Is climate change as bad as we thought? It's worse.
By Ole Hendrickson
November 24, 2016
Dianne Saxe, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), has just
released her 2016 climate report. Chapter 1 is a brilliant summary of
the science behind climate change, with a focus on how it will impact
Ontario. Saxe pulls no punches. Her report contains a graphic asking,
"Is it as bad as we thought?" The answer: "It's worse."
For some time, there have been rumblings in the scientific community
that politicians, the media and reports issued by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change are understating the degree to which the Earth
is in trouble from climate change.
This could be seen as "soft" denial: a desire to avoid causing alarm to
the general public by downplaying evidence of accelerating global
warming and climate disruption -- not to mention the increasingly dim
prospects for reversing these trends. This "soft" denial is reinforced
by the "hard" denial of far-right politicians and news outlets.
Many still hope that the global consensus and pledges for national
action that emerged from last December's Paris climate summit can
somehow "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate
system" (the stated goal of the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change). But even as president-elect Trump appoints his climate
change-denying senior advisers, scientists report that runaway climate
change is already happening.
Major news outlets are sounding the alarm
Mainstream media outlets are starting to share the news. The headline of
a recent Washington Post article says "The North Pole is an insane 36
degrees warmer than normal as winter descends." Scientists are stunned
by the magnitude of this deviation from past climate norms, as warm air
keeps flooding into the high Arctic. But don't be fooled into thinking
this means a warm winter in Canada. Even as the Arctic Ocean stubbornly
resists winter, extreme cold has prevailed over Siberia and could spread
to North America. This represents an ever-more chaotic climate.
Another example is a must-read New Yorker article entitled "Greenland is
melting," by Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the 2015 non-fiction Pulitzer
Prize for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert describes
in great detail what scientists working in Greenland are witnessing:
"The shrinking of the country's ice sheet is triggering feedback loops
that accelerate the global crisis. The floodgates may already be open."
Or consider this Weather Network headline: "Game over? Will global
warming be even worse than we think?" The article cites a new study that
says, "within the 21st century, global mean temperatures will very
likely exceed maximum levels reconstructed for the last 784,000 years."
This time period includes the last eight cycles of glacial advance and
retreat. The authors predict a five-degree Celsius average global
temperature increase by the end of this century, far beyond the
two-degree Celsius danger threshold in the Paris climate agreement.
The new ECO report points out that "[g]reenhouse gases stay in the
atmosphere for many years, building up a thicker and thicker carbon
blanket." The Earth's oceans and land areas will take time to fully
respond to the current 400 parts per million of atmospheric carbon
dioxide. This is a level not experienced in at least the past 800,000
years, and perhaps even 15 million years. Huge disruptions to the
climate system are "locked in" and the worst is yet to come.
The worst-case scenario is apocalyptic
Evolution has prepared humans to react to and deal with an immediate,
visible crisis, but not with a crisis that has a built-in lag period. We
can choose to ignore the many warning signs of climate change -- melting
glaciers and sea ice, violent storms, rising seas, unprecedented
droughts and floods -- but the ultimate price we pay just keeps getting
higher and higher.
How bad could it get? Scientists aren't talking about complete human
extinction, are they?
Sorry, but they are indeed. This may be the first you've heard of
"euxinia" (pronounced "yuke-zenia"), but basically, this involves a
planet devoid of higher life forms that depend on oxygen, oceans choked
with rotting organic matter and bacteria spewing out toxic hydrogen
sulfide. This happened during past mass extinctions, notably the biggest
of all at the end of the Permian Period, 252 million years ago.
One study published this year says "exacerbation of anoxic "dead" zones
is already progressing in modern oceanic environments, and this is
likely to increase…" Another study says "[g]lobal warming triggered by
the massive release of carbon dioxide may be catastrophic, but the
release of methane from hydrate may be apocalyptic." Authors of the
latter study add that "[t]he end Permian holds an important lesson for
humanity regarding the issue it faces today with greenhouse gas
emissions, global warming, and climate change."
Can we avoid a worst-case mass extinction scenario? Analyses of burned
boned fragments from a South African cave by University of Toronto
professor Michael Chazan and co-workers indicate that our ancestors
learned to use fire at least one million years ago. This served us well
through numerous glacial cycles. But we now seem to have lost the
ability to control fire (in the form of burning fossil fuels). This may
be our downfall.
Breaking the addiction
So what now? Should we embrace a final fossil fuel blow-out and party
until it's over? Or do we take Ms. Saxe's advice: "If we act now, there
is still time to protect much of what we love."
There are many near-term reasons not to continue on a course that means
farewell to planet Earth. Take economics: the ECO report says "Climate
change will cost Ontarians serious amounts of money." It warns that
Ontario's public pension plans have a very high degree of exposure to
fossil fuel investments. This is risky, now that the costs of
extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels (fracking, tar sands,
pipelines, coal-fired power plants, etc.) exceed costs of developing
renewable alternatives. Wiser investors have already reacted.
Take health: an ongoing failure to break our addiction to fossil-fuelled
transport may be a major contributor to a current massive epidemic of
dementia, as our brains become loaded with tiny magnetic iron particles
linked to Alzheimer's disease.
Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change,
recently announced that Canada will phase out coal-fired electricity
generation by 2030. Her press release says this "will significantly
improve the air quality and the health of Canadians," and lead to a
reduced GHG emission equivalent to "taking 1.3 million cars off the road."
If the minister really wants to improve the health of Canadians, it's
time to get serious about taking cars off the road.
Are we all deniers?
For those who care about the fate of other species with which we share
this planet, the 2016 Living Planet Report contains sobering news of
rapid and widespread population declines. Greenhouse-gas-fuelled ocean
warming will almost certainly eliminate a huge proportion of the world's
coral reefs, as seen with the extraordinary bleaching of Australia's
Great Barrier Reef. Vanishing life forms and cheap air travel are
spurring a wave of "last-chance tourism." Researchers who interviewed
visitors to Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears concluded that
tourists "perceive climate change to be negatively impacting polar bears
but do not necessarily understand how they themselves contribute to GHG
With members of the general public seemingly unable to grasp the urgency
of climate change, or their role in causing it, scientists are proposing
increasingly desperate geo-engineering measures. The leading candidate
currently promoted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change --
to devote huge land areas to biomass production, burn the biomass, and
pump the carbon dioxide underground -- would devastate native
ecosystems. Injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere in an
attempt to reduce solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface would
have unpredictable side effects on precipitation, and amounts to
treating a symptom (rising temperatures) rather than a cause (rising
atmospheric greenhouse gases). Donald Trump hasn't even taken office
yet, so we can hardly blame him for climate change (except his own
lifestyle and his fleet of aircraft). If he succeeds in muzzling or
firing U.S. climate scientists he would only be following in the
footsteps of Canada's former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Donald Trump is essentially running a side-show, albeit one that seems
endlessly fascinating to the media and the general public. We need to
refocus our attention. Time is running out.
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