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1st February, 2006
How mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the earth.Humans have transformed the earth in a dramatic way, especially over the last 50 years. Not only have we drastically changed the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuel
and coal and by increasing forest fires, we have also changed the nitrogen cycle worldwide by the amount of nitrogen being fixed by industrial agriculture and fertilizer use.
We have transformed more than half the land surface through agriculture, deforestation, mining, industry, paving, and ever-growing cities. These changes have altered the climate systems by the way moisture is exchanged between earth and the atmosphere.
We have destroyed biodiversity by shifting plants and animals to places and conditions where they cannot survive. We are seeing the most basic of our needs – air, water, housing, and energy – disappear before our eyes. And this demise of our common life-support system is being accelerated by ever more energy intensive activities, by which a privileged group of people attempts to secure its survival.
A conference on avoiding dangerous climate change at the Hadley Centre in Exeter was held explicitly to convince the Bush administration to join the rest of the industrialised world, and to use the July 2005 G8 meeting to set limits
on greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and Australia, the world’s two largest polluters, were refusing to be part of any global agreement to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
The G8 meeting came and went. The US, with 42 per cent of global fossil fuel CO2, and 34 per cent of combined greenhouse gas emissions, not only remained outside the
climate- stabilisation effort but also fought vigorously to prevent any progress in setting limits. Given the extraordinary amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the US, this country alone can dramatically slow climate change, or bring the planet to the boiling point.
Three weeks before the G8 summit, The Observer printed a set of leaked documents revealing how the Bush White House derailed attempts to address global warming. These submissions to the G8 action plan show that Washington officials deleted even the suggestion that global warming has already started.
Among the key sentences removed were: ‘Our world is warming. Climate change is a serious threat that has the potential to affect every part of the globe. And we know that ... mankind’s activities are contributing to this warming. This is an issue we must address urgently.’
At the Hadley Centre Climate Change Conference in February 2005, the International Climate Change Task Force UK said that if we do nothing the climate system will collapse.
Stephen Byers, the co-chair of that task force and an advisor to Tony Blair, said the point of no return could be reached in a decade. The Bush delegation to the July 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, probably even George Bush himself,is aware of that deadline.
At the UN Climate Conference in Montreal in December 2005 the US again undermined the talks. The Bush administration had sent Harlan Watson, senior climate negotiator for
the US Department of State (suggested for that position in 2001 by ExxonMobil, a company that has consistently opposed mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases).
Exxon was present behind the scenes in Montreal as well, and on December 8, 2005, The Independent revealed the extraordinary campaign by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (an Exxon funded think-tank that takes credit for having prevented US adoption of the Kyoto treaty), to destroy Europe’s support for an extension of the treaty by lobbying large EU corporations to join in dismantling Kyoto in Europe.
Watson held out until the very last day to sign the Montreal agreement, doing so only when it became clear that, of 188 other countries, only Saudi Arabia would side with the US. While the 157 Kyoto signatories agreed to extend the treaty’s emission-cutting targets after formal expiration in 2012, 189 countries – including the US, China, and India – agreed only to non-binding discussions.
The perceived need to include the US, the world’s largest polluter, in future negotiations had a devastating effect on the treaty’s language, leading to an agreement at the
lowest common denominator: ‘non-binding discussions’, ‘voluntary measures’, ‘marketbased opportunities’ – this when stringent emission reductions are urgently needed at once, not in six years.
However, the US is not solely responsible for the stalemate. Tony Juniper from Friends of the Earth, remarked: ‘Tony Blair had thrown doubt on the whole future of Kyoto before the talks, when he seemed to side with George Bush and stated that no country would want to negotiate another agreement with targets and timetables like Kyoto.’
The Global Business Network wrote in the only official document that does not deny climate change, ‘Climate Change as a National Security Concern’, commissioned for Donald Rumsfeld by Pentagon defence adviser Andrew Marshall, and made public in February 2004: ‘The focus in climate research has slowly been shifting from gradual to rapid change. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that human activities could trigger abrupt change. A year later, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a session at which Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to consider the implications of possible abrupt climate change within two decades.’
Whether in a decade as UK scientists say, or two as the Pentagon study says, a consensus is developing that we are reaching a phase of dangerous, abrupt, and irreversible climate shifts. However, for the Bush administration, this is not an ecological or humanitarian issue, but a military issue. They question only how to protect US borders from environmental refugees, how to overpower nations collapsing
under environmental pressures, how to keep access to food, water, and energy as other parts of the world go hungry and thirsty, and how to keep nuclear pre-eminence, while thoseweapons in other countries fall into the hands of insurgents.
The eerie similarity of these goals and methods, with those of the so-called war on terrorism, raises the question of whether that war on terrorism is not really already a war on the earth. And, as in the war on terrorism, the already occurring ecological disasters – like the Osama bin Ladens – are needed and promoted. And the religious fundamentalists are driving this forward because God has given them dominion over the planet to do as they wish.
The year 2005 was the second warmest year on record, and among the four warmest years since 1861, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). And it may well be the year of ecological landslides, when climate change becomes self-reinforcing and begins to spin out of control. Consider these news items from the last months of 2005:
In October, glaciologists meeting at the Royal Society in London argued that the South Pole could be the principal cause of rising sea levels. The edges of the West Antarctic
ice sheets are crumbling at an unprecedented rate. The Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are discharging more than 110 cubic kilometres of ice each year, a rate three times that of a decade ago.
NASA reported in September that in the summer of 2005 the Arctic sea ice around the North Pole shrank to 200 million square miles – 500,000 square miles less than its average
area between 1979 and 2000. In August 2005, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest monthly point on record, dipping to an unprecedented 18 per cent below the long-term average.
In November, Geophysical Research Letters published evidence that Greenland’s vast ice cap may be at the point of irreversible meltdown. Glaciers that have been stable for centuries, such as the giant Helheim, which dropped 100 feet in summer 2005, are melting. Its leading edge – unchanged in location since records began – has retreated four-and-a-half miles.
The vast amount of fresh water discharged into the Northern ocean now threatens the Gulf Stream, which warms Britain and the rest of northern Europe whose latitude is that of
Labrador. In a December 2005 article in Nature, a group of British oceanographers from the National Oceanography Centre reported that the flow of the Gulf Stream has diminished in strength by 30 per cent over the past 50 years, alarming them; they had not expected such dramatic changes so soon.
The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) announced in November 2005 that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere today than at any point in the last 650,000
years. Today’s still rising level of CO2 is already 27 per cent above the highest peak during all those millennia, according to lead researcher Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, Switzerland. Moreover, that rise is occurring at a speed ‘that is over a factor of a hundred faster than anything we are seeing in the natural cycles.’
In October 2005, the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA announced that the hole in the Antarctic ozone was as severe as at any point on record in the past 10 years. The hole extended to near-record proportions at about 27 million square kilometres, vaster than North America. This occurred in spite of the reduction of ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorine and bromine compounds.
In early December 2005, the New York Times reported a record-breaking drought in the Amazon River Basin – the worst since record keeping began a century ago. Scientists say the drought is most probably the result of the same
rise in water temperatures that added to the severity of the 2005 hurricane season.
Daniel C. Nepstad, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, told the New York Times: ‘We have no idea of the game we have played into, by running this worldwide experiment of pumping so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.’
A leading US climatologist warned that the world has just one decade to slow down climate change: NASA’s Dr. James Hansen told a meeting at the Geophysical Union in San
Francisco that a further one degree centigrade increase in world average warming would take the earth into climate patterns it has not experienced for more than 500,000 years.
In early August 2005, the New Scientist reported that in Western Siberia a permafrost area, the size of France and Germany combined, is thawing for the fi rst time since the Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. What was, until recently, an
expanse of frozen peat is turning into a broken landscape of mud and lakes, some more than a kilometre across. The area’s peat bog contains an estimated 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2,
which, if released, could dramatically increase the rate of global warming.
Even in a best-case scenario, were the methane to be released slowly over a period of 100 years, it would effectively double atmospheric levels of the gas, leading to a 10 to 25 per cent increase in global warming, said
scientists at the Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK.
There may be some, cynical enough to think that climate change is an interesting science fiction experiment, or greedy enough to want to extract the last drop of oil from the dying earth for a profit.
But what about the rest of us: not cynical, not greedy or arrogant? It is pretty clear that there need to be BIG changes in the way we live – and that is frightening for many, since we have become so dependent on this technological civilisation. However, scientists tell us that the extreme weather events to come, such as floods, hurricanes, sea-level rise and unprecedented heat waves, are more frightening than any change in the way wechoose to live now.
There is a set of figures that is both deeply depressing and hopeful. The last published World Bank data for CO2 emissions per capita indicate that, while every man, woman, and child in the US puts out 20 metric tons of CO2 per annum, those in the European Union put out eight per person per year, China two, and the output of Nigerians, who supply us with much of the oil that we burn into CO2, is zero – below scale. In 2002, US-Americans used over 12,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per person, Europeans used less than half the amount, while the use in China is 987 kilowatt-hours per person. The US per-capita use of oil is twice that of the European Union, and more than eight times that of China.
What if China aspires to our standard of living? And why not, if we are not willing to cut back? Europe gets by with so much less CO2 -output and energy-input, while already
planning for further cuts. Where is the measure of global justice between those who cause no harm and those whose extravagant use of fossil fuels harms everybody else?
Regardless of who is driving this – industry, the military, religious fundamentalists, or any permutation of government, be it red or blue – responsibility for the approaching climate collapse will fall overwhelmingly on
the United States. Since the US government and corporations not only refuse to cut back but are driving eco-collapse forward, it is up to ordinary people to refuse collaboration and to control the perpetrators.
George Monbiot, addressing the December 3 London Climate March in London, said: ‘We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological
catastrophe… The structure, the diversity of our lives, everything we know, everything that we have taken for granted, that looked solid and non-negotiable, suddenly looks contingent… We need not a 20 per cent cut by 2020; not a 60 per cent cut by 2050; but a 90 per cent cut by 2030.’
The opportunity and time to make a difference that will affect the entire planet is now. But will we?
¦ Maria Gilardin produces TUC Radio, a weekly half-hour radio programme that is distributed for free to all radio stations via Pacifica Radio’s KU Band, and as an mp3 file on TUC Radio’s website: www.tucradio.org. She may be reached at email@example.com
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2006
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