Global Warming – We Are Running Out of Time

By Barry Weisleder / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

TORONTO—The world is on the brink of runaway global warming. Devastating consequences can be avoided only if massive cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions are started immediately.

James Hansen, head of NASA’s Godard Institute of Space Studies, was one of the first to sound the alarm. Recently, he defied efforts by White House appointees to NASA to force him to delete postings on his website (www.columbia.edu/-jeh) that contradict positions taken by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Hansen’s central concern is the melting of polar ice caps, which is occurring far faster than predicted. To prevent a catastrophic rise in sea levels, increases in global temperatures must be no more than 1 degree Celsius. Hansen points out that in the warmest periods during the past 400,000 years, temperatures were about 1C warmer than now, and in a couple of cases seas were five metres higher.

If today’s rate of increase were to continue, temperatures would be 2.8C higher by the end of this century. The last time the Earth was that warm, 3 million years ago, seas rose 25 metres above previous levels. If that were to happen now, Hansen says, the U.S. “would lose most East Coast cities … [and] practically the whole state of Florida. … China would have 250 million displaced persons.”

To prevent temperatures rising beyond 1C, Hansen says that global emissions of CO2 must be capped within 10 years, and then cut a further 60 to 80 per cent by 2050. He also insists that human-caused methane emissions, like those released in oil and gas operations, should be cut immediately by 30 per cent. Since methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, limiting its emissions would be a fast start towards meeting his targets.

The greatest fear is that global warming will rise so high that permafrost will melt and release even more methane. This is what caused intense global warming 58 million years ago—which resulted in mass extinctions, says Hansen.

Many of Hansen’s observations are based on data from the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, where scientists examined cores drilled in Antarctica. Their data shows there is a regular swing between warm and cold periods over the past 420,000 years.

What caused the concentration of greenhouse gases to drop and the Earth to cool in the past? According to Hansen, it was primarily the Earth’s orbital variations. The planet moves from a circular to an elliptical orbit about every 92,000 years. The tilt of its axis changes by about two degrees on a 40,000-year time scale; and its closeness to the sun varies over about 23,000 years. This does not affect the total radiation received from the sun, but it does change the angle. The northern hemisphere receives less heat, and less heat means lower CO2 and methane emissions, and a lower greenhouse effect.

That means never again will there be an ice age. Unless humans become extinct, human-made greenhouse gases will offset cooling from orbital variations. Humans now control global climate. Unfortunately, only a tiny minority, a rapacious ruling class of humanity, controls the global economic system that is wrecking havoc with the environment and threatens the future of humanity on this planet.

North America and the emerging Asian economies, especially China, are responsible for the bulk of the annual 2.1 per cent increase in emissions. And the rate of emissions is rising.

The good news is that, according to Hansen, and a report by Canada’s National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) and ICF Consulting International of Toronto, all the tools needed to achieve the cuts in Canada and the U.S. are available now. The report’s list ranges from upgrading homes, to improving fuel efficiency for motor vehicles, to capturing carbon dioxide and storing it.

Unfortunately, the report does not suggest conscripting corporate profits, especially those of the oil giants, for investment in developing and implementing green energy technologies. And with Ottawa not enforcing the Kyoto Protocol (and Washington disavowing it altogether), and given the absence of incentives to invest in projects in China and India that reduce emissions, the rapid descent to disaster continues unabated.

The old aphorism, ‘capitalism fouls things up’, is an outdated understatement. Today’s verdict must be: Capitalism is destroying the world. Only socialism—that is, public ownership of industry under workers’ democratic control—can possibly save it.