October 23, 2017

Climate Change—what we must do about it

The Guardian has recently published two very valuable articles on climate change. The first was Sir John Houghton’s statement in the Guardian of 28th July 2003, and the second was by George Monbiot in his weekly column of July 2003. I certainly hope that they do not fall on deaf ears.

Sir John regards the refusal by the governments of the US and the UK to take the problem seriously as “an abdication of leadership of epic proportions” He would not have exaggerated if he had referred to it instead as the greatest crime ever committed. Let me explain why. The increase in average world temperature that we have already been subjected to is a mere 0.6 degrees centigrade—a fraction of what we can expect during the course of this century. Yet the incidence and severity of heat waves, droughts, storms, and floods, and other manifestations of climate change, continue to increase and this is the worst year ever. Indeed the World Meteorological Organization has now warned that whereas “climate change has long been a prediction, now it is a reality”. More so, it is going “haywire”, a term that this highly conservative body has probably never used before. However, is it surprising that our climate should be going haywire as we are already heading full-steam ahead to climatic conditions that probably last prevailed some 40 million years ago—long before humans even existed?

According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst scenario in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect a quadrupling of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration this century, with temperatures over the terrestrial surface soaring on average 10 or more degrees C higher compared with today. The last time our earth had such temperatures there were no ice shields and sea levels were more than 120 metres higher.

Particularly worrying in that respect is that though we have been persuaded that the main Antarctic ice shelf is extremely stable, and will take more than a thousand years to melt (whereas peripheral Antarctic ice shelves like Larsen B or the Greenland ice shelf are already melting very quickly), NASA’s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Centre revealed in June of this year that “it is at more risk of melting than previously calculated”, and that this vast ice shelf is “just a few degrees away from a potentially catastrophic meltdown”. If this is true then the IPCC’s already worrying contention that sea level this century will rise by 88cm—which would affect 30% of the world’s agricultural land—presumably by saltwater intrusions and temporary, possibly permanent flooding, may well be a serious understatement.

The essential question to answer is what do we do about it? A fact that neither Houghton nor Monbiot mention is that even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, the land area of our planet would go on heating up for at least another 150 years—the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition, that residence time takes for granted that life will continue to draw down carbon dioxide at current rates—an assumption we cannot bank on, given our current onslaught on the world’s ecosystems. All that means that all we can do to assure our survival—and that is what it is all about—is to slow down this process until our climate eventually stabilises—which, according to most climatologists would enable us to avoid the worst.

Of course, the first thing to do is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, but every serious attempt in the USA and the UK to do so is rejected by governments that are increasingly under corporate control. In March 2002, for instance, the US Senate rejected a proposal to increase energy efficiency by 50% over a mere fifteen years which would have saved 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, and would have eliminated the need for importing any oil from the Middle East. Another proposal to replace gas-guzzling SUV’s by European-type cars has also been rejected even though this would save a minimum of a million barrels of oil a day. What all this suggests that if one can overcome corporate opposition the potentiality for increasing energy efficiency in the US and elsewhere is enormous.

In addition, the contribution of energy derived from renewable sources such as the sun, wind, tides, waves, etc, is equally impressive. The cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen from 38 cents in the early eighties to 3 to 6 cents today. Wind power alone already provides 10% to 15% of Denmark’s electricity and 23% of that of Navarra, Spain’s northern industrial province. The US Department of Energy’s Wind Resource Inventory has found that three states—North Dakota, Kansas and Texas—could provide enough wind energy to meet the US’s total energy needs. It indicates the contribution that wind power could make to the essential phasing out of fossil fuels.

There is no excuse whatsoever for not setting in motion a large-scale crash programme to replace fossil fuels with energy deserved from different renewable sources—including fuel cells which could provide the basis for the hydrogen economy.

What is rarely mentioned however is that we must do so even without global warming, as oil production—according to our, most serious experts on the oil industry such as Campbell, Bentley, Ivanhoe, and others—is due to peak within the next ten years. There is, of course, plenty left in the ground, but much of it is situated in largely inaccessible areas, or is costly both economically and environmentally to extract, such as the Athabasca Sands tar-oils. In other words it is not that we are running out of oil as such, but of easily accessible and hence of cheap oil, and oil at 80 dollars a barrel is unlikely to fuel a growing world economy.

This being so the only responsible path today is drastically to reduce our dependence on oil. Indeed, not to do so is to court disaster for we are at present hooked on this ever scarcer and more expensive fuel to satisfy almost every one of our needs including the need to feed ourselves. If we suddenly ran out of oil tomorrow we could no longer import the food that we should be producing ourselves. Nor would we have access to the tractors, fertilisers, pesticides, food processing plants or supermarkets, on which we are equally hooked in fact, unless we changed our farming practices and diets, we would face starvation. Yet rather than reduce our dependence on oil, governments everywhere are doing everything they possibly can to further increase it, and massively destabilising climate in the process.

However, it is not only by burning fossil fuels that we are emitting greenhouse gases, it is also bv destroying our forests and other vegetation. our marshes and our soils, and by polluting the oceans—for all of them constitute sinks that apparently absorb some 50 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, and if we continue to degrade them, rather than serve as sinks, they will become sources of this critical greenhouse gas.

Consider that our forests contain some 400 billion tonnes of carbon—perhaps a half of that, contained in the atmosphere today. Those forests are now being destroyed by logging and agro-industrial companies at an ever-accelerating-rate. Consequently, much of that carbon will be emitted to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide or methane gas, drastically accelerating the rate of climate change. Clearly then it is imperative that the world’s remaining natural forests be religiously preserved, more so that they be greatly expanded and the activities of our logging companies limited to the planting and harvesting of plantation trees in areas just have already been degraded.

As for the world’s soils, they contain some 1600 billion tonnes of carbon twice as much as does the atmosphere. Modern industrial agriculture, with its massive machines and its arsenal of toxic chemicals, is rapidly transforming those soils into dust—releasing corresponding amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For that reason, and there are many others, industrial agriculture must be phased out as quickly as possible and replaced with mainly small to medium size low-tech, largely organic farms, geared primarily to satisfying local needs. Of course such a move would be bitterly opposed by the extremely powerful agro-chemical industry. Too bad, for even without climate change modem industrial agriculture will not survive the coming oil shortage, let alone the much more serious shortage of freshwater. Let us not forget that some 70% of water extracted today is used for agriculture and thereby becomes largely contaminated with agricultural chemicals.

There is no time to spare. As the Hadley Centre, the research arm of the British Meteorological office climatologists makes clear, if we do nothing to curb emissions increasing temperatures alone will start transforming our forests, our soils and our oceans, into sources of carbon dioxide and methane gas within the next thirty to fifty years. A global programme to slow down climate change Trust have precedence over everything else. Economic considerations must be ruthlessly subordinated to it, for if necessary we can learn to live without a formal economy. After all, we did so for 99% of our tenancy of this planet—as Karl Polanyi, the great economic historian, has made so clear, but we cannot live without a stable and favourable climate. Failure to do so is to refuse, out of weakness, cowardice, and short-term political expediency, to maintain the habitability of our planet and thereby to assure the survival of its inhabitants. Can there be a greater crime than this?

 
Edward Goldsmith
President of the Climate Initiatives Fund,
Richmond-upon-Thames

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