Arctic ice receding
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1. Runaway Warming is Here

As I write this average temperatures in the Arctic are around 30 degrees above average. The ice is disappearing, as Peter Wadhams documents in fine detail in his 2016 book A Farewell to Ice.

This means that we are now into the territory of runaway global warming.

Arctic sea ice retreat, directly induced by greenhouse gas warming, has impacts of its own which enhance global change effects on the planet and will cause disastrous consequences out of all proportion to the original change. (p. 104)

Wadhams, a Professor at Cambridge University, is one of the foremost experts on the Arctic in the world, and the evidence he presents is extremely clear.

We are not far from the moment when the feedbacks will themselves be driving the change – that is, we will not need to add more CO2 to the atmosphere at all, but will get the warming anyway. This is a stage called runaway warming (p. 109)

This is not in the future, this is now:

...the existing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is sufficient to cause unacceptable amounts of warming in the future. We no longer have a ‘carbon budget’ that we can burn through before feeling worried that we have caused massive climate change. We have burned through the budget and are causing the change now. (p. 192)

So we have already deeply damaged our future:

By now it is too late. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are already so high that when their warming potential is realized in a few decades, the resulting temperature rise will be catastrophic. (p. 192)

Why? Because as the ice recedes we lose the reflective power of a white surface and make regional heating much more rapid:

The albedo change from the loss of the last 4 million km2 of ice will have the same warming effect on the Earth as the last twenty-five years of carbon dioxide emissions. (p. 4)

This in turn triggers methane release on a huge scale:

50 Gt of methane is probably going to be emitted into the atmosphere and cause a rapid rise of 0.6°C in global temperatures. And this is just the first instalment: much, much more methane remains in these sediments and will emerge over coming decades as the sediments continue to thaw, while terrestrial permafrost (see the next section) will add in the long term an even greater amount of methane. (p. 128)

2. What does this mean?

We're going to run out of food.

The Arctic sea ice is not going to return of its own accord any time soon, and the continuing increase in greenhouse gas concentration will ensure, via the Arctic amplification, that there will be a rapidly warming Arctic over the next many decades. The impact of extreme, often violent, weather on crops in a world where the population continues to increase rapidly can only be disastrous. Sooner or later there will be an unbridgeable gulf between global food needs and our capacity to produce food in an unstable climate. (p. 140)

And as fossil fuels run out or become more expensive (and destructive) to extract,

...we are deliberately making our food situation worse by turning human food crops into biofuel. (p. 141)

With scarcity of basic resources comes war and economic chaos, and international transport will become harder and harder. Overall

...in twenty or thirty years the world will be a different and much nastier place than it is now. (p. 177)

It seems to me that there's a very clear implication: we need to grow more of our food locally (and indeed produce as many of our basic needs as near to home as possible).

3. Democracy has been Hacked

The record of our political structures is also simple and clear: inaction.

Messrs Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, had no scientific training, were often politically weak, and mouthed platitudes about leading the international effort on climatic change while actually doing little. In the US things were even worse, with the two presidents Bush actively opposed to any measure which might threaten the hegemony of the oil industry, of which they were beneficiaries, and even presidents Clinton and Obama, while they made inspirational speeches, actually did very little. (p. 198)

Barak Obama started with the hopes of millions on his shoulders. His virtual impotence to make real change has been demonstrated many times since, and he ends his tenure shaking hands with Trump, a self-confessed "sexual predator"2 and a racist.

Obama is clearly a deep thinking and knowledgeable person — this ignominious end to his presidency illustrates very clearly where belief that we can get the change we need within our current system leads. If a man like Obama finds himself hostage to the power of the big corporations to subvert his best intentions, we have as much chance of voting in the transformation that we need as we have of discovering that the moon is made of green cheese. It becomes more and more obvious that our economic structures (and their political expression) are leading us directly to disaster:

Economically the world’s rickety financial structure still requires perpetual growth in order to retain stability, with a banking system which is more and more obviously parasitic upon society. Within the present capitalist system, as practised by everyone including China, there is no way that a sustainable equilibrium society can be tolerated. Everyone knows that exponential growth in everything cannot continue and will lead only to disaster, yet every finance minister seeks to encourage economic growth to get his country out of the financial difficulties which he or his predecessors have created, with no thought of guiding this growth into sustainable channels. (p. 173)

4. What now? WE are the Cavalry!

Two things.

We have to stop pretending that we live in a democracy where the majority control how society works. A real democracy could never destroy the basis for our lives: it is a contradiction in terms. We live in "the best democracy money can buy": a sometimes corrupt and often subverted political structure which grequently functions to obscure and to dissipate the energies of citizens, not to express their collective will.3 This is still better than no democracy, of course, but nothing near the type of active control that would allow us to achieve major change.

Second, we have to realise that we can only survive through replacing the engines that produce our food, energy and basic needs. This is necessary both to give us some chance of surviving the chaos and crisis that is already building up around us, and to start to create the basis for a real democracy. If we create locally and in cooperative organisations, we can take decisions based on our needs instead of the profit imperative and the needs of shareholders. We can start to create both toughness (resilience) and staying power (sustainability) in our communities.

Because the ice is melting now...

5. Farewell to Ice: a Summary in Quotation

1: Introduction: a blue Arctic

The albedo change from the loss of the last 4 million km2 of ice will have the same warming effect on the Earth as the last twenty-five years of carbon dioxide emissions. (p. 4)

3: A brief history of ice on planet Earth

...there is no period in Earth history that we know about where the rate of rise of atmospheric CO2 is as great as it is today. Human beings are truly carrying out a global experiment involving an unprecedented level of interference with the natural system. (p. 27)

We are injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere far faster than any known natural event, even an extreme one like an asteroid impact. (p. 27)

4: The modern cycle of ice ages

...will happen when the climate has time to fully adjust to what we are doing to it? The result is terrifying, and I will deal with it further in a later chapter. Suffice to say for the moment that the sensitivity calculated in this way is no less than 7.8ºC for a CO2 doubling, which is enough to produce a 3.6ºC temperature rise just due to our present CO2 levels. This obviously has not yet come about, but may well do so given time. This high value is known as the Earth System Sensitivity (p. 40)

5: The greenhouse effect

...the Earth has had two natural levels of CO2, about 180 ppm and 280 ppm, depending on whether it is in a glacial or interglacial period. (p. 60)

It must be said that one reason why this ‘ice age climate sensitivity’ has not been considered very much, despite its simplicity, is that it is just so high. If it were appropriate for modern conditions, it would imply that only a small fraction of the potential warming due to current CO2 emissions has been realized so far, a frightening thought. (p. 60)

6: Sea ice meltback begins

...summer ice cover had lost something like 60 per cent of its volume between the 1970s and the 1990s, (p. 69)

7: The future of Arctic sea ice – the death spiral

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) signally fails to give warning of the early demise of Arctic ice but instead adopts a ‘consensus’ view that it will be much later this century before the ice disappears. This consensus involves consciously ignoring the observational data in favour of accepting models that have already shown themselves to be false. (p. 88)

The RCP2.6 is thus a wholly misleading figure, which looks like it might have been entered into the analysis purely to lull the reader into a false sense of security, into the feeling that if we try hard we can bring warming under control so that the comfortable-looking projections prevail rather than the nasty ones. (p. 89)

An Arctic which is ice-free even in midwinter would develop a completely different water circulation and thermal cycle than a seasonally ice-covered Arctic. This may come about within a century, but by that time far more drastic changes will have happened to our planet which may well have made it uninhabitable for humans. (p. 102)

8: The accelerating effects of Arctic feedbacks

Arctic sea ice retreat, directly induced by greenhouse gas warming, has impacts of its own which enhance global change effects on the planet and will cause disastrous consequences out of all proportion to the original change. (p. 104)

...the loss of area of summer sea ice between the 1970s and 2012 has caused a decrease in global average albedo equivalent in its warming power to adding a further one-quarter to the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by man during that period. This is called a ‘fast feedback’ because its effect is immediate. (p. 107)

The overall ice/snow-albedo feedback is thus adding 50 per cent (not just 25 per cent) to the direct global heating effect due to CO2 addition, showing how the Arctic can become a driver of, rather than just a responder to, global change. (p. 109)

We are not far from the moment when the feedbacks will themselves be driving the change – that is, we will not need to add more CO2 to the atmosphere at all, but will get the warming anyway. This is a stage called runaway warming, which is possibly what led to the transformation of Venus into a hot, dry, dead world. (p. 109)

...the Greenland ice sheet is now losing 300 km3 of water equivalent per year, a rate which is increasing and which is already as high as the loss from all other glaciers put together. (p. 112)

In the face of these worrying threats the IPCC has been complacent. (p. 113)

The IPCC figure is based on a linear projection, the assumption that the rate of sea level rise will remain more or less constant throughout the century. But we know that feedback loops lead to non-linear changes. With sea ice disappearance, for instance, the volume of summer sea ice is accelerating downwards in an exponential curve, not a straight line. (p. 113)

Feedbacks show us that Arctic sea ice retreat, when it reaches the levels that we see today, is not just a response to climate change but a driver of climate change. But, of all the threats and dangers that this situation produces, there is one that is potentially even worse – an offshore methane pulse. (p. 120)

9: Arctic methane, a catastrophe in the making

...we now have water above freezing point impinging on the Arctic seabed for the very first time in several tens of thousands of years. (p. 122)

50 Gt of methane is probably going to be emitted into the atmosphere and cause a rapid rise of 0.6°C in global temperatures. And this is just the first instalment: much, much more methane remains in these sediments and will emerge over coming decades as the sediments continue to thaw, while terrestrial permafrost (see the next section) will add in the long term an even greater amount of methane. (p. 128)

Once again, an extraordinary aspect of the 2013 IPCC assessment is that these figures on methane emissions from terrestrial permafrost are quoted, but the implications for accelerated climate warming are not pursued, although the implications are as bad as, or worse than, the implications from offshore release. (p. 131)

10: Strange weather

The Arctic sea ice is not going to return of its own accord any time soon, and the continuing increase in greenhouse gas concentration will ensure, via the Arctic amplification, that there will be a rapidly warming Arctic over the next many decades. The impact of extreme, often violent, weather on crops in a world where the population continues to increase rapidly can only be disastrous. Sooner or later there will be an unbridgeable gulf between global food needs and our capacity to produce food in an unstable climate. (p. 140)

...starvation will reduce the world’s population. Scientists desperately hope that there is no link between global warming and this possible change in weather patterns, which is perhaps why they cling to the null hypothesis in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. (p. 140)

...some countries can apparently see what we fail to see in the West and take self-protective action. China, for instance, has been buying up or leasing agricultural land around the globe, primarily in South America and Africa. The industrial agricultural practices which they introduce lift a small number of farmers out of poverty while impoverishing the rest. In the long run they also damage the soil, biodiversity, drinking water and river and ocean habitats. But China is positioning itself for the struggle to come, the struggle to find enough to eat. By controlling land in other countries they will control those countries’ food supply. (p. 140)

...we are deliberately making our food situation worse by turning human food crops into biofuel. (p. 141)

13: The state of the planet

Economically the world’s rickety financial structure still requires perpetual growth in order to retain stability, with a banking system which is more and more obviously parasitic upon society. Within the present capitalist system, as practised by everyone including China, there is no way that a sustainable equilibrium society can be tolerated. Everyone knows that exponential growth in everything cannot continue and will lead only to disaster, yet every finance minister seeks to encourage economic growth to get his country out of the financial difficulties which he or his predecessors have created, with no thought of guiding this growth into sustainable channels. (p. 173)

...in twenty or thirty years the world will be a different and much nastier place than it is now. (p. 177)

...one of the most shameful failures has been that of the IPCC. In its Fifth Assessment report in 2013, the IPCC recognized that the only way to a viable climate is to follow the RCP2.6 route. I have already expressed my suspicion that the ‘RCP’ formulation of radiative forcing conceals the realities of what is needed to avoid disastrous climate change (see Chapter 7). But the result is a paradox, unstressed by the IPCC: the only way to save ourselves is to follow the RCP2.6 route, and the only way to do that is to actually take CO2 out of the atmosphere, since we will very shortly reach the CO2 concentration (421 ppm) which is the ceiling for ‘acceptable’ climate warming. We are certain to pass that limit without even noticing it in about a decade, so fast are CO2 levels rising, and beyond that point our only hope is actual carbon removal. The IPCC knows this but ignores the problem of how we might actually remove CO2. (p. 183)

...in many ways the agreement was a diplomatic and political triumph, which is unequivocally positive in the light of what has gone before. But can it save us? (p. 190)

The aim is to keep warming below 2°C, but the INDCs presented so far, even if fully honoured, will leave us with a warming of at least 2.7°C. There is no possibility of getting near 1.5°C except with massive use of geoengineering and carbon removal, not mentioned in the agreement, which deals only with emissions. There is no mention either of aviation, which is a major factor in global warming. There are no plans for immediate actions, and no date set for achieving carbon balance except ‘between 2050 and 2100’ which is dangerously vague, as the later date would imply carbon balance being achieved at a high carbon dioxide level. In short, the agreement is very dependent on national goodwill and honesty (p. 190)

The agreement is thus a huge step forward, but only a step. It gives us an agreed target, but does not show anyone how to achieve that target. I believe that the stabilization target can in fact be achieved only by interventions in the form of geoengineering and carbon drawdown technology, and that if the world strives to restrain global warming to 1.5–2°C by carbon emission cuts alone, the result will be an embarrassing failure. (p. 191)

14: A call to arms

...the existing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is sufficient to cause unacceptable amounts of warming in the future. We no longer have a ‘carbon budget’ that we can burn through before feeling worried that we have caused massive climate change. We have burned through the budget and are causing the change now. (p. 192)

By now it is too late. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are already so high that when their warming potential is realized in a few decades, the resulting temperature rise will be catastrophic. (p. 192)

...we must not only go to zero emissions, we must actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Only in this way can we avoid dire consequences. But as I showed in the last chapter, this is extremely difficult. (p. 192)

While these methods are being developed and implemented, we will need geoengineering to put a sticking plaster on the planet. (p. 193)

We have destroyed our planet’s life support system by mindless development and misuse of technology. A mindful development of technology, first for geoengineering, then for carbon removal, is now necessary to save us. It is the most serious and important activity in which the human race can now be involved, and it must begin immediately. (p. 193)

I can remember, as a fourteen-year-old boy, watching the BBC News on 27 October 1962 and suddenly realizing, as did my mother and father, that we might not wake up the next morning, that the safe little world of our semi-detached house in Essex could easily vanish and be turned into ash, along with ourselves and most of the British population. All because of a little island whose conduct America was exercised about. The wisdom and restraint of Kennedy and Khrushchev are praised today, as they were in 1962, but to deliberately bring the world to the brink of destruction, just over the status of Cuba, does not speak of wisdom – it speaks of madness. (p. 195)

...a host of new states now possess nuclear weapons, not just great powers with moderate policies but volatile nations such as Israel, North Korea and Pakistan, countries that possess nuclear weapons and seem very prepared to use them if their religious or political obsessions are challenged. (p. 196)

It could well be the global stresses produced by climate change that provide the spark for the flame that ends the human race, which is another crucial reason for tackling climate change, working together as a species rather than as a collection of mutually antagonistic nations. Time is running short to avoid major disruption to the planet, but it can be done. (p. 196)

Messrs Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, had no scientific training, were often politically weak, and mouthed platitudes about leading the international effort on climatic change while actually doing little. In the US things were even worse, with the two presidents Bush actively opposed to any measure which might threaten the hegemony of the oil industry, of which they were beneficiaries, and even presidents Clinton and Obama, while they made inspirational speeches, actually did very little. (p. 198)

...an insidious opposition to taking action on climate change is now being fomented by well-financed groups of malevolent people and organizations. These organizations focus on planting stories in the media and persuading timid or ignorant politicians that we cannot afford to do anything about global warming, even if it actually exists. (p. 198)

...the same as those of tobacco industry lobbyists – to sow doubt about the harmfulness of the impacts to the point that ordinary people become confused and are willing to tolerate inaction. (p. 199)

In the UK the main vehicle for the deniers has been a sinister organization set up in 2009 by Lord Lawson, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Called the Global Warming Policy Foundation, it refuses to reveal the sources of its funding. The director is Benny Peiser, whose previous climatic qualifications consisted of being a lecturer in Sport Science at Liverpool John Moores University. Despite its secretiveness and the lack of scientific credibility of its staff, it has achieved extraordinary success in turning the UK’s present government away from its claimed intention of being ‘the greenest government ever’ to the point where measures against climate change are described as ‘green crap’. (p. 200)

If we destroy our planet we destroy ourselves. There is nowhere else for us to go. There is no planet B. It will not just be farewell to ice, but farewell to life. (p. 202)

Footnotes

  1. Image from National Geographic via Kelsey Kennedy.
  2. Sexual predator: let's be clear that this means assault, and that there will be more attacks on women and more rape as a result of the affirmation that Trump has received. And the same goes for all other minorities, with increased racist assault leading the way.
  3. As I've described here before, the driver of all this is the organisation of the way that we that we grow our food, build our houses, generate power, etc. etc. etc. In all cases the lion's share of our efforts are marshalled and controlled by huge transnational corporations. These corporations are mandated to make profits, and to maximise shareholder value. If their CEOs all jumped out of bed one morning and decided to stop destroying the planet, they'd soon be sacked — it isn't a matter of individual bad choices, but a desperately bad framework. See: Vitali, Glattfelder and Battiston, PLoS ONE 6-10, 2011; New Scientist, October 2011; Joel Bakan, The Corporation, 2004.


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