Steady as she goes: global climatic denial guarantees chaotic future

Below is the full, 800-word version of my article, a compressed version of same appears in this morning’s Irish Times, which runs to just 600 words, so a quarter of the original piece fell under the subs’ desk knife. This is my first piece since the paper underwent its recent re-design; I had no idea quite how far-reaching the impact has been in terms of the reduction in content. It’s a challenge to write an analysis piece on a technical subject threading a range of sources together – and keep it to 800 words. Knock another 200 off that again and…well, it’s essentially a different piece entirely. Anyhow, and for the record, here’s what I was trying to say….

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A giant tanker ship carrying 150,000 cubic metres of gas left Norway earlier this month for Japan. The vessel, Ob River, is taking a short cut that will trim several thousand kilometres off the trip. Its historic voyage would, just a decade ago would have been inconceivable even in high summer. The Ob River is travelling through the remnants of the once-frozen Arctic ocean – in the depths of winter.

While 17,000 politicians, NGOs and policymakers gather this week in Doha for the 18th annual talking shop of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), back in the real world, temperatures are rising, ice is melting relentlessly and the planet is quickly slipping into a new, chaotic climatic era that scientific studies have been warning about for decades.

Three separate major reports this month, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into an planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse, it.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths”, according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a (dangerously) warming world – not just 2C, but 4C, and, at our current rates, 6C.”

Even at 2C over pre-industrial levels, the world is likely to have stepped into the abyss of irreversible climate disruption. As that approaches 4-6C, “we are passing through the gates of hell” in the words of one senior scientist. The World Bank Report warned that India would lose half its grain crops and Africa a third of its arable land at just 2C global average temperature increase.

Drought and famines will quickly spread into what are today some of the world’s most important food-producing regions – northern China, the US mid-west, much of the Middle East, as well as India and Pakistan are all facing collapse in water supplies within 10-20 years.

PwC calculates that, to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding the 2C climate ‘red line’, annual carbon emissions reductions of 5.1 per cent will have to be achieved, year on year from now until 2050. In reality, emissions are heading in the opposite direction, currently growing at over 2.5 per cent annually. Not since World War Two have global emissions ever actually declined by this level, and even then, it was for five, not 40 years.

“The new data provides further evidence that the door to a 2C trajectory is about to close”, Fatih Birol, chief economist with the International Energy agency said recently. John Steinbruner, lead author of a study for the US Central Intelligence Agency commented: “climate extremes are going to be more frequent…we’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse”.

The US military, not renowned for environmental alarmism, is now bracing for the collapse of multiple states, as floods, famine and disease triggers involuntary mass migration across international borders, on a scale that will rapidly overwhelm any capacity to respond. Ironically, publication of this CIA study was delayed by 10 days as Hurricane Sandy shut down the US Federal government last month.

“We’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,” according to the World Bank report entitled ‘Turn Down the Heat’. A 4C rise this century is “a doomsday scenario”, World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim acknowledged glumly.

The UN conference in Doha comes just weeks after the expiry of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has had only marginal impact in curbing global emissions. There is nothing on the table at Doha that will have any material impact on staving off calamity. The host country, Qatar, is the perfect metaphor for the paradox of progress, as it depends for its wealth on vast reserves of climate-destroying fossil fuels. Scientists estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves (worth some $20 trillion) must remain in the ground if disaster is to be averted.

We now have no choice but to forego the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and instead switch on a massive scale to low-carbon sources, such as renewables and nuclear power, as well as drastic improvements in energy efficiency. Like it or not, this also means the effective winding down of consumption-based capitalism and big drops in living standards.

Once we finally grasp that the consequences of ‘business as usual’ are unimaginably grim, political and economic changes that today seem unthinkable may soon be inevitable. The global slave trade went, in a matter of years, from an indispensable pillar of the world economy to being morally repulsive. To have a future, humanity’s relationships with fossil energy may very soon have to undergo a similar transformation.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator.
He is on Twitter: @think_or_swim

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

    John, – In a recent post you mentioned the low-level
    terror you felt on contemplating the expected fate of the planet before this
    century is out. Reading an article by Joe Romm on Climate Progress, I felt the
    same way.

     

    Romm posed an interesting question, asking readers to
    suggest what kind of event it would take to end American procrastination on
    climate change. He said to think in terms of a ‘climate Pearl Harbor,’ noting
    that not even Hurricane Sandy had brought about significant change.

     

    Joe Romm was probably shocked by the comments he
    received. There were over 100 responses (accepted by the moderator). The first
    ten or twenty suggested that disasters like Miami city being flattened by a
    category 5 hurricane might do the trick and knock some sense into the United
    States Congress.

     

    But then the commentariat almost unanimously decided to
    dismiss the climate Pearl Harbor idea altogether. By the time an event of that
    magnitude hit the States, they wrote, global warming would already be too far advanced
    and it would simply be too late: nothing could then change the course of the
    warming.

     

    The next few dozen writers went a step further, saying
    we were already past the point of salvaging the situation and were on course
    for two degrees of warming. This amount of warming would boost feedback loops –
    such as methane release from the Siberian permafrost adding to the greenhouse
    effect and speeding up the permafrost melt – that would bring four degrees of
    warming, which in a domino effect would bring six to twelve degrees of warming
    by the end of the century. This would mean an end to civilisation and of almost
    all life on Earth in a remarkably short time-frame. And to reverse that would
    take thousands of years.

     

    All were agreed that the US would have to go on a war footing
    like it did in World War II, and turn all of its industrial might and resources
    over to the battle against climate change if there was to be any chance of saving
    the world as we know it.

     

    Joe Romm must be mopping his brow after reading these
    letters. Could he have imagined that his ‘Let’s see what they think’ post would
    produce such apocalyptic outpourings? I doubt it.

    Cóilín MacLochlainn