by Christine Frank / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
In the summer of 1988, the hottest on record up to that point, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute reported to Congress that he was 99 percent
certain that global warming, due to the human activity of burning fossil fuels, was underway. The story made front-page headlines.
That was 17 years ago, but where are the headlines now that we have experienced three of the hottest years on record already in this century? Since George W. Bush assumed office, the corporate media had been ignoring
the issue until it was disclosed recently that his administration has been systematically suppressing information in EPA reports about the impact of
Philip Cooney, Chief of Staff for the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality (CEQ) stepped down from his post after The New York Times finally broke a story that has been widely known in environmental circles for some time now. It was the job of Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute (API), and James Connaughton, Chair of the CEQ and a former corporate attorney, to edit out the global-warming sections of government reports and remove information from websites to keep the American people ignorant of how climate change is progressing.
This was done in the name of “sound science” at the behest of ExxonMobil and right-wing think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who want business to proceed as usual with more fossil fuels being burned, more C02 belched into the atmosphere and more superprofits being made by the “Carbon Barons” of the energy and auto industries.
It is no surprise that Cooney has since redocked with the mother ship and returned to the API. While the governments of the European Union and Japan are actually taking some measures to reduce their carbon emissions by building more wind farms and solar parks, the Bush administration steadfastly refuses to do anything, claiming more study is needed to prove that global warming is indeed a scientific fact. But when the facts are presented, it immediately takes measures to conceal them.
In addition, it has employed a host of “greenhouse skeptics,” who are nothing but paid mouthpieces for the energy giants, to try to discredit the science and
cast doubt upon it. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for one-fourth of the globe’s carbon emissions. The
U.S. leads the world in consuming fossil fuels and in polluting the air.
One would think our government would assume some responsibility and take action, yet last year we increased our consumption of oil to 20.5 million
barrels a day, contributing to the 3.4 percent surge in global fossil-fuel use. We also added 18 million new gas-guzzling SUVs to our roadways, at an increase
of nearly 6 percent over 2003. Thus, we continue to race toward our doom, dragging the rest of the world along with us.
Carbon dioxide: a weapon of mass destruction
So what are the facts about global warming and climate change that Bush is so reluctant for us to know about? It is Earth’s atmosphere that keeps the planet warm enough to support life. Trace gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (NH4), in their role as infrared radiation absorbers, are vital in maintaining Earth’s heat balance. They have also played an
important role in affecting climate change in the planet’s geologic past.
From ice cores, tree rings, and sediment records, we know that when the concentrations of these essential gases rise, the mean global surface temperature rises and when they fall, so does the temperature. This was
true throughout the advance and recession of the great ice sheets that covered vast areas of the planet as recently as 12,000 years ago.
Since the Industrial Revolution, when we began using ever-increasing quantities of coal and oil to fuel the engines of the burgeoning capitalist economy, we have been releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
from sources deep underground where it has been stored for millions of years.
Carbon dioxide is rapidly becoming the most deadly weapon of mass destruction as we continue to upset the natural carbon cycle. CO2 concentrations are currently at 377.4 parts per million (molecules) by volume
compared to 280 ppmv in the pre-industrial era. This may not seem like much, which is why they are called trace gases, but a little goes a long way. Their
levels are still rising at exponential rates.
Other anthropogenically produced greenhouse gases that absorb and trap heat include water vapor, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and tropospheric ozone. The bulk of them (57%) come from burning coal, natural gas and oil, and industry in general, but there are other human activities that contribute—such as forest destruction (8%), agriculture (9%), poor waste management (5%), cement manufacturing (1%), CFC release (11.5%), and miscellaneous sources (8.5%). All of these add to the atmospheric mix that is causing
The global mean surface temperature rose 0.6°C (1.1°F) over the 20th century, but the rate of change since 1976 has been triple that, with the 10 warmest years on record having occurred since 1990. The planet’s average temperature registered at 14.48°C (58°F) in 2003.
Earth’s physiology consists of four matrixes—the soil, atmosphere, oceans, and biota or life. Each of these features interacts in a complex set of nutrient
cycles, and they also create conditions that give rise to our climate and daily weather patterns. The soil, oceans, and vegetation serve as carbon sinks, which—as they exchange this basic element of life through photosynthesis and respiration—each absorb, release, and store a certain quantity in precise proportions. This has occurred in a steady-state process for thousands of years until human beings began to intervene through industrialization.
With the oceans absorbing more CO2 than normal, the pH of seawater is being altered, becoming more acidic with the addition of greater quantities of dilute carbonic acid to its chemistry. This is having a negative effect on all marine life.
The world’s tropical rain forests also help regulate the planet’s carbon flow. They absorb millions of tons through the photosynthetic process. Their carbon is released to the atmosphere when the roots of felled trees rot in the ground and when paper or wood products made from them decompose in landfills.
The massive burning of the globe’s forests for agriculture is destroying an important carbon sink and turning it into a carbon source, adding even more CO2 to the atmosphere as the timber combusts. Trees matter. They also play an important role in the planet’s hydrological cycle. Less vegetation means
less rainfall, since plants transpire moisture into the air, which later falls as precipitation.
Proof of global warming is found in direct measurements of soil and surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and by observing
phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating and melting ice masses, and changes in the physical and biological systems.
Thinning sea ice in the Arctic
Global warming is most pronounced in the Northern Hemisphere, and its effect is most acutely observed in the Arctic Circle, where it is proceeding at almost
twice the average rate of elsewhere. The polar regions are the globe’s air-conditioning system. As they go, so goes the rest of the planet.
In the Arctic Ocean, summer sea-ice cover has thinned by 42 percent and shrunk in area by 6 percent. Together, this thinning and shrinkage have reduced it by nearly half, threatening habitats for polar bear, caribou, seabirds, and other species. Sea levels have risen by 10-20 centimeters.
A decline in protective ice cover along shorelines has led to serious coastal erosion in the winter storm months, forcing the relocation of entire Arctic
villages. With rising temperatures, plant and animal species are shifting further northward. The Inupiat are now seeing robins, for which they have no word in
As the region loses its reflective snow and ice cover, darker land and water area is being exposed and is absorbing more of the sun’s heat, thereby contributing to further planetary warming.
Another alarming fact is that thawing tundra is releasing more carbon dioxide and methane from its soil and vegetation, enhancing the greenhouse effect
even more. These are two powerful reciprocal actions at work in climate change that illustrate how we have set phenomena into motion that are interdependently feeding upon each other and steadily building momentum. Where it will stop no one can predict. Earth’s natural systems may take centuries, even a millennium, to reach a new state of equilibrium and
stabilize. In the meantime, what will happen to humanity and other life forms on the planet? Earth is facing certain ecological collapse if we do not take
Other ice masses on the planet are being affected as well as those in the Arctic Circle. Antarctica has experienced the dramatic break up of the Prince Gustav and Larsen A & B Ice Shelves. The world is skating on some very thin ice indeed.
As observed by satellite, the seasonal melt extent of the Greenland Ice Sheet is steadily growing on an annual basis. Its net loss is some 51 billion cubic
meters of water per year, an amount equal to the annual flow of the Nile. If that ice sheet were to melt entirely, it would raise sea level by 23 feet. This is another feedback loop that can reinforce existing trends. Once certain thresholds are crossed, change can come rapidly and unpredictably.
Mountain glaciers: “reservoirs in the sky”
Likewise, mountain glaciers are shrinking not only in the Arctic region but in all the major mountain ranges of the world—the Rockies, Andes, Alps, and Himalayas. This is adversely affecting the water supplies of communities dependent on glacial run-off.
Only a 1º or 2°C rise in temperature in mountainous regions can greatly increase the share of precipitation falling as rain while decreasing the
share coming down as snow. The result is more flooding during the rainy season, a shrinking snow/ice mass and less snowmelt to feed rivers during the dry season.
These “reservoirs in the sky,” where nature stores fresh water for use in the summer as the snow melts, are shrinking and could disappear altogether. This is already affecting water supplies in the Andes.
The Himalayas provide runoff to the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers—affecting the hydrology of the Indian subcontinent, China, and
Southeast Asia. Imagine what would happen if that source were to dry up!
The warming of ocean waters has affected our El Niño cycles, making them more intense and longer in duration, occurring with greater frequency.
Since the mid-1970s, the tropical Pacific’s sea surface temperature has risen by several tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. Consequently, the recharge phase of
the Southern Oscillation has sped up and the discharge phase has become less efficient, creating a series of “super” Los Niños, in which the waters are even warmer than normal. The El Niño of 1997-98 became known as “the climate event of the century,” with $33 billion in damages and 23,000 deaths worldwide.
Global warming is affecting the deep ocean currents that bring warmth to Europe and give the continent its temperate climate.
The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics as part of a worldwide network of currents known as the Ocean Conveyor. The WQ system depends on natural, cold-water pumps around Greenland that draw warm water
northward and send cold water back southward.
These pumps are powered by a high saline concentration near the water’s surface. Melting ice, which is saltless, is currently weakening the pump. If this
freshening continues, it could slow the current down to the point where it halts altogether, resulting in a sudden deep freeze in Northern Europe.
Warming seawater is also affecting marine life. The greatest evidence for this is in the bleaching of the vast coral reefs—the rain forests of the ocean. A
water temperature of 32°C becomes fatal, causing polyp colonies to commit suicide by expelling the algae that symbiotically nourish them with carbon compounds through photosynthesis. It is the algae that give the corals their colors. When they are gone, the reefs turn bone white.
Coral mortality has reached 90 percent in some regions due to heat stress and other detrimental effects. Because of warming, there is also a resurgence of disease among marine flora and fauna, such as toxic algae blooms and viral outbreaks.
Just as animals and plants are changing their range on land in response to warming, marine flora and fauna are also shifting. This is affecting the entire
aquatic food chain. Record temperatures are killing off the plankton on which all life depends in the North Sea, depleting fish stocks and sea bird populations. Scientists say the ecology of the region is essentially in a state of breakdown.
Climate change causes sea levels to rise by affecting both the density and the amount of water in the oceans. Water expands as it warms, and less-dense
water takes up more space than cold does. Without wind, rain or any warning, small islands in the Pacific have already experienced tidal surges that have inundated homes along their shorelines as a result of the thermal swelling of seawater.
Combined with the addition of melting glaciers and ice caps, the ocean’s volume is steadily increasing. Global average sea level rose almost three millimeters per year during the 1990s, at a rate of 10-20 times faster than the estimated rate over the past few millennia.
The island nations most likely to be completely flooded in future are the Marshalls, the Maldives, and Tuvalu. On the continents, low-lying Bangladesh and the Netherlands are most vulnerable. It should be kept in mind that the poorest countries will suffer the most as climate change escalates.
The Earth’s crust is also heating up. For over 40 years, climatologist Donald Baker of the University of Minnesota has been recording soil temperatures to the depth of 42 feet below the surface and discovered that sub-surface soil temperatures have increased more than 3 degrees, a much faster rate than is reasonable to expect in a stable climate.
Increased health problems
World health officials are observing a rise in warming-induced diseases such as cholera, Rift Valley fever, dengue, West Nile virus, malaria, and yellow
fever—especially those with insect vectors.
Warming accelerates the breeding and biting rates of insects and the maturation of the pathogens they carry. It also expands their geographical range, allowing them to thrive longer at higher altitudes and latitudes. For example, the West Nile encephalitis virus rapidly expanded into North America from Africa via mosquitoes and the migratory birds they infect, spreading into 43 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces in three short years.
Other health problems that are on the rise are skin cancers, cataracts, and immune-system disorders due to increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Since the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic, there has been a 20 percent reduction in stratospheric ozone worldwide. The ozone hole covers a 26 million-square-kilometer area, and now encompasses Australia, which has the highest skin cancer rate in the world.
Although the U.S has halted production of ozone-depleting CFCs, they continue to be produced illegally and smuggled via black-market operations
that span three continents, undermining whatever progress has been made under the Montreal Protocol. There is nothing like a heat wave to bring home the reality of global warming. Remember the killer that hit Europe the summer of 2003 causing 35,000 deaths? The mortalities topped 14,800 in France alone after the thermometer repeatedly registered above 40°C (104°F).
Heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the air over the major cities keep the nights from cooling down after the day’s blistering onslaught. Urban dwellers,
especially the very old and young, are unable to get any relief inside their brick apartments and become so heat stressed that they succumb to extreme dehydration and subsequent cardiovascular failure.
The heat on the Indian subcontinent has reached as high as 122°F so far this century.
Droughts and wild fires
Droughts have become an increasing problem as well, causing widespread crop failures. The total area seriously affected by dry weather worldwide has
doubled over the last 35 years. As rainfall becomes sparser and temperatures rise, plants too suffer from heat stress that stunts growth and prevents the
production of starches for animal and human consumption.
High temperatures prevent proper fertilization and inhibit photosynthesis, forcing plants into conditions of thermal shock. When that happens, they wither and die, affecting food production in temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical zones. For every 1°C rise, plant fertility decreases by 10 percent. Grain
shortfalls have already occurred in the first four years of his century. As global warming proceeds, the threat of malnutrition and famine looms ever larger.
Dry conditions also spark wild fires in which thousands of hectares of grassland and forest have gone up in smoke. Much of the burning is intentional, but it easily gets out of control in extremely dry weather. Not only does biomass combustion contribute to the greenhouse effect by releasing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere; it has raised tropospheric ozone levels in parts of Asia and Africa to toxic levels that are dangerous for both humans and plants.
When concentrated at ground level, ozone is a poison and becomes a deadly air pollutant. Satellite data indicate that ozone from fires in Africa travels clear
across the South Atlantic and can be detected in easternmost Brazil.
One phenomenon that is easily observed in our daily lives is the fact that the seasons have shifted. Springs are coming earlier, autumns are lasting longer
and winters are milder.
The greenhouse skeptics would like to argue that the extension of the growing season and less fuel used for winter heating are good things. In other words, warmer is better, but this is not true for many species.
For every two-degree Celsius rise in temperature, species will have to migrate at a rate of two miles per year. Some are successfully changing their range
and others are not, putting Earth’s biodiversity at risk. A Spanish butterfly has recently appeared in Estonia, but scientists who are worried about the fate
of dozens of Scottish plants and animals are relocating them to cooler climes in Scandinavia and Iceland.
By warming the planet, we are altering our hydrological cycle. Water covers 70.8 percent of the Earth’s surface. As the temperature of the oceans
rises, more water evaporates off the surface, increasing cloud formation and precipitation. Warmer air and seas result in a greater exchange of energy
and add force to the vertical currents crucial to the development of tropical cyclones, tornadoes, and thunderstorms. For every degree water temps rise,
maximum storm winds increase in speed by 5 mph.
Warming can extend the hurricane season by several weeks. All we need do is look out the window to see that there have been more extremes in our weather with more intense rain and snowfalls, more floods, tropical storms, and tornadic activity. The system has been revving up over the past 15 years.
Floods may occur in one region of the world while another area is plagued with drought. This state of affairs has led to costly property damage. Munich Re,
the world’s largest insurer, reported that five major natural catastrophes resulted in 75,000 deaths in 2003, seven times as many as in 2002. Total economic losses rose 18 percent.
Planetary needs before profits!
From the standpoint of the market economy that President Bush touts, it might be good fiscal policy to exert some damage control in regard to climate
change. Yet, we are five years into this century and the Bush administration has not lifted a finger to solve the problem, only to contribute further to it.
Knowing that our government has been conspiring to keep us ignorant should make the American people as mad as hell since this is what we are facing as global warming worsens.
It is clear that the capitalist government and the energy interests that control it will never do anything to reduce carbon emissions by launching clean energy projects and employing Earth-friendly, ecological policies—far from it. They are interested only in continuing the rape and plunder of the planet’s resources to the detriment of Mother Nature. The American people need not sit idly by as this nightmarish scenario continues to unfold. There is still time to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels before carbon emissions cause climate change to spiral irrevocably out of control.
It’s time to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Working men and women must take matters into their own hands by getting out into the streets and demanding nationalization of the energy industry. We must get renewable energy sources up and running on a massive scale by building more wind farms and solar parks. All nuclear power plants must be shut down because of
their inherent, life-threatening dangers.
There need be no loss of jobs if we retrain our coal miners, oil refinery, and nuclear-power workers to install renewables in their communities. All industry
must be retooled—and transport in particular—employing clean energy so that everything we produce is carbon-neutral.
Wind power is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, and clean. Our Great Plains could easily supply twice as much electricity as the U.S. now uses. Over the last 15 years, the cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen from 38C per kilowatt-hour to 3C. In some locations, it is actually cheaper than climate-disrupting oil or gas-fired power, according to the Earth Policy Institute. The superprofits from King Coal and Oil can be used to fund the switch.
Instead of subsidizing and giving enormous tax breaks to corporate polluters, we can tax them 100 percent to put a stop to their criminal activities against
humanity and Earth. A massive public-works program should be launched to employ the unemployed and clean up our soil, air, and water.
We must stop squandering precious natural resources by reducing, reusing, and recycling at the source of production with the goal of Zero Waste.
In other words, we need a society that puts human and planetary needs before profits. This is the only way we can save Earth from ecological collapse and ensure that our descendents have a future.
*In next month’s Socialist Action, the author will look at political strategies to deal with global warming.