The earth is on track for 3-4C degrees of warming, which would cause sea level rise of several feet and make extreme weather more frequent and dangerous. The next four to 12 years are critical if the world wants to limit that warming. Waiting to reduce greenhouse gases will make the challenge harder.
A massive, immediate transformation in the way the world’s population generates energy, uses transportation and grows food will be required to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C,
“It’s extraordinarily challenging to get to the 1.5C target and we are nowhere near on track to doing that,” said Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist and a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which will be unveiled in South Korea next month.
“While it’s technically possible, it’s extremely improbable, absent a real sea change in the way we evaluate risk. We are nowhere near that.” The world has already warmed by around 1C over the past century, fueling sea level rises, heatwaves, storms and the decline of vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs.
Shindell would not share exact details of the IPCC report, but he said that the more ambitious 1.5C goal would require a precipitous drop in greenhouse emissions triggered by a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, particularly coal, mass deployment of solar and wind energy and the eradication of emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes. “The penetration rate of new technology historically takes a long time,” Shindell said. “It’s not simple to change these things. There aren’t good examples in history of such rapid, far-reaching transitions.”
“It’s a lot more difficult without the US as a leader in climate change negotiations,” Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s environment minister, told the Guardian. “We have to find solutions even though the US isn’t there.”Elvestuen said countries, including Norway, which is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, need to transition away from fossil fuels, embrace electric cars and halt deforestation.
“We are moving way too slowly,” Elvestuen said. “We have to do more of everything, faster. We need to deliver on policies at every level. Governments normally move slowly but we don’t have the time.”
“The 1.5C target is difficult, but it’s possible. The next four to 12 years are crucial ones, where we will set the path to how the world will develop in the decades ahead. The responsibility in doing this is impossible to overestimate. To reach the goals of the Paris agreement we need large structural changes.”
A difference of 0.5C in temperature may appear small but the IPCC report, which is a summary of leading climate science, is expected to warn there will be major impacts if warming reaches 2C.
“Even 1.5C is no picnic, really,” said Dr Tabea Lissner, head of adaptation and vulnerability at Climate Analytics.
Lissner said a world beyond 1.5C warming meant the Arctic would be ice-free in summer, around half of land-based creatures would be severely affected and deadly heatwaves would become far more common. “0.5C makes quite a big difference,” she said.
Fires in 2018 were 30% larger than in the past decade, and the devastation was significantly worse. The best way to combat these infernal flames is to keep global temperatures from rising — a.k.a. stop climate change. But there are other ways to help in the aftermath of these massive fires, and to prevent future fires.
PNAS, Dec 2018, in the Daily Mail: Human activity could cause Earth’s climate to revert to an ice-free state not seen in 50 million years, study warns
- New study compared climate predictions with data from Earth’s past epochs
- It found greenhouse gas emissions are essentially reversing the climate clock
- Researchers say by 2030, Earth’s climate could resemble that of mid-Pliocene
- By the year 2150, they say climate could be like that seen 50 million years go
There is indeed a new global order. It’s called climate change and, unlike the scenarios imagined by the anti-globalists, it’s wreaking havoc not in some dystopian future but right in the here and now: the prairie fires that struck Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Texas panhandle in the spring of 2017, killing seven people and destroying an area equivalent to three Rhode Islands; Hurricane Maria that devastated large areas of Puerto Rico that fall, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead; Hurricane Michael that swept through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia with unprecedented winds and flooding this October, killing 45 and causing $30 billion in damage; and the wildfires that raged across California in November, killing more than 80 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes. And that’s just to begin a list of weather catastrophes in this country.
Global warming did not, of course, create the weather itself. It’s only intensifying it. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently put it, “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” This summer, for instance, saw record-high temperatures in the United States and around the world. Large stretches of the South and West experienced near-record droughts in 2018, while other parts of the country suffered from historic levels of rainfall. (North Carolina recently endured an astounding years’ worth of snow in barely more than 24 hours. Both the number and the severity of Atlantic hurricanes are also on the rise.
And according to a Trump administration report released last month that the president himself rejects, it’s going to get a lot worse fast. That Fourth National Climate Assessment paints a dire picture of plummeting agricultural yields, declining dairy and seafood production, spreading wildfires, shrinking water resources in the interior of the country, and flooded areas on the coasts before century’s end. Extreme weather events since 1980 have already cost the United States more than $1 trillion. By 2100, the assessment projects, the costs of climate change will absorb as much as 10% of this country’s annual gross domestic product. Meanwhile, any hopes that global carbon emissions had begun to flatline in recent years, thanks to efforts to move toward renewable sources of energy, were dashed this month with reports that the output will actually grow by a projected 2.7% in 2018, a larger percentage than the previous year, on the way to the highest levels on record.
“Humanity is losing 0.3 percent of our global food production each year to soil erosion and degradation and 30 percent every 100 years,” he said, referring to a United Nations report on soil.
Montgomery said soil degradation and loss has been a problem since the beginning of agriculture and played a major role in the demise of past civilizations including Mesopotamia, classical Greece and ancient Rome. It also caused the downfall of the Piedmont region of the southeastern U.S. as a leading agricultural producer, which it had been in colonial America.
Montgomery said the “villain” in soil degradation is the plow and not deforestation.
“The invention of the plow fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and soil erosion, dramatically increasing erosion,” he said. “Nature clothes herself in plants, and the invention of the plow left soil unprotected to erosion.”
Based on a number of studies, Montgomery estimated that 1.54 millimeters (mm) of soil are lost each year worldwide, while only 0.01 to 0.02 mm are being built each year.
“We are eroding soil 20 times faster than we are building it,” he said. “We’ve drawn down the batteries of farmlands. This is a global problem, and agriculture has to change.”
In the research for his book, Growing a Revolution, Montgomery traveled around the world visiting farms that are building soil and soil organic matter. The practices these farms had in common were no plowing or no-till, keeping the ground covered year round using cover crops, and growing diverse crop rotations to reduce weeds and insects. Together he calls the three practices “conservation agriculture.”
“There was minimal or no disturbance to the soil, maintaining permanent ground cover and diverse crop rotations,” Montgomery said of the farms he visited.
Conservation agricultural practices stimulate soil microbial activity, the “soil food web” as Montgomery describes it, to build fertile soils, which in turn produce healthy plants.
He visited Duane Beck, a conventional farmer in South Dakota, who has adopted all three practices. As a result, Beck has reduced the use of pesticides, diesel fuel, and synthetic fertilizer and increased crop yields.
Kofi Boa, a farmer in Ghana, who operates the No-Till Center, was able to stop soil erosion while tripling yields of corn and cowpea and reducing herbicide use.
David Brandt, a farmer in Carroll, Ohio has practiced no-till farming for 44 years. His farming costs are $320 per acre while his corn yields 180 bushels per acre. He also uses only 1 quart of Roundup herbicide per acre. By contrast, Brandt’s neighbor plows his fields, pays expenses of $500 per acre, and uses five times as much Roundup. His corn produces yields of only 100 bushels per acre.
“David’s secret is the soil,” Montgomery said. “His soil is 8 percent organic matter.”
Climate disruption also brings with it extreme weather such as hurricanes and floods. For instance, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to an increase in the frequency of severe major rain events, such as Hurricane Harvey over Houston in summer 2017, which dropped so much rain that the weight of the water actually caused the Earth’s crust to sink by 2cm.
Earth has not seen current atmospheric CO2 levels since the Pliocene epoch, some 3m years ago. Three-quarters of that CO2 will still be here in 500 years. It takes a decade to experience the full warming effects of CO2 emissions. Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions, it would take another 25,000 years for most of what is currently in the atmosphere to be absorbed into the oceans.
Climate disruption is progressing faster than ever, and faster than predicted. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. The distress signals from our overheated planet are all around us, with reports, studies and warnings increasing daily. Worst-case prediction made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the rise in temperatures, extreme weather, sea levels and CO2 levels in the atmosphere have fallen short of reality. Countless glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests and species are already vanishing at a pace never seen before, and all of this from increasing the global mean temperature by “only” 1C above the preindustrial baseline. Some scientists predict it could rise by as much as 10C by 2100. A study led by James Hansen, the former director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned that the rise we have seen so far has already caused unstoppable melting in both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.
Montana’s Glacier National Park will most likely not have any active glaciers by 2030. The Matanuska Glacier’s ancient ice is already rapidly vanishing. Dramatic changes are occurring even in the planet’s highest and coldest places. Even Mount Everest is transforming, as thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas are likely to shrink by up to 99% by 2100. A child born today will see an Everest largely free of glaciers within their lifetime.
…When I was 10 years old, I saw the Rocky Mountains of Colorado for the first time, their silhouettes against the setting sun, and I was awestruck. Years later I travelled to Alaska and drove a short way into Denali national park and preserve. When the afternoon clouds parted to reveal the majesty of Denali’s summit, my first inclination was to bow in wonderment. A year after that I moved to Alaska, and began training myself in the mountaineering skills I needed to access these sanctuaries that stand far from the violence, speed and greed of society. John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist, author, philosopher and early wilderness-preservation advocate, captured my feelings precisely: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
The planet’s ecosystems, pushed far beyond their capacity to adapt to human-generated traumas and stresses, are in a state of freefall. Just as I watched hundreds of years of time compressed into glacial ice flash before my eyes in a matter of seconds as I fell into the crevasse, swathes of the natural world are, in the blink of a geological eye, falling into oblivion.
Modern life has compressed time and space. You can traverse the globe in a matter of hours, or gain information in nanoseconds. The price for this, along with everything we want, on demand, all the time, is a total disconnection from the planet that sustains our lives.
I venture into the wilds and into the mountains in large part to allow space and time to stretch themselves back to what they were. The frenetic pace of contemporary life is having a devastating impact on this planet. Humans have transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth. We have changed the composition of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans from which we came. We now use more than half the planet’s readily accessible freshwater runoff, and the majority of the world’s major rivers have been either dammed or diverted.
As a species, we now hang over the abyss of a geoengineered future we have created for ourselves. At our insistence, our voracious appetite is consuming nature itself. We have refused to heed the warnings Earth has been sending, and there is no rescue team on its way.
Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), one of several ancient villages in the area, is the northernmost incorporated point in the US. The indigenous people here, the Iñupiat, have learned to live on the edge of the tundra and the seas, with the whales, the birds and the ice floes.
I met 55-year-old Marvin Kanayurak, who was born and raised here, as were his parents. He is a whaler and volunteers doing rescues. He tells me how there used to be pressure ridges in the sea ice (formed when two ice floes are forced together) during the winter that were 50 or even 60 feet high, but now they are “lucky” to find any even 20 feet tall. Heading out across the ice to find open water in the spring used to take them two weeks of plotting and making a trail. Now it takes them only a couple of days because the open water is so much closer.
Kanayurak had told me that he was a volunteer gravedigger. The permafrost used to be 10-12 inches below the surface, so it would take three days of chipping with an ice pick to dig a grave. Now the permafrost is several feet below the surface, and softer, so he can dig a grave in a few hours.
Permafrost is a layer of ground that is continuously frozen for a period of two years or more. It contains dead plants that absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere centuries ago, and then froze before decomposing. When it thaws, microbial activity converts a large portion of that organic material into methane and CO2, which is released back into the atmosphere. According to a Nasa report, over hundreds of millennia, “Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon” – an estimated 1,400-1,850 gigatonnes, compared to 850 gigatonnes of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.
That’s equal to around half of all the estimated organic carbon in Earth’s soils, with most of it located in the top 10 feet of thaw-vulnerable soil. Scientists, along with others, are learning that the Arctic permafrost is less permanent than its name implies. Estimates of how much carbon will be released by thawing permafrost show it could average around 1.5bn tonnes annually, which is roughly the same amount as current US annual emissions from burning fossil fuels. Dr Kevin Schaefer, a research scientist for the National Snow and Ice Data Center who studies permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) – the warming of the surface of the planet that would result from the release of carbon from the permafrost – estimates that PCF by itself will increase temperatures by 0.2C by 2100, and even more beyond that. This means PCF will have a significant effect on the long-term climate, even if the goal of limiting atmospheric temperatures to 2C is reached.
While I was in Utqiagvik I spoke to Dr Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who also specialises in permafrost. His lab has been collecting temperature data each year in many locations around the world, but mostly across Alaska, Canada and Russia.
“If it comes closer to thawing point, then it becomes unstable,” Romanovsky said. “For any permafrost research, that is the crucial data: what is the temperature and how stable is it?”
His lab is unique in that it now has nearly 40 years of data records from a variety of locations, and he generates permafrost temperature modelling to explain how the temperatures are changing.
The changes in the permafrost happening across Alaska’s North Slope are due to some of the most dramatic temperature increases in the world. In 35 years of measurements here, the temperature at 20 metres below the ground has increased by 3C since Romanovsky’s first measurement, and at the surface of the permafrost one metre below the ground, the average temperature has increased by a staggering 5C since the mid-1980s. Even small increases bring the temperature of the permafrost closer to 0C. Crossing that line means the permafrost will start to thaw.
Scientists used to believe the permafrost was stable across the North Slope, and that it would not begin to thaw this century. Romanovsky said: “If you look at our records, however, and extrapolate into the future another 30 years, assuming changes continue as they have been for the last 30 years, the permafrost on the North Slope will hit 0C by 2050 or 2060 at the latest. Nobody was expecting this, and most people would be surprised to see this happen so soon.”
Schaefer also expressed concern about the impact that thawing permafrost will have on the infrastructure and people of the Arctic. “Thawing permafrost represents a radical change to the environment and way of life in the Arctic, with unknown social costs,” he said. I asked if he thought it would be necessary to relocate most, if not all, of the coastal villages in northern Alaska. He said that as sea levels go up and permafrost thaws, “there is risk the thawing will destroy critical infrastructure, which will require repair or moving it, and that includes entire villages. If you built your village right next to the ocean and it starts to melt, you have to move. This is happening in interior Alaska along rivers, and it’s also happening across the entire Arctic zone.”
Roads, railroads, oil and gas infrastructure, airports, seaports – all these things were built across the Arctic on the assumption that the permafrost would stay frozen. “When it is frozen it is solid, but it thaws out and turns to mud, so it’s easy to see this causing a lot of damage to infrastructure,” Schaefer said.
Dr Leonid Yurganov, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County physics department and the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, is an expert in the remote sensing of Arctic methane levels. He told me his team of researchers had already detected long-term increases in methane over large areas of the Arctic, and warned that the fast liberation of methane would influence air temperature near the surface and accelerate Arctic warming. “The difference in temperatures between the poles and the equator drives our air currents from west to east,” he said. “If this difference diminishes, the west-to-east air transport becomes slower, and north-south air currents become stronger. This results in frequent changes in weather in the midlatitudes.”
It would change the climate, he says, “everywhere in the world”.
Two days after leaving Utqiagvik, I flew from Anchorage to Seattle on my way home. Forty-five minutes before we landed, while flying at 35,000 feet, the plane entered a cloud of brownish-grey smoke rising from the 146 wildfires scorching British Columbia beneath us. At that point, they had burned more than 600,000 acres and forced 7,000 people from their homes. We descended into the brown cloud until we landed in Seattle, which was also enveloped in the smoke.
A couple of days later, a leaked draft report from US scientists across 13 federal agencies warned of a worst-case scenario of 18F warming over the Arctic between 2071 and 2100. The report also noted that the Arctic was losing more than 3.5% of its sea ice coverage every decade, that the extent of the September sea ice had declined more than 10% per decade, that the land ice was disappearing at an increasingly rapid rate and that the severity of winter storms was increasing because of warming temperatures.
The grim news seemed endless: the snow-free season on Alaska’s North Slope is lengthening. The year 2016 experienced the longest snow-free season in 115 years of record-keeping – roughly 45% longer than the average snow-free period over the previous four decades. The October temperature at Utqiagvik increased by a staggering 7.2C between 1979 and 2012.
We are already facing mass extinction. There is no removing the heat we have introduced into the oceans (more than a Hiroshima size bomb per second)
, nor the 40bn tons of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere every single year. There may be no changing what is happening, and far worse things are coming. How, then, shall we meet this?
Like so many people, I have wondered what to do at this time. Each of us now must find our own honest, natural response to the conditions that we have brought upon ourselves.
I am heartened by people like my friend Karina Miotto in Brazil, who has devoted her entire life to protecting the Amazon. Each time a report is published about increased deforestation in her beloved rainforest, I watch Karina become consumed in grief. But each time, she goes deeper within herself and her community, further strengthening her love for that portion of the planet where she lives, and repurposes herself into her next action to protect the Amazon. I find solace in the fact that there are millions of others like Karina, particularly among the younger generations, who have drawn their lines around their respective portions of the planet closest to their hearts and are making their stands.
I find my deepest conviction and connection to the Earth by communing with the mountains. I moved to Colorado and lived among them when I was in my early 20s, and it was there I began to deepen my relationship with them, and to really listen to them. I would hike out and just sit among the peaks, watching them for hours, and write about them in my journal. Today I know in my bones that my job is to learn to listen to them ever more deeply, and to share what they are telling us with those who are also listening.
While western colonialist culture believes in “rights”, many indigenous cultures teach of “obligations” that we are born into: obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When I orient myself around the question of what my obligations are, a deeper question immediately arises: from this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?
This is an edited extract from The End of Ice by Dahr Jamail, which will be published by The New Press on 15 January