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Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

1 February 2008

Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s an old joke: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. The same, unfortunately, is true for the climate.

They ARE talking about it. They were at it again in Honolulu last week, discussing mandatory, internationally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (although Russia and India refused to allow any mention of that subject in the final statement). At the Bali meeting in December, China even hinted that it might consider something like binding emission caps in the long run. But there is no sense of urgency.

Not, at least, the sense of urgency that would be required to take actions that would invalidate the prediction, in the latest issue of the journal “Science”, that climate change may cost southern Africa more than 30 percent of its main crop, maize (corn, mealies), by 2030. No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence.

Even some parts of the developed world would be in deep trouble at that point. One part of the developed world, Australia, is already in trouble, with its farmers facing what may be a permanent decline in the country’s ability to grow food, although Australia’s overall wealth is great enough to cushion the blow. But elsewhere, the mentality of “It can’t happen here” persists.

Over the past couple of years, due to a major shift in public opinion, we have arrived at something close to a global consensus that climate change is a major problem. Even George W. Bush now says that he is concerned about it. But there is no consensus on the best measures to deal with the problem, even among the experts, and the general public still does not grasp the urgency of the situation.

The two Democratic candidates for the presidency in the United States promise 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, and John McCain for the Republicans promises 50 percent cuts by the same date, and nobody points out that such a leisurely approach, applied in every country, condemns the world to a global temperature regime at least three or four degrees Celsius (5.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Nobody points out that those are average global temperatures which take into account the relatively cool air over the oceans, and that temperatures over land would be a good deal higher than that. Few people are aware that these higher temperatures will prevent pollination in many major food crops in parts of the world that are already so hot that they are near the threshold, and that this, combined with shifting rainfall patterns, will cause catastrophic losses in food production.

And hardly anybody says that it is going to get really bad as early as 2030 unless we get global emissions down by 80 percent by 2020, because “everybody knows” that that is politically impossible, and nobody wants to look like a fool. So we must just hope that physics and chemistry will wait until we are ready to respond.

But here is a bulletin from the front. Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists, government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.

The IPCC’s predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted “best estimate” rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the “high scenario”. But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.

It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it’s 2013.

Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the “feedback” phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the “carbon sinks” are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.

Maybe the experts are all wrong. Here in the present, out ahead of the mounds of data that pile up in the rear-view mirror and the studies that will eventually get published in the scientific journals, there are only hunches to go on. But while the high-level climate talks pursue their stately progress towards some ill-defined destination, down in the trenches there is an undercurrent of suppressed panic in the conversations. The tipping points seem to be racing towards us a lot faster than people thought.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (Over…situation”; and “And hardly…respond”)

Re “maize (corn, mealies)” in paragraph 3: the crop has different names in different parts of the English-speaking world. Choose the one familiar to you. Translators may disregard these details.

Planetary Maintenance Engineer

2 February 2007

Planetary Maintenance Engineer

By Gwynne Dyer

Twenty-eight years ago, when we knew very little about the way human activities affect global climate, independent scientist James Lovelock warned that the sheer scale of human activities threatened to destabilise the homoeostatic system that keeps the Earth’s climate within a comfortable range for our kind of life, the system he named “Gaia.” “We shall have to tread carefully,” he said, “to avoid the cybernetic disasters of runaway positive feedback or sustained oscillation.”

Then he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. If we overwhelm the natural systems that keep the climate stable, Lovelock predicted, then we would “wake up one morning to find that [we] had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer….The ceaseless intricate task of keeping all the global cycles in balance would be ours. Then at last we should be riding that strange contraption, the ‘spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’.”

I have a nasty feeling that we are almost there. The years have passed, our numbers and our emissions have grown — have almost doubled since 1979, in fact — and the crisis is now upon us. The fourth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published on Friday, says that global temperature rises of between 2 degrees and 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) are almost inevitable in the course of this century — but much higher increases of 6 degrees C (10.8 F) or even more cannot be ruled out.

The IPCC reports are produced by some 2,000 of the world’s leading climate scientists, nominated by their various national governments, and they operate by consensus, so any predictions they make are likely to err on the conservative side. And they say the argument is over: “It is highly likely [greater than 95 percent probability] that the warming observed during the past half century cannot be explained without external forcing [i.e. human activity].” Indeed, the sum of solar and volcanic influences on the system ought to be producing global cooling right now, if it were not for the human factor.

It’s already worse than you think, the IPCC reports, because the sulphate particles that pollute the upper atmosphere as a result of human industrial activity are acting as a kind of sunscreen: without them, the average global temperature would already be 0.8 degrees C (1.2 degrees F) higher. And the report goes on to talk about killer heat waves, more and bigger tropical storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels — but it doesn’t really get into the worst implication of major global heating: mass starvation.

If the global average temperature rises by 4.5 degrees C (8.1 degrees F), shifting rainfall patterns will bring perpetual drought to most of the world’s major breadbaskets (the north Indian plain, the Chinese river valleys, the US Midwest, the Nile watershed), and reduce global food production by 25 to 50 percent. If it goes to 6 degrees C (10.8 degrees F), we lose most of our food production worldwide.

The world’s six and a half billion people currently produce just about enough food to keep everybody alive (although it is so unevenly shared out that some of us don’t stay alive). Any major reduction in food production means mass migrations, war, and mass death. It is getting very serious.

Obviously, the main part of the solution must be to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and stop destabilising the climate, but we are probably not going to be able to get them down far enough, fast enough, to avoid catastrophe. Short-term technological fixes to keep the worst from happening while we work at getting emissions down would be very welcome, and a variety are now on offer. But they are all controversial.

Bring back nuclear power generation on a huge scale, and stop generating electricity by burning fossil fuels. Fill the upper atmosphere with even more sulphate particles (you could just dose jet fuel with one-half percent sulphur) to thicken the sunscreen effect. Scrub carbon out of the air by windmill-like machines that capture and sequester it. Seed clouds over the ocean with atomised sea-water to make them whiter and more reflective. Float a fleet of tiny aluminium balloons in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight or orbit a giant mirror in space between the Earth and the Sun to do the same job.

The purists hate it, and insist that we can do it all by conserving energy and shifting to non-carbon energy sources. In the long run, of course, they are right, but we must survive the short run if we ever hope to see the long run, and that may well require short-term techno-fixes. Welcome to the job of planetary maintenance engineer.

We won’t like the job a bit, but Lovelock stated our remaining options eloquently twenty-eight years ago. If the consumption of energy continues to increase, he wrote, we face “the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of spaceship Earth, or gigadeath to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.”

Maybe in a couple of centuries the human race will be able to restore the natural cycles and give up the job again, but it won’t happen in our lifetimes, or our children’s either.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“The IPCC…factor”;and “The world’s…serious”)

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: Don’t bother converting the temperatures into Fahrenheit.