Risks mount for catastrophic climate change

By CHRISTINE FRANK

 At a meeting last month in Yokohama, Japan, the UN’s IPCC Working Group II issued its risk assessment—the second of three reports—stating that climate change is felt “on all continents and across all oceans.” As the globe warms, the risks to food production, freshwater supplies, and human health are steadily multiplying.

Some ecosystems, such as the Arctic and warm-water coral reefs have already reached tipping points. As Arctic soils and continental shelves thaw, more carbon dioxide and methane will be released, triggering a positive feedback that heightens global heating. As ice masses melt and sea levels rise, people in low-lying coastal areas and on small islands are becoming more vulnerable to storm surges and inundation. With ocean acidification, fisheries will be severely reduced.

There was recently a massive die-off of scallops in the Pacific Northwest due to low seawater pH. With increased changes in rainfall patterns resulting in either flooding or drought, depending on the region, crop yields could decline by two percent per decade, and with every one-degree rise in temperature, they can decline as much as 10%.

Food security is expected to be a major problem, affecting poor nations even more so than now and causing chronic malnourishment in children. The threat of famine and mass starvation is very real. Killer heat waves are becoming longer and more frequent. The global area struck by extremely hot summertime temperatures has increased 50-fold. With heat wave and drought, come wildfires that are growing into raging megafires from which forests and grasslands do not recover easily.

There is a clear and present danger to Earth’s ecosystems and civilization as we know it. The face of the planet as well as human society will be altered forever as people are forced to cope with impoverishment from loss of their livelihoods, injuries, and death from weather calamities, and spreading disease. Climate refugees and mass migrations will be on the rise as people flee uninhabitable regions.

The IPCC panel’s report paints a grim picture. However, to hundreds of thousands, this is nothing new, given all the natural disasters that have already occurred—most recently, Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricane Sandy, the ongoing Brazilian, Californian and Australian droughts, and UK flooding. Scientists are warning that we can expect more of the same—but with greater intensity, frequency, and duration, and consequent suffering. The message is that we must not only carry out abatement measures but adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of a warming planet.

This requires that advanced nations assist developing ones to do so. At a September 2014 summit meeting in New York, world leaders plan to discuss a new treaty that is supposed to be finalized in Paris in 2015. Given recent history, we can’t expect much in the way of results. Leaders of advanced nations will probably spend most of the time haggling over the $100 billion price tag on assistance to poor nations of the Global South, who are suffering the brunt of the hardship caused by the North’s gross overconsumption and monstrous carbon footprint.

The prophetic assessment comes after 20 years of abject failure by government leaders to give the least thought to human survival and to act. Instead, capitalist politicians, connected at the hip to the Carbon Barons and other corporate giants, have refused to end business as usual, citing the costs, the alleged disruption of economic growth, and the “loss of jobs” and a cherished way of life. Of course, what they really mean is that giving up fossil fuels would mean a huge fall in profits for all vested interests.

Climate scientists have conducted study after study, issued numerous caveats about the risk of inaction, and urged that drastic reductions must be made soon if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and complete ecological collapse. Time is running out, yet little or nothing has been done. Instead, capitalist industry, now centered in China and India, continues to belch out massive amounts of greenhouse gases, while scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed by the effects.

Last month, the Climate Science Panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a call to action, stating that “we are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts….” Also, a group of British climate scientists held a Radical Emissions Reduction Conference and called for “revolutionary change” on all levels, and bottom-up as well as top-down action. They are right about bottom-up action. It’s exactly what is so desperately needed.

Rising CO2 levels

We are rapidly approaching a doubling of pre-industrial carbon levels of 275 parts per million (ppm). For a second consecutive year, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rose to over 400 ppm at Mauna Loa Observatory. Last year, levels exceeded the 400 mark in May, when there is a natural peak just before vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere begins summer-time photosynthetic activity, carbon absorption, and growth. However, in mid-March, 2014, CO2 levels hit 401.6 ppm two months ahead of time, and it is expected that daily values could rise even higher this spring.

This troubling prospect is before us because the world emitted 40 billion tons (36 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide, a 2.1% increase over 2012. The United States, with its ravenous consumption of goods that are largely manufactured in China, has the world’s largest per-capita emissions and a carbon footprint of 17.6 tons (16 MT), compared with two tons (1.8 MT) for the people of India. Adding to that are the enormous plumes of methane emanating from the Siberian Arctic seafloor.

The planet continues to warm up, despite a slight leveling off in the mean global surface temperature. This is deceptive since vast amounts of heat are being stored in the deep oceans due to a speed up in the South Pacific trade winds that are pushing warm ocean waters down to greater depths. Therefore, there is no “pause” in the warming—as the climate-change deniers like to harp. In fact, 2013 was the 37th consecutive year of above normal global temperature, which registered at 58.3 degrees Fahrenheit (14.6 C), roughly a degree warmer than the 20th-century average. This was the case despite the absence of an El Nino last year and Earth’s currently experiencing a solar minimum.

 Frenzy of fossil fuel extraction

 The worsening situation can be blamed on the frenzy of carbon- and resource-intensive fossil fuel extraction, as drillers go after what’s left of the planet’s proven reserves, regardless of the cost to the climate or the environment. The mad scramble for what’s left has turned communities everywhere into energy sacrifice zones, with tar sands extraction, the fracking of tight shale oil and gas, silica-fracking sand mining, and deepwater offshore drilling. BP has just gotten permission to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico even though clean-up there is far from over. Plus, there is the transport of the fossil fuels via pipelines, trains, and tankers, which has led to toxic spills and devastating explosions and fires.

The latest form of extreme energy extraction is underground coal gasification (UCG). In order to get at deep underground coal reserves that cannot be conventionally mined or strip mined, developers hope to pump air into the formations, set fire to the coal, capture the gaseous emissions embedded in the seams, and then at the surface separate the methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen to be used for energy and chemical feedstocks.

Just imagine hundreds of out-of-control coal fires smoldering within the bowels of Earth and what that might do to aquifers and seismic faults—not to mention the subsidence it could cause at the surface! In UCG trials in the United States, groundwater contamination was found from escaped benzene and toluene.

Building a movement

Tens of thousands of grassroots activists have been struggling to stop this madness and save what is left of Earth’s climate by attempting to halt the Path of Destruction that is the pipeline network.

Preventing TransCanada’s Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline from being built across the Great Plains is a major part of that effort. Landowners and tribal peoples along the proposed route have formed the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and will be trekking to Washington, D.C., where they will set up camp near the White House to make their opposition known to KXL. The encampment is the lead-up to what will hopefully be a large “Protect and Reject” demonstration on the National Mall on Saturday, April 26, to demand that the Obama administration nix the project once and for all.

With April being Environment Month and with the 44th Earth Day occurring, many local activists are planning events as part of the Global Climate Convergence. The Convergence will begin on April 22 and go through May 1, when environmentalists will join the May Day Marches for immigrants’ and workers’ rights—One Planet, One People, One Future!

In Europe, where fracking is ominously growing, Global Frackdown and other grassroots movements are conducting Climate Spring actions to opposed extreme energy and campaign for climate justice. Wherever you are, we strongly urge you to join the struggle to Save Mother Earth and to get out in the streets!

Photo: Black Maps