warming: Skating On Thin Ice
By Norm Dixon
06 June, 2004
The Green Left Weekly
latest blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, has triggered the release
of vast amounts of hot air from fossil-fuel industry funded greenhouse
They fear the film
will focus peoples 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.
have been generously allocated space to comment in the corporate medias
reviews of the film. While they have concentrated on debunking the films
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 Earths 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).
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. Its science fiction.
On May 24, United
Press Internationals 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
It is probably true
that The Day After Tomorrows 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 todays emissions
within 25 years. Anything less will not control global warming.
Studies since indicate
that the IPCCs predictions may underestimate the warming. In April
2002, researchers at the University of Bern estimated that there was
a 40% likelihood that the Earths temperature in 2100 would be
higher than the IPCCs figure.
In the same month,
scientists at Englands 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 WMOs 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 IPCCs
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
The Associated Press
reported on March 20 that scientists at Hawaiis 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
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 persons 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.
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 worlds 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
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 Britains being more
like Alaska and much of North Americas 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 worlds 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.
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
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 hemispheres
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
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 Protocols
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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