Hot air, melting ice, ticking clock

Hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting Declan Ganley of Libertas until yesterday. Well, Declan is of course a stickler for accuracy, so perhaps ‘encountering’ would be a more accurate term. The brief encounter occurred around noon yesterday, as I was entering the Newstalk studio. Ganley, Prionsias de Rossa and Richard Boyd Barrett were just finishing up what had been a heated discussion on Lisbon when the air began to turn blue with expletives.

Presenter Karen Coleman thought two of her guests, Ganley and de Rossa were actually going to trade blows. Here’s how Karen describes what ensued as the interview ended:

“The finger pointing between the two campaigners was enough to indicate a serious battle was underway. Ganley started accusing De Rossa of having an agenda and that he knew what it was all about. He called De Rossa a F****** traitor. De Rossa returned fire with an equally unmentionable expletive…The two warring parties left the studio and went out into the main Newstalk offices where it seems things got even more fiery. Eye witnesses described how the two men continued their verbal altercation. De Rossa questioned Ganley’s patriotism and he drew attention to his English accent. The word P**** was bandied about at one stage”.

As an eye witness to the above kerfuffle, I can certainly attest to the incident, though, while I have my theories, wouldn’t like to have to swear on a stack of bibles as to who was the chief villain in the piece.

The actual purpose of my being on Newstalk was to discuss the publication last Thursday in the online version of Nature of a major study based on new satellite information that shows both western Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets far more susceptible to melting than scientific models to date have indicated.

The new study is based on 50 million laser readings from a NASA satellite; they confirm what some pessimistic scientists thought: melting along the edges of the two major ice sheets is accelerating and is in what they describe as a self-feeding loop. The more the ice melts, the more water surrounds and eats away at the remaining ice.

“To some extent it’s a runaway effect. The question is how far will it run?” the study’s lead author, Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey was quoted as saying. “It’s more widespread than we previously thought.”

In Greenland, 81 of 111 glaciers surveyed are thinning at an accellerating, self-perpetuating rated. Heat in the air is not the major culprit. Instead, sharp increases in surface water temperatures is wreaking havoc with ice stability. In Antarctica, this is translating into some ice sheets losing 30 feet in thickness every year.

What this study does confirm is that any complacent view that global sea level rises this century will be less than a metre is entirely misplaced. What is clear is that, even if all anthropogenic CO2 production could somehow be magically stopped tomorrow, both polar regions are likely to continue melting for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Assuming humanity survives the 21st century, the map of the world in 2109 will look radically different to today’s edition, and areas that are today home to upwards of a billion people will be either be underwater or so frequently flooded as to render them uninhabitable. And yes, that includes significant chunks of coastal Ireland.

Moving away from the poles, the situation looks equally grim. The UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre has predicted a devastating 4 degree C surge in global average temperatures by 2060, just fifty years hence.

Dr Mark New of the Oxford University School of Geography told a conference earlier today that: “The eventual temperature we reach is a result of the carbon we put in the atmosphere so if we do not reduce emissions faster, the timing is much sooner. The faster the rate of change in getting to four degrees, the less time we have to adapt.”

Adapting to 4 degrees C by 2100 is a monumental task, far and away the greatest humanity has yet faced. However, having to adapt to 4C by the 2050s “gives us half as much time to adapt to a new climate and that must have massive implications.”

He’s not kidding. There isn’t a snowball’s chance of adaptation on that level being achieved in 40 years or less, even if the world could actually immediately agree to do so. That’s why, no matter how dire these scientific forecasts sound, we have to stay focused on massive, immediate decarbonisation.

It’s no longer about “stopping” climate change. Now it’s about buying a few decades to try to cope with the worst. There’s a thought to concentrate the mind ahead of the Lisbon referendum this Friday. Whatever chance we have with the EU fully engaged in getting a serious deal in Copenhagen in December will be pretty much scuttled if Ireland deliver the coup de grace to European integration this week.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Eric Conroy

    Dear John,

    Well done on the expletives and the Arctic/Antarctic melts. This is very serious – I am getting ever more pessimistic that we will ever solve this global warming crisis. Each report brings ever more gloomy news on the subject, including the frightening pictures from Sydney last week of the massive dust storms.

    It was great to talk to you at the ICNT conference in Dublin Castle. Keep up the good work.

    Eric Conroy (An Taisce).

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Eric,

    Nice to hear from you again. Certainly share your concern that this crisis is running at one speed and our response is failing miserably to keep up. Agree also that those apocalyptic images from Sydney were like stills from The Age of Stupid or images conjured up by Cormac McCarthys’ book, ‘The Road’.

    All the best,

    John G

  • Christian Kubernat

    Hi John,

    Thank you for highlighting this new and worrying scientific news. I, like Eric, am getting more and more pessimistic about the ability of humanity to react to this environmental reality. With regards to the Lisbon Treaty I worry that it will bring a much longer ‘buisiness as usual’ scenario with a focus on economic growth where unsustainable economic interests will be paramount to environmental and social considerations. And this, looking at your article, future generations cannot afford. What is needed is systematic and radical change, and what better time than this current economic crisis to make ecological sustainability the core principle of all human activities.

    Kind regards

    Christian Kubernat