Points of View: Climate Change

The great melt. Left: Nordaustlandet, Svalbard; Right: Huayña Potosí, Bolivia

I am deeply concerned with climate change
. As atmospheric CO2 concentrations cross 400 ppm, levels not seen in over a million years and which almost certainly portend novel climate states that will challenge humanity, I am appalled by Canada’s perpetual failure to show progress or leadership with respect to greenhouse-gas emissions reduction strategies. Of course, I was previously dismayed by the former Conservative government’s slashing of funding to, and muzzling of, agencies involved in climate and environmental science, as summarized here and here. The bar was set very low indeed for a fresh start by the Liberal government, which announced they would take "bold" approaches towards the problem following their election (October 2015) and the COP21 Paris agreement. It now seems the Liberals are content to accept soft targets set by the Conservatives while endorsing new fossil fuel development projects (in British Columbia especially), while reneguing the electoral promise to slash subsidies to the fossil fuel sector. It is becoming painfully clear that, as the 21st century evolves, governments of all political stripes will protect economic growth over environmental futures, and that solutions —including adaptation— must rely on more local levels of governance or grass-roots movements. This situation arises from the economic reality that climate change in general, and greenhouse gas emissions more specifically, fail as components of the free market because their associated externalities —the ultimate costs to society beyond the the production and sale of greenhouse-gas emitting goods and services— currently have insufficient (or no) monetary valuation, being left instead as matters of ethics and social responsibility, concepts too ethereal to "count" in the economies of most governments. The resulting reality, so eloquently summarized by George Monbiot, is that the political costs of failure on matters of climate change are simply too low to mandate any investment beyond lip-service during electoral campaigns. At the same time, the media have shaped beliefs using distortionary sound bites as far-ranging as "it's all El Niño" and "there has been no warming since 1998" with remarkable effectiveness. Taken together, these elements now conspire for a perfect storm. Climate change, the "climate crisis", the "sixth mass extinction", the "Athropocene" and many other designations are no longer possible future scenarios; they are realities of a planet undergoing rapid and massive transformation due to the pressures imposed by our species upon the very natural systems we depend on for survival.

The facts remain clear: real science from a breadth of disciplines (including but not limited to: oceanography, climatology, glaciology, ecology, biogeochemistry and limnology) unambiguously supports the notion of profound human interference with many key elemental cycles at the planetary scale, including those directly implicated in climate regulation via greenhouse gas emissions (carbon: CO2 and CH4, and nitrogen: N2O). Because of the sheer scale of summed of human impacts, we now view the world of today as sufficiently different from baseline conditions of the Holocene (the last 11,700 years) to probably merit the naming of a new epoch in the geologic time scale: the Anthropocene.

Globally, sea level is rising by over 3 mm/year, glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are shedding over 500 gigatons of mass annually, temperatures are warming inexorably, weather patterns are increasingly disrupted so that extremes are the new norm, and melting arctic sea ice is impacting the physics of energy balance in fundamental ways. Modeling efforts demonstrate that purely natural forcing of the climate system, that is in absence of excess greenhouse gases from human activities, is incapable of producing the observed temperature increases. When these gases are included, models reproduce reality with remarkable fidelity, implying that they have considerably more predictive skill than, say, economic forecast models, and as such are not weak links in climate science despite cynical claims to the contrary. Model predictions made a decade ago have come to pass, and scientific understanding of the climate system, both empirically and theoretically, continues to evolve at a pace mandated by the acceleration of global change.

In fact, I now argue that the major remaining questions are not scientific in nature, but rather socio-economic, geopolitical, and even moral; does humanity care enough about its own future, and that of the stable environment that has cradled civilization, to respond wisely to the mounting pressures on the planet owed to human dominance of key processes? Amazingly, the response to this question is not universally "yes". Many jurisdictions, including Canada and the USA, now commonly express greater interest in short-term economic greed, collusionary behavior with corporate entities that are already among the richest in history, and reckless dismissal of precautionary principles towards environmental stewardship.

To deny that climate change is occurring is tantamount to living in cave with eyes closed. To be critical and skeptical is of course healthy, but it is absurd to posit that climate scientists are alarmists driven by financial or political incentives to advance their research agendas. Given current funding trends, there are no lucrative motives for climate change scientists to exagerrate the truth in any way. On the other hand, most climate change denialists have direct or indirect ties to the hydrocarbon sector, and thus benefit handsomely by perpetuating myth.

Indeed, if I could say there was no real or lasting problem, I gladly would. If I could earnestly say "one or two degrees warming then a potent negative feedback kicks in and the planet will return to equilibrium", I would. But my reading of the science, my own contributions to it, and my conscience preclude any such optimism. There is no compelling evidence for such a negative feedback mechanism. Quite the opposite: processes driving global warming and responding to it both appear to be accelerating at an alarming pace, sealing the assurance of a quite different and warmer world long into the future, with consequences that will undoubtedly affect all of humanity. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

What are the predictions? Sea level rise is by far the most daunting threat as coastal populations continue to grow in both developed and developing nation states; billions stand to be impacted. Thus, if I were to pick a single tipping point in the climate system, it would be the Amundsen Sea of West Antarctica. Here, massive calving glaciers are not buttressed by landfast ice shelves as they are in the Ross and Weddell Sea sectors (for now, at least), making them particularly vulnerable to rapid destabilization. Upstream regions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that are now ice-bound lie hundreds of metres below current sea level, meaning that, should ocean water penetrate the core of the ice sheet, it will disintegrate rapidly, with an attendant quasi-instantaneous sea-level rise of several metres. Because direct geological analogies exist for this type of behavior, this is not a particularly fanciful scenario. For example, at the close of the last ice age, both the Laurentide and Fennoscandian ice sheets were literally gutted by the flooding of Hudson Bay and the Baltic Sea, respectively. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet itself is known to have been unstable in the past, responding rapidly and non-linearly to relatively subtle climate forcing. In a bittersweet irony, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is geographically among the most antipodal locations to centers of human population, and thus not in the daily conscience of all but a few devout specialists. Yet if there is one lesson learned from the study of the Earth, it is that the system functions in highly integrated and interconnected ways.

A second set of predictions involves the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, a third involves methane hydrate releases from melting permafrost and warming ocean margins. I could go on, but won't.

So, are there any solutions? Probably, barring political stubborness. Various technologies exist for generating non-fossil fuel energies, and these are maturing to the point where they can be ingeniously adapted, connected, and distributed in many ways. However, for this to happen at a scale sufficient to impact atmospheric composition globally, governments need to subsidize their development in lieu of conventional energy sources (oil, natural gas, and coal). Subsidies to the latter have not only accelerated the pace of exploitation to manic levels and ultimately boosted the growth of CO2 emissions to dangerous levels, but at the same time exacerbated the socio-economic polarization between rich and poor in many jurisdictions. Were these exact same amounts channeled instead towards comprehensive national and international sustainable energy programs, an exciting agenda of high-tech economic diversification could take root. There is scant evidence that such visionary programs are economically crippling, while it is patently evident that the current status of global energy supply and consumption portends great risk for humans and their environment.

Left: Southwest Greenland; Right: Baffin Island

If you are interested in these topics, there are many good online resources:

NOAA current greenhouse gas concentrations
The Keeling curve
CO2 Now
NASA Earth observatory
NSIDC sea ice watch
Real Climate blog
Climate change glossary: the discovery of global warming

But don't take it from me. Read on for samplings of what other scholars have recently written on the topic.

Climate Change's Ticking Clock
Richard A. Falk
Game Over for the Climate
James E. Hansen
The Tar Sands Disaster
Thomas Homer-Dixon
What Path is the Real World Following

Makiko Sato and James Hansen

Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected
Politicians using, people they're abusing
The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it's at

Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer
This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that's a concrete cold fact

Sixto Rodriguez, 1970
"This is not a song, it's an outburst: or, the establishment blues"

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