Economics and politics - comment and analysis

News from the climate change front. The world faces an emergency

While politicians are trying hard to either win or lose elections (see here) and journalists write up fairy tales or produce irrelevancies, the planet is becoming uninhabitable. The most outstanding feat of our era is that we are dramatically falling short in taking action and that the super rich and those in power continue to be in denial. For them, it is business as usual, as if they and theirs will ultimately somehow, miraculously, escape the onslaught of a planet unsuitable for human life. So, let’s enjoy the show, create more disruption and dysfunction and make profits. How long can this still go on? One or two centuries perhaps. If we take our clue from what been accomplished to mitigate climate change so far, this will continue to the bitter end, until the impacts of climate change and climate change threat multipliers will have become utterly irreversible as well as lethal (see, for example, here). There is no doubt: climate change has the potency to erase human life from this planet. This is no hysterical talk. For the last twenty five years, the only ones who had it consistently right all along have at one point all been called alarmists.

After the global average temperature in February broke all previous records, it turns out that the global average temperature in March was even higher. Both the Japan Meteorological Agency and NASA show that March was 1.65 degrees C higher than the 1951-1980 March average, while February was 1.71 degrees C warmer than the February average over that time period (see here and here for the NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration) figures for March and April). I am unsure why today’s temperatures are being compared to the 1951-1980 baseline or with 20th Century averages (as also for example here). The real measure consists of comparing today’s temperatures with the period in which CO2 was at pre-industrial levels (approximately 350 ppm). If this measure is being used, one needs to add at least 0.22 C to these figures. The madness then becomes glaringly clear: we are very close to the level of a global average temperature rise that the COP21 Paris Agreement aims to prevent from occurring in 2100.

There is another reason why these figures do not portray the real drama. While global average temperature rise is an essential measure, it provides less information than latitudinal temperature rise. Yes, global temperature is rising, but in the Arctic temperature is not rising by 1.5 degrees C, but by 8 degrees C. Since last December, temperature anomalies in the Arctic have been in the range of 8 to 10 degrees C – this is truly frightening (see here).

Figure 1

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January-March 2016 global average temperatures compared to 1951-1980. Source: NASA.

Figure 2

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Year-to-date average global temperature anomalies compared to the 1951-1980 baseline. Source: Climate Central (here).

To come back to the figures, the data from NASA show that the period encompassing the last past 11 months has been the hottest one in 135 years or record-keeping (see also here). In the Arctic, for the second year in succession, sea ice reached a new wintertime low record. Given the record-breaking warm summer for that region, the Arctic sea will become ice-free either this year or next year.

Dahr Jamail, who writes up consistently excellent monthly overviews on climate change for Truthout (it is all based on peer-review publications) cites more example of occurrences that border on the surreal. Just a few days ago, the temperature in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, reached 16.6 degrees. Incredibly, it demolished the April record high temperature by 3.6 degrees C. Inland, in Kangerlussuaq, temperature reached 17,7 degrees C. That day, it was warmer in Greenland than in San Francisco, which is situated at the same latitude as Turkey (see here).

Some argue that these incredibly abnormal temperatures are due to an exceptionally strong El Niño. It is true that the current El Niño is exceptionally strong, but it is not true that El Niño is responsible for the rise in temperature. Its effect is estimated to be in the range of 0.1 C (see here). The record temperature rises are caused by the ever increasing accumulation of CO2 within the atmosphere (CO2 emissions are rising, not decreasing). Last week, the Mauna Loa Observatory, which monitors atmospheric carbon dioxide, recorded a new record: 409.3 parts per million. This planet has not seen this much atmospheric carbon dioxide for the last 15 million years (see here). CO2 and other greenhouse gases create a multitude of events and feed-back mechanisms of which the warming of the Arctic is one of the most dangerous. The main feed-back there is obvious (the less ice the more warming), there are many others. And while it is correct that El Niño is now waning and is likely to usher in a La Niña later this year, which will have a cooling effect, these are ultimately short term fluctuations. The main trend is steeply upwards: CO2 rises, temperature rises.

Hansen and others warned many years ago that even an increase of 1 degree C above the baseline was sufficient to cause catastrophic ACD (Anthropogenic Climate Disruption) and that 1.5 degrees C constitutes the tipping point for the permafrost to start thawing. The permafrost has been thawing for some years now (see here). As I explained before, when the permafrost thaws, methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is being emitted into the atmosphere. The gradual build-up or even the ‘explosion’ of a ‘methane bomb’ belongs by no means to the realms of science fiction. The contrary is true: the build-up of atmospheric methane or a methane ‘explosion’ is impossible to prevent if temperatures continue to rise. Warm up the planet above a certain threshold – 1.5 degrees C according to Hansen and that is where we are now – and the methane will escape from the thawing clathrates into the atmosphere (see here on methane clathrates, here for the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis’ and here on abrupt climate change). The question is if this doomsday scenario can still be averted. No one knows how much methane will eventually finds its way into the atmosphere or how fast or how slow.

What is certain, however, is that the insanity continues. There is no longer any question that the world finds itself in a climate change emergency. Climate change is progressing much faster than almost everyone ever expected. And what are we doing? According to Jamail, every hour of every day, we extract 3.7 million barrels of oil from the earth; we remove 932.000 tons of coal from the earth, we remove 395 million cubic meters of natural gas from the earth, we put 4.1 tons of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere and every hour 9.300 more inhabit the planet (see here, here  and here for the source of these staggering figures).

Political action is urgently needed, but, as I said, most policy-makers are in denial. The problem is not so much that Donald Trump does not ‘believe’ that climate change is real  (there are only ‘natural fluctuations’) and not even that Hillary Clinton will implement pro-fracking and pro-drilling policies, the problem is that the great majority of policy-makers everywhere who understand the reality of ACD very well are in denial. I do not know what these people think. Perhaps they think that they can leave the problem for the next generation and perhaps they believe that climate change can be addressed with piecemeal changes that won’t impact anyone too much and certainly will leave the power relations within the global system intact. They are radically mistaken on both counts. The problem has to be addressed now. Today, there exists in reality not one single policy that shows sufficient promise to significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon markets are a particularly counter-productive way of addressing climate change (as we will explain soon in an article). Climate change will prove impossible to solve without altering power relations. This is true on all scales. For example, if, as is the case now in some American cities, people stand up against fracking, oil and gas build war chests to fight ballot initiatives that would let cities regulate fracking. How long will this still go on? Sure, some people get awfully rich. But there has to be a limit. Isn’t it obvious that they cannot eat, drink or breathe their oil?