic sea ice reflects incoming solar rays back to space, helping to regulate the planet’s temperature. But as human activities have released more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the ensuing warming has caused ice to melt. That melt means more of the ocean is open and absorbs solar energy, raising temperatures more and driving more melt in a vicious cycle.
The potential consequences are that at some point (possibly rapidly, on a timescale of years and decades), raised sea levels could submerge areas that are now land, wiping out whole states from Bangladesh to the Netherlands, and destroying major world cities, including New York and London.
The poor nations of the developing world are particularly vulnerable, These are places where millions live on the edge, directly impacted by climate change, dealing with the effects, from cyclones and droughts to erosion and floods. Tuvalu, near Fiji, and other island nations, for example, are concerned that rising sea levels will wipe their countries off the map.
The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the most important of which is carbon dioxide, is the cause of global warming which leads to the kind of destruction outlined. The gasses act as a blanket trapping the suns heat. The main source of the extra carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas in power stations and in internal combustion engines.
Deforestation, which accounts for more than 10 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, also plays a role in driving climate change. Dense tropical forests are critical to keeping the climate stable because they suck up large amounts of human carbon pollution from the atmosphere, storing it in tree trunks, leaves, roots and soil.
But according to a new study, a chunk of the world’s forests the size of Mississippi was decimated in 2015 because of wildfire, logging and expanding palm oil plantations. About 49 million acres of forest disappeared worldwide in 2015, mainly in North America and the tropics, putting the year’s global deforestation level at its second-highest point since data gathering began in 2001. In all, the globe lost 47 percent more forested land in 2015 than it did 16 years ago.
Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, have increased at an unprecedented rate as measured by air samples taken year-on-year in Hawaii over recent decades, and further back from ice core samples taken in polar regions. This growing concentration of carbon dioxide is directly correlated to the rise in global mean surface temperatures over the last century, and especially over the last few decades.
Beyond question, the general effect of heating up a system like the earth’s climate will be an increase in extreme weather events of the kind witnessed in recent months in countries like Spain, Iran and Pakistan. The consequences of global warming are already evident. The science informs us that even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted tomorrow, global temperatures are likely to rise by another half a degree Celcius and sea levels could be two or three times as great as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) has predicted by 2100. This equates to between approximately 20-30 centimetres.
As far back as 2005, leading climate scientist, Gerald Meeh, argued:
“Many people don’t realise that we are committed right now to a significant amount of global warming and sea level rise because of the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere.”
A paper from 2008 showed that “climate change is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”
Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions of the US, for example., while major incidences involving storms, heatwaves, droughts, floods and hurricanes across the planet, with all the human and social consequences that brings, will be among the major challenges facing humanity.
But far from halting all carbon dioxide emissions, the world’s major states and corporations are pumping out ever-increasing amounts with little meaningful sign that global warming will not exceed 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels — the primary goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, There is a direct correlation between industrialization (what the Western world calls development) and carbon emissions.
75 per cent of the historical carbon emissions have been produced by only 20 per cent of the world’s population. The geographical irony to this, is that the effects of climate change are felt overwhelmingly in the developing world and the parts of the world that are least responsible for creating the crisis. According to the World Bank, 75-80 per cent of the effects of climate change are being felt in the developing world. So, there is an inverse relationship between cause and effect.
Continued global warming will at some point have large-scale, relatively sudden and unpredictable impacts on global rainfall, wind and temperature and on the related ocean water and heat circulation patterns. The details of these shifts are inherently unpredictable, but that they will occur with dramatic impact on global and local climate, agriculture and much else.
Changing climate will also see shifts in the global distribution of disease-carrying insects, with potentially huge impacts on human health. The consequences of all of these effects could be catastrophic causing untold misery and immense social upheaval with the threat to the future viability of human civilization on the planet a real possibility.
The realities and potential consequences posed by runaway climate change and the science underpinning it is clear, and yet the translation of the science into affirmative action – the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 – required to combat it, is not happening.
The international framework by which countries are legally bound to cut C02 emissions is the Kyoto protocol which came into effect in February, 2005. By November 2009, 187 states had signed and ratified the protocol. Its centrepiece was the general commitment by signatories to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2 percent from their 1990 levels by 2012.
A major problem is that the state responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any other, the US, with a quarter of all global emissions, refused to sign the Kyoto agreement or any other international agreement on climate change.
But that is not the only thing wrong with Kyoto. All the fanfare around the deal is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It is utterly worthless. The cuts in carbon dioxide emissions envisaged under Kyoto have done nothing significant to halt climate change.
The European Union claims to be leading the rest of the world on the issue, yet when its governments met during the time of Kyoto’s implementation in 2005, they too refused to set any post-2012 targets for emissions cuts at all.
The catalyst for even greater failure was probably the Copenhagen conference in December, 2009. What emerged from the debacle was the realization that the global warming the rich world is largely responsible for, will continue to be disproportionately paid for by the poor nations in the global south.
The politicians failed to deliver on activists demands, which included large emissions cuts, the payment of ecological debt to climate victims, and the decommissioning of carbon markets. No binding agreement was forthcoming. In this sense, it was “business as usual”.
The fault for this can be laid fairly and squarely with the rich world who sidelined the developing world from the discussions from the beginning. Thus, the limitations of a non-transparent decision-making process which granted a disproportionate amount of leverage to the former – principally the US – was brought to bear on the conference from the outset.
As the Indian environmentalist and activist Sunita Narain put it:
“The breakdown” [in the negotiations] happened because “the United States…wants to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol. They want to dismantle the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is based on the notion of equity…and replace it with a completely different multilateral system [designed to suit their interests].”
This much was apparent to the discerning observer. In this regard, it was clear the rich world were motivated by a very different set of negotiating conditions than the poor world – the template for the former being the implementation of a non-binding arrangement that the poor were urged to sign up to. This explains why, for example, the US was able to put on the table a very small number, three percent cut in emissions below 1990 levels, when it needed to cut 40 per cent.
The next major conference that promised much but delivered nothing, was the Paris conference 2015 (COP 21). Former Nasa scientist, James Hansen remarked that the discussions were “a…fraud… a fake,”. He added: “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises….”.
Meanwhile, the United States used the fact that it hadn’t ratified any human rights statute internationally as a poison “divide and rule” pill against the developing countries. The aim was to pick off the most vulnerable as their justification for shifting blame for the crisis on to the smaller nations.
Kenyan political ecologist, Ruth Nyambura summed up the impasse well when she said:
“We want to get out of this sinking ship, but countries like U.S. are holding the lifeboats.”
The settlement that emerged in Paris was extremely weak due largely to the negotiated consensual interplay between the most powerful players. This meant they were able to use each other to take things off the table they didn’t want. This interplay, to a great extent, was determined by the influence the oil, coal and gas companies had on proceedings as well as the banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions who fund them.
The giant corporations garner an enormous amount of power in terms of their ability to be able to influence the decision making processes of the most powerful governments’. This often takes the form of the lobbying of leading politician’s of these governments by the giant corporations. Conflict of interest issues remained a feature of Paris.
Thus, the potential for corruption was as strong as ever, aided ostensibly by credible figures who misrepresented consensus research. Those involved in the scandal included climate change professors who Greenpeace exposed as individuals who were willing to produce pro-fossil fuel industry research by concealing the source of their funding.
The rejection of legitimate climate science research also extended to corporate mainstream journalists like Christopher Booker and James Delingpole whose roles are little more than conduits for the kinds of power they are supposed to hold to account.
The leverage that climate change denying journalists, powerful corporate lobbyists, former politicians and others within the denial industry are able to exert in order to deceive and mislead the public regarding the science, can not be underestimated.
One such figure is journalist, Peter Hitchens, who ought to know better. The writer, who has many credible and sensible things to say about the conflict in Syria, apparently bases his authority to deny the reality of climate change on misleading glacier figures published online by the ‘Science and Environmental Policy Project’ (SEPP) run by a discredited environmental scientist called Dr S. Fred Singer.
The data has been reproduced by several other groups and had also found its way into The Washington Post. According to George Monbiot, the figures which were published by these groups, were subsequently used by Hitchens as well as other notable denialists like Melanie Phillips and David Bellamy to support their respective positions. However, the groups have one thing in common: they have all been funded by Exxon.
But this fact hasn’t initiated any retractions. On the contrary, it has resulted in the “digging in of heels”. The intention is to create confusion and the impression of uncertainty within the scientific community, when in reality none exists. The science is settled. Even Exxon’s own research conducted decades ago, that was until recently covered up, confirmed the role of fossil fuel in global warming.
Despite this, the damage has arguably already been done. Governments’ can only ameliorate the worst affects of runaway climate change. It’s too late to stop it in it’s tracks. As the consequences of climate change feedback begin to take their toll, we will soon be reaching the tipping point. This will almost certainly be hastened by US president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris accord.
If by 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today, then ecosystems will begin to release carbon dioxide as opposed to absorbing it. At this point climate change will not only be out of our hands, but it will accelerate without our help. With our dependency on fossil fuels continuing to increase year-on-year, it appears that this scenario will indeed come to pass. The complicit role denialists like Hitchens and Bellamy played in it must never be forgotten.
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