A spectacular event captured on film in a new documentary, “Chasing Ice“, depicts the stark impact of global warming on the Arctic. The stunning sequence shows the largest glacier calving event ever filmed. An on-screen graphic emphasises the huge scale of the ice collapse:
It’s as if the entire lower tip of Manhattan broke off, except that the thickness, the height of it, is equivalent to buildings that are two-and-a-half or three times higher than they are.
Photographer James Balog, who has been documenting changes in the Arctic and elsewhere under the auspices of the Extreme Ice Survey, explains how rapidly the glacier, Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, has shrunk in recent years:
It took a hundred years for it to retreat eight miles from 1900 to 2000. From 2000 to 2010 it retreated nine miles. So in ten years it retreated more than it had in the previous one hundred.
And it’s not just in Greenland. At Mendenhall glacier in Alaska, the ice has retreated eleven miles since 1984, as well as getting considerably thinner. Standing at a location overlooking this glacier, Balog points and says:
You can see what’s called the trim line – it’s the high water mark of the glacier in 1984. That vertical change [reduction in the glacier height] is the height of the Empire State Building [over 400 m].
The big picture is that most glaciers are shrinking. A small fraction are growing, but for every measured growing glacier there are 9 shrinking ones. 2011 saw the third fastest retreat, and we know that overall glaciers are losing about 150 billion tons of ice a year because of satellite measurements. Stories about growing glaciers are popular on some blogs and newspapers, but they rely on hiding or ignoring 90% of the evidence.
Newly released measurements of 100 world glaciers show that 2011 saw the third fastest thinning on record, an average of 80 centimetres (31 inches). This report adds detail to the 500 billion tons a year of ice loss that was seen by the GRACE satellites from 2003-2010, of which 150 billion tons was mountain glacier retreat.
Just a few days ago, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado in Boulder, announced that ‘Greenland’s surface melting in 2012 was intense, far in excess of any earlier year in the satellite record since 1979.’
Our future is melting before our very eyes.
Fiddling With The Data While The World Burns
Today, there is simply no excuse for the denial of climate science, often exemplified at its most egregious in the UK by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, influential newspapers with large circulations of around two million each. Columnist James Delingpole and reporter David Rose can lay claim to being the worst and most persistent offenders. Delingpole wrongly asserted last October that the UK Met Office ‘has finally conceded what other scientists have known for ages: there is no evidence that “global warming” is happening.’ Rose pushed the same anti-science line that ‘global warming stopped 16 years ago’. Despite the Met Office explaining the science personally to Rose, last month he continued to publish the same discredited nonsense, even warning that ‘the Thames will be freezing over again‘. The Met Office has repeatedly rebutted error-strewn articles by these propagandists in the Mail and Mail on Sunday, pointing to ‘a series of factual inaccuraces‘, ‘misleading information‘ and journalism that is ‘entirely misleading‘.
George Monbiot has highlighted how Rose’s climate science writing ‘show[s] the same uncritical reliance on dodgy sources that caused [his] catastrophic mistakes about Iraq’. To Rose’s credit, he confessed to feeling “shame and regret for having supported the Iraq war.” But worse than that, his journalism had ‘helped make the case for war, presenting “evidence” now known to be bogus of Saddam’s links with Al Qaeda and stocks of WMD.’ No such mea culpa has yet appeared, either from Rose or the Mail stable, for serial offences against climate science and professional standards in responsible reporting.
When significant parts of the corporate media are openly embracing, and indeed pushing, climate ‘skepticism’, is there any meaningful justification for this in the climate science? No. Geochemist James Lawrence Powell recently conducted an exhaustive study of the peer-reviewed literature on climate science. Going back over 20 years, his search yielded 13,950 scientific papers. Of these, only 24 “clearly rejected global warming or endorsed a cause other than carbon dioxide emissions for the observed warming of 0.8 degrees since the beginning of the industrial era.”
Only one conclusion is possible: within science, global warming denial has virtually no influence. Its influence is instead on a misguided media, politicians all-too-willing to deny science for their own gain, and a gullible public.
Scientists do not disagree about human-caused global warming. It is the ruling paradigm of climate science, in the same way that plate tectonics is the ruling paradigm of geology. We know that continents move. We know that the earth is warming and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause.
The notable US science writer Phil Plait “marveled” at Powell’s “persistence in unearthing the facts and figures”, saying:
His premise was simple: if global warming isn’t real and there’s an actual scientific debate about it, that should be reflected in the scientific journals.
But Powell’s findings were clear, says Plait:
There is no scientific controversy over this. Climate change denial is purely, 100 per cent made-up political and corporate-sponsored crap.
When the loudest voices are fossil-fuel funded think tanks, when they don’t publish in journals but instead write error-laden op-eds in partisan venues, when they have to manipulate the data to support their point, then what they’re doing isn’t science. It’s nonsense. And worse, it’s dangerous nonsense. Because they’re fiddling with the data while the world burns.
A Hellish Vision
But climate scientists themselves, despite high-quality work which is too often underfunded, are not entirely blameless either. There is a systematic tendency by researchers to “err on the side of least drama” when predicting future climate change impacts. This has been documented in a paper recently published in Global Environmental Change by Brysse et al. (2012). The physical effects which scientists have been “overly cautious” about include sea level rise, Arctic sea ice decline, carbon dioxide emissions, permafrost melt and carbon feedback, and also other climate impacts such as snowfall and rainfall.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as individual climate scientists who have bravely put their heads above the parapet, have often been cynically accused of “alarmism”. But the new study by Brysse et al. clearly demonstrates that these accusations are, as environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli notes, “wholly unfounded and misplaced”.
It is understandable that personally abusive climate contrarian attacks, frequently as part of corporate-funded disinformation campaigns that are routinely and shamefully overlooked by BBC News, may have led researchers to soft-pedal warnings on climate change. But this produces a dangerous result: “they are not preparing policymakers and the public for the worst, because they are underpredicting what the worst outcomes might be.”
Anyone who tells you the recent literature suggests things will be better than we thought, hasn’t read the recent literature. In a 2010 AAAS presentation, the late William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge“: New scientific findings since the 2007 IPCC report are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.
Romm argues that the scientific evidence shows that we are headed for a catastrophic global warming of 6oC, if not more. Even restricting the global temperature rise to 4oC, which would require a “major effort” by the world’s nations, would still lead to the “hellish vision” outlined in the Royal Society Special Issue on Global Warming:
[A] 4°C world would be facing enormous adaptation challenges in the agricultural sector, with large areas of cropland becoming unsuitable for cultivation, and declining agricultural yields. This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes, and terrestrial carbon stores, supported by an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. Drought and desertification would be widespread….
In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world.
But warming would be very unlikely to remain at just 4°C, as climate expert Kevin Anderson warns:
[4°C warming is] incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond “adaptation”, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable, i.e. 4°C would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level.
As Romm says, somehow we find ourselves on a Hollywood film set where they are shooting Groundhog Day Part 2, and where:
Bill Murray wakes up to find he’s just lived through the hottest decade on record, just as he did in the 1990s, just as he did in the 1980s. And he keeps waking up in the hottest decade on record, until he gains the kind of maturity and wisdom that can only come from doing the same damn thing over and over and over again with no change in the result. Ah, if only life were like a movie.
The Full Gamut Of Acceptable Opinions: All The Way From A To B
But the corporate media simply doesn’t “get it”, because its very corporate structure and elite-driven priorities dictate that it will never get it. At best, editorials lean over at ever-increasingly grotesque angles to mouth pleasantries and to proclaim, falsely, that climate change is “back on the agenda”. This was the “warmly welcomed” propaganda nugget that the Independent sought to bring back from the Davos summit of world leaders, bankers, industrialists and hangers-on last month.
It was “encouraging”, claimed the liberal newspaper, that Barack Obama’s inauguration speech following his re-election as US president had “put the environment firmly on the US priority list”. Obama had ‘talked explicitly of the need to “respond to the threat of climate change”, stressing both the moral responsibility of protecting the environment and the “new jobs and new industries” that are being established.’
Nice presidential words, as ever, even if the Independent felt sufficiently compelled to respond with some token toughness:
Rhetoric alone will not be enough; Mr Obama must now act with equal decisiveness.
Investing its bottomless faith in the ‘hopey-changey’ Obama, the paper called for a ”crucial role for the US President on the world stage […] high-profile international leadership would make all the difference. Now is the moment – if only Mr Obama will take it.”
No matter that, year after year, Obama and world leaders stick rigidly to the destructive policies favoured and promoted by giant corporations, banks and financiers. Like an ever-hopeful spurned lover, the Independent keeps repeating the same tired pleas to the global aristocracy to “make a difference” and “do the right thing”.
The US writer Chris Hedges pulls no punches in pointing out that the political system in the West has become perverted by these toxic elite interests. Corporate power has essentially co-opted “attractive spokespeople like Barack Obama” to bolster corporate tyranny, privatising how society uses science, technology, education and mass communication. Hedges spells out the disaster of relying on the corporate media for proper reporting and analysis of the climate crisis, or anything that seriously affects humanity:
The result is a monochromatic system of information. Celebrity courtiers, masquerading as journalists, officially anointed experts and specialists, identify our problems and patiently explain the parameters. All those who argue outside the imposed parameters are dismissed as irrelevant cranks, extremists or members of a radical left. Prescient social critics are banished. Acceptable opinions, as Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s emotional range as an actor, run the gamut from A to B. (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Nation Books, 2012, p. 238)
Despite the odds stacked against us, however, Hedges warns against feeling “powerless in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture, and our ecosystem.” After all, he says, citizens “have a power” that:
terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the state consumes itself, attract larger and larger numbers. Perhaps the full-blown revolution will not happen in our lifetimes. But if we persist, we can keep this possibility alive. If we do not, it will die. (Ibid., p. 242)
Rebellion, then, is the only course of action if we are to have any realistic hope of emerging from the era of climate chaos.