Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Arctic, Global Warming, and World Politics: And the Band Played On

Over the last two years, I have sometimes been afflicted by the feeling that most of the world around me is functionally insane – and then I tell myself that I’m being paranoid. It seems to me that there is a steady drumbeat of scientific research that says that our carbon emissions as evidenced in the world around us are leading to unprecedented (and I don’t use that term lightly) catastrophe – for the descendants of every single one of us. And I note almost no comparable sense of urgency from almost anyone in a position of public or business responsibility. And then I say to myself, well, the same information is available to them. Maybe I’m misperceiving.

The test case, for me, is sea ice in the Arctic. Over the last few years, “extent” and “area” data have apparently said one thing: less than 5 % ice cover at minimum (early Sept.) sometime between 2030 and 2100. The volume data have apparently said another thing: less than 5% ice cover between 2013 and 2015 (actually, for arcane reasons to do with variance around the mean, it’s more like between 2016 and 2020). Volume data is fuzzier than extent and area data, so conservative scientists have tended to project the 2030-2100 number. However, it has seemed to me (again, for arcane reasons) that the volume number is far more realistic. And we’ll know for sure in, at maximum, 3 ¼ years.

Think, just for a brief second, about what it would mean if I was right. In September 2018, a little over 5 years from now, it will be clear sailing, with no ice, except probably just north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Shipping need not go anywhere except straight across the top of the world. The sun will shine down on a massive new “heat bank”, warming the surface waters instead of reflecting the heat back to space, and delaying refreezing – and fueling ongoing processes that will result in much more methane and carbon dioxide being released from Arctic waters and nearby Canadian and Russian permafrost. The process will feed on itself, every year delaying the onset of refreezing even more and causing the melting to occur earlier in the year, until somewhere between 2040 and 2060, probably, the Arctic will stay unfrozen almost all year around.

That, in turn, will speed the melting of Greenland ice into the ocean – which at its end would add perhaps 30-60 feet to the world’s oceans. The additional warmth from Arctic unfreezing – added to “business as usual” warming to yield global warming estimated, too conservatively and without good regard to the effects of permafrost unfreezing, at 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 – will speed south to Antarctic ocean currents and atmosphere, speeding the melting of another 150-odd feet of ocean rise.

All of this will play out over 200-1000 years, say the scientists, but, again, it seems to me that the most likely figure is closer to 200. And if you then examine the rest of the effects of my “most likely” temperature and ocean rise, as predicted by scientists and then modified by my knowledge of politics and economics, it’s very hard for me not to panic.

And for some reason, I keep looking at the news, at political comments on the subject, and the rest of how people are spending their lives, and hearing no remotely comparable sense of urgency. They just keep on doing the same things, as if walking around with invisible headphones, listening to some music that drowns out what I hear and say. And I start hearing in my head for some reason an old song with an endless refrain, “something the girl with the strawberry curls/And the band played on.”

The Trigger

Over the last couple of years I’ve been lurking at a superb web site mediating between scientific findings and amateur assessors of the research such as myself: Do not pass Go, go directly to their daily graphs page, and look at the ones that show the yearly trend of volume and area. Sometime in the next 3 ½ years, if I am correct, we will see massive jumps downwards in area and extent during the melt period to correspond to the massive loss of volume at all times of the year we have seen between 1979 and now. And based on the last few days of area and extent data, I am wondering if it is beginning. Certainly, the predictors, scientific and otherwise, seem to sense a major downward movement (cf the SEARCH 2012 Sea Ice Outlook: June report blog post in the same location). Note the key sentence: “The 2012 June Outlook differs from all previous Outlooks in that there are no projections of extent [during September’s “minimum month] greater than 5.0.”

Now here’s what I see in politics: Canada’s Stephen Harper says it’ll be a boon to Canada because of the tolls for using the Northwest Passage. Excuse me? If in 10 years I’m going to be able to simply barrel past Alaska to the Pole and then pivot south around Greenland to get to both Western Europe and the Eastern US for August through September, why would I give two cents to Canada? Maybe I’d give a little to Russia for the Northeast Passage, but not much, considering my alternatives.

Then there’s all sorts of debate about “the mineral wealth of the Arctic” – mainly oil, isn’t it? Gee, what a good idea, let’s speed up global warming even faster! And let’s kill even more ocean life in the process – even though a scientific report to the UN says we may kill off just about everything important in the ocean but jellyfish by 2100 unless we mend our ways.

Meanwhile, back in the US, half of the population is pledged to a party committed to denying there’s any problem at all – instead, they want to get more oil, drill, my poor baby, drill. Over in China, as was predicted 3 years ago, attempts to get into solar while satisfying the populace with coal have been the primary cause of a record global rise in carbon emissions last year. And those are just the most important villains; the same in lesser degree could be said for most nations. I am not in the slightest minimizing what those like Australia’s Prime Minister are doing; it’s just that nobody seems to be talking about the fact that their efforts are having minimal impact compared to the scale of what it takes to avoid or even minimize the disaster.

And our beloved businesses, whose free-market prowess will lead us out of this mess: gee, it’s 35 years and counting, maybe 5 years since you noticed that there might possibly be an effect on your brand, and the US is just about the most “free-market” country around, and have we reduced our emissions via your superb technological innovations driven into the market by sheer entrepreneurial force? Or have we seen only a flattening over the last 3 years of deep recession and slow recovery, while the Koch brothers fund political denial after media denial, and your “just us business rich” attitude towards this type of blatant free-market distortion is to enable with your boards of directors and to excuse with your Chambers of Commerce and your Heartland Institutes?

And the band played on.

Imagining Horror

So let’s take a map of the world in 2060 (it may be 30-60 years later than that) showing the likely areas of epic drought or far too much rain – drought which, by the way, includes just about all of the US except the Northeast. Subtract areas in the tropics, as they will eventually be mostly too hot to support meaningful crops (think: Qatar). Now subtract maybe 100 miles inland from higher oceans, and maybe more than that if the continental shelves periodically produce bursts of acid, sulfuric air (Ward’s Medusa hypothesis). Where do you have left to grow food?

Well, there’s a long strip in Siberia where there’s permafrost now. There’s a shorter strip in upper Canada where there’s permafrost now. There’s a pretty short strip in north Argentina. Notice anything about these? No one’s growing food there now. All our present growing areas – 10 times or more the area we’re talking about – will be extraordinarily hard or impossible (perhaps a third of the world’s growing areas are around river deltas) to grow food on. And, by the way, all that permafrost is probably going to turn into peat bogs, complete with swamps and mosquitoes. Lovely places to live.

How much of the world’s present population can we support via farming there? There is no likely way now to support more than 20% of the present population (around 7 billion), at reasonable minimum daily calories, afaik; maybe only 10%. Let’s say, at a wild guess, 1 billion. So who are those 1 billion going to be?

Well, gee, do you really think Canada or Russia will welcome 1 billion people with open arms? Ah, but we’re rich (or some of us are); we can buy our way in. Except that who protects us from the 6 billion (or maybe 8 billion, by 2050) others? Not the government; that would require that the government take most of your money for your defense, and you wouldn’t like that, would you? Much better to hire mercenaries. Except that those mercenaries will, as mercenaries have always done, given the opportunity, turn around and demand they get the bulk of the loot. And they won’t have much use for more than the minimum number of rich after that. Yeah, you’ll buy survival – but probably not of over half your descendants. But who cares even about your own great-great-grandchildren, if you can live it up?

And I haven’t even touched on the litany of natural disasters, and very possibly wars, that will increasingly decrease our ability to either avoid (geoengineering on the cheap, anyone?) or adapt to this brave new world. And I haven’t touched on the impoverished ecosystems supporting this new farmland, or the fact we’ll have to move twice to get there, since it won’t even be fully melted 50-60 years from now when the stresses may really hit.

And it’s also, it appears to me, that there’s a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity. 45 years ago, when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House, minimal efforts over the last 45 years would have avoided it all. Now, some effects seem impossible to avoid and imminent – like the Arctic melting and a follow-on 15-foot-by-2100 Greenland sea rise and global warming up to 2 degrees Celsius. Major disruptions to our great-great-grandchildrens’ lives appear impossible to avoid unless we reduce emissions to about 10-20% of our present level within about 20-30 years.

That’s doable by a supreme effort. Is anyone talking about it? And it gets far harder to avoid the ultimate horror after that.

Or is it the ultimate horror? No, even I won’t go there today – although the way we’ve been handling things, it’s no longer effectively impossible.

And the band played on.


So, as I understand Rachel Maddow says, talk me down. Although, over the last few years, I haven’t seen much talking-down going on. Maybe I’m over-reacting to the Arctic data. Maybe my understanding is flawed. I’d love it to be so. I would really like to just sit here and listen, as the horrible, wonderful human band plays on.

And by 2050, I fully anticipate being in my grave. Dreaming, I hope, of my own girl with the strawberry hair. Viewing that “Tomorrow,” as the old folk song says, “When the sun is at rise/No more sorrow, shall be found in mine eyes.” Even if I am right, I will never see the full consequences. Silly me, to worry about my great-great-grandchildren. Or anyone else’s.

But I do have one request, should it turn out, by some amazing chance, that I’m close to right. If some great-great-grandchild of someone survives and remembers, I’d like them to do one thing for me. No need to do it. It would just be nice.

If, in that strange future world, my gravestone survives, I’d like them to come back and carve a simple message on it. Five words.

And the band played on.


Neven said...

Wayne, I sympathize, I know what you mean. There is not much to be done about it, but hope that things will go slower than feared, and hope that the Arctic will wake even more people up.

Do you have a garden or access to a garden? It's the only thing that makes me feel hopeful and useful. Like Voltaire said a long time ago: Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Yooper said...

I agree with Twemoran: You are indeed an optimist.

Nevertheless, we must still proceed as if we still have a chance, even though the clock is ticking down towards the end of the game...

Jon said...

As a Canadian, Stephen Harper is bad enough - please don't saddle us with David Cameron too.

Wayne Kernochan said...

I apologize profusely to Jon. Harper it is. This is what happens when I read too much Paul Krugman. It's bad enough that we're talking about migrating there; you shouldn't have to put up with American arrogance as well.

@Neven: I would indeed take solace in my garden (which, by no effort of my own, is now sprouting different gorgeous flowers at all non-winter times of the year) if I hadn't read a blog post recently by someone from Oklahoma, describing just how the recent drought has made it darned near impossible to grow anything at all.

KeenOn350 said...

I guess you must not have used a computer for you arithmetic -

About 45 years ago, Lynden B Johnson referred to the dangers of CO2 emissions, in a speech to congress I believe. Carter put his solar pnels up about 35 years ago.

In either case - we certainly had enough warning - too bad we were so preoccupied with building business

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