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Global warming: Skating On Thin Ice

By Norm Dixon

06 June, 2004
The Green Left Weekly

Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, has triggered the release of vast amounts of hot air from fossil-fuel industry funded “greenhouse skeptics”.

They fear the film will focus people’s political concern on the very real dangers posed by increasing industry-induced global warming. They also fear that the extent to which their paymasters, and rich-country governments, are responsible for the crisis will be exposed.

These “skeptics” have been generously allocated space to comment in the corporate media’s reviews of the film. While they have concentrated on debunking the film’s most cartoonish elements, their true goal has been to discredit the frightening truth that lies at its core: global warming is real, it is rapidly getting worse and international political action must be taken now if its terrible and unpredictable consequences are to be averted.

The most scientifically ludicrous aspect of the film is the timescale in which the cataclysm triggered by global warming unfolds. A monster chunk of the Antarctic Larson B Ice Shelf snaps off, apparently flooding the ocean with freshwater and halting the ocean currents that warm Europe and the US east coast. It snows in New Delhi, huge hailstones are dumped on Tokyo, while twisters wreck Los Angeles. A tsunami wave hits New York. A global megastorm erupts, directing “supercooled” air from the upper atmosphere to Earth’s surface, fast freezing North America. An ice age descends on the northern hemisphere within a fortnight (the one consolation is that the US president and the English royal family are turned into Paddle Pops in the process).

Greenhouse denialists
Before and after the May 27 release of The Day After Tomorrow, the corporate media has often turned to Robert Balling, director of the office of climatology at Arizona State University, for a quotable quote to dismiss the film and its underlying warning as “bad science”. “`The same guys told us [in Independence Day] we'd have aliens come down and invade us from space’, laughed Robert Balling, who argues against nightmare scenarios of global warming”, the May 23 Denver Post wrote. “After I saw Godzilla, I wasn't looking out my back door wondering if a giant lizard was going to step on my house”, Balling quipped in a May 23 article syndicated in Californian newspapers. “This movie is in the same class. It’s science fiction.”

On May 24, United Press International’s coverage of the film noted that in The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming Balling “called climate change a vastly overrated environmental threat, whose proposed solutions are worse than the problem”. Balling co-wrote The Satanic Gases in 2000 with Patrick Michaels, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the far-right Cato Institute and a leading light in the tiny interconnected world of industry-funded greenhouse denialist outfits.

The promo for the book describes human-made global warming as “largely mythical”. Michaels has also been a regular source of comment on The Day After Tomorrow in the big-business media. Others from this coterie of paid-for greenhouse deniers who have popped up regularly include Sallie Baliunas and various spokespeople for the anti-Kyoto Protocol Competitiveness Enterprise Institute.

It is probably true that The Day After Tomorrow’s special effects-driven excesses have given the greenhouse denialists a propaganda free kick. Howoever, it is the greenhouse denialists’ arguments against the need for sweeping international action to curb global warming that are the true works of science fiction.

Rapid global warming
Contrary to what the denialists would have us believe, the concentration of greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as emissions of methane, hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and water vapour — in the atmosphere is rapidly rising, and these gases are trapping heat and causing global warming.

In 2001, the 2500 scientists from around 100 countries who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that unless greenhouse gas levels are stabilised, Earth's average temperature will rise 1.4-5.8°C by the end of the century. To achieve stabilisation, total global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by at least 60% of today’s emissions within 25 years. Anything less will not control global warming.

Studies since indicate that the IPCC’s predictions may underestimate the warming. In April 2002, researchers at the University of Bern estimated that there was a 40% likelihood that the Earth’s temperature in 2100 would be higher than the IPCC’s figure.

In the same month, scientists at England’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research revealed that their models indicated that the temperature increase in the UK could be 7-8°C by 2080, because trees and vegetation killed by the warmer weather and less rainfall would in turn emit extra CO2, while greater numbers of warm-weather microbes in the soil would also produce more CO2.

The average temperature of the atmosphere in 1998 was the warmest since records began in the 1860s, according to the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The next hottest year was 2002, followed by 2003 and 2001. Global temperature is 0.6°C hotter than at the end of the 19th century, mostly due to industry-induced warming. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980, 10 since 1990. “Clearly, for the past 25 or 26 years, the warming is accelerating”, the WMO’s Kenneth Davidson told a press briefing in December 2002. “The rate of increase is unprecedented in the last 1000 years.”

These changes mirror changes in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. According to the IPCC’s figures, if unchecked, CO2 levels in the air will be between 650 and 970 parts per million (ppm). However, these estimates may also be too conservative.

The Associated Press reported on March 20 that scientists at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory had recorded CO2 at record levels in the atmosphere. For 10,000 years before industrialisation, the concentration of CO2 in the air was around 280 ppm. On March 19, CO2 levels peaked at 379 ppm, compared with 376 ppm a year earlier and 373 ppm in 2002. The rate of increase is accelerating at almost twice the average annual increase over the previous decade (1.8 ppm) and three times the average increase in the 1950s. The current levels of CO2 are the highest in the last 420,000 years.

Abrupt climate change
The IPCC forecasts a gradual sea level rise from the heat expansion of oceans and melting glaciers of between 20 centimetres and almost one metre by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced. This is assuming that the Antarctic and Arctic ice caps will remain constant.

As disastrous as this would be — causing widespread flooding, more extreme storms and droughts that would hit the Third World hardest — it pales in comparison to the catastrophe that a growing number of climate scientists say is possible if runaway global warming is allowed to take place.

Not only are colossal climate changes scientifically possible, but they could take place within very short periods. Of course, they would not take place in hours, days or weeks, as in The Day After Tomorrow, but they could unfold in the space of a decade or a person’s lifetime. This is a tiny faction of the time that climate change usually takes place.

As Harvard University palaeoclimatologist Daniel Schrag told the Scripps Howard News Service on May 14, while the movie “greatly exaggerates how quickly climate change can happen ... it is possible that the ultimate consequences of climate change ... may be just as severe and disastrous.”

Scientists freely admit that the consequences of global warming are so complex that it is impossible to predict what sort of events may be unleashed, and when. But they agree that once it begins, it cannot be stopped.

The Day After Tomorrow debate has focused attention on how the melting of the polar ice sheets, Arctic tundra and the world’s glaciers may bring about abrupt climate change. In February 2002, the respected science journal Nature published an analysis from Oregon State University.

It explained that the influx of massive quantities of freshwater into the polar oceans could slow down, or even halt, the global thermohaline circulation. Also known as the Great Ocean Conveyor, these gigantic ocean currents of warm surface water move from the tropics to the polar regions until the currents get so cold that they sink and return to the tropics to be reheated.

These currents transport heat into the North Atlantic region. Because of warm currents, Britain's ports are free of winter ice at the same latitudes as Canada and Russia, where ports are frozen solid. If the Atlantic thermohaline circulation weakens, it could set off atmospheric changes that lead to much colder winters in Europe and North America, with Britain’s being more like Alaska and much of North America’s becoming like Siberia.

“If the ocean circulation patterns, which now warm much of the North Atlantic, were to slow or stop, the consequence could be quite severe”, Peter Clark, one of the world’s leading experts on prehistoric climate change, told Nature. “This might also happen much quicker than many people appreciate”, OSU researchers observed in Nature. “If [global] warming is strong enough and sustained long enough, a complete shutdown cannot be excluded.”

Palaeoclimatology — the study of climate in the distant past — sheds some light on what could be in store if global warming is not arrested in the 25 years’ grace period it has been estimated we have. Data from ice cores, tree rings and coral have revealed that periods of massive climate change, linked to global warming, have occurred repeatedly throughout Earth’s history.

For example, around 12,000 years ago, a runaway greenhouse effect caused the Earth's climate to rapidly warm by 10°C in as little as 20 years, ending an ice age in slightly more than a human lifespan. The warming atmosphere resulted in the sudden infusion of fresh water from melting glaciers, polar ice and Arctic tundra, severely disrupting the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation and triggering a 3-4°C drop in the northern hemisphere’s temperature in the space of a decade, where it remained for 1000 years. A similar warming-triggered 100-year cold snap also took place some 8000 years ago.

While the greenhouse denialists reject such scenarios outright, more hard-headed ruling-class planners take them more seriously. A report on the possible impacts of global warming was commissioned by the Pentagon was completed in October, and leaked to the British Observer and US Fortune Magazine in February.

Written by Peter Schwartz, a former head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell, and Doug Randall, of the US Global Business Network, the report urged that the climate change “be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern”. The authors pointed out that “there are indication today that global warming has reached the threshold where the thermohaline circulation could start to be significantly impacted”.

Of course, Schwartz and Randall recommendations did not include political action to prevent such a global crisis unfolding, but instead paint a Mad Max-like vision of how Washington can respond militarily by waging wars to secure or defend scarce energy resources, and fresh water and food supplies, while turning the US into a fortress to keep out environmental refugees displaced by rising sea levels, extreme weather and thirst and hunger.

Not too late
It is not too late to turn around global warming, but time is short. It is estimated that critical levels of atmospheric C02 will be reached within 25 years at the current levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The rich capitalist countries refuse to seriously reduce greenhouse gases reaching the atmosphere. North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are responsible for more than 80% of past emissions and 75% of current ones. Yet these governments place the protection of the profits and “competitiveness” of their powerful corporations above the welfare of the world's people.

The US is the worst offender. With around 4.5% of the world's population, in 1990 the US emitted 36.1% of all greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gas emissions in the US are predicted to increase 30% from 1990 levels by 2010. The US and Australian governments have refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s modest goal of a reduction in greenhouse gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels.

We urgently need a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve that requires fundamental changes in the way the world is organised. The private profit system, which has brought us to the brink of calamity, needs to be replaced by a system that puts people and the planet before profits.

From Green Left Weekly, June 2, 2004.
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