Topping Out: The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften its impact.
PARIS IS ALREADY A FAILURE. The world has already exceeded the target it’s leaders have gathered to enforce. Scientists estimate that the amount of man-made heat already absorbed by the world’s oceans has locked-in a global temperature rise of 3.5°C. That’s already 1.5°C higher than the Paris target of 2.0°C.
Bad enough news, you might think, but it gets worse. All around the Arctic Circle, but especially in the uppermost reaches of the Russian Federation, rising temperatures are giving rise to massive burps of methane. The recorded incidence of these emissions has soared over the last five years. This is seriously alarming information, because methane is a much more dangerous “greenhouse gas” than carbon-dioxide.
But, newswise, it gets worse still. The rising emissions of methane from the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean are but the feeble harbingers of the vast amounts of methane currently trapped in the planet’s permafrost. Gigatons of the gas will be released into the atmosphere as Earth’s hitherto frozen soil gives up its riches. (Strictly speaking, I should be using the present tense here because, even as you read these words, the permafrost is steaming.) The world faces “runaway” global warming of 5°C and upwards by the end of this century.
Fire In The Hole! Gigatons of methane will be released into the atmosphere as the world's permafrost begins to thaw.
A temperature rise of that rapidity and magnitude is not survivable – not by a human population numbering in excess of 7 billion. Runaway global warming will cause the Greenland and Antarctica ice-sheets to melt. When that happens the seas and oceans will rise by metres, not centimetres, profoundly reshaping the world’s landmasses. Civilisation, as we know it, will end.
Yes, whole cities will be drowned, but that’s not the half of it. The real worry are the inevitable and profound changes in the world’s climate that runaway global warming is bound to trigger. Regions which now produce a large percentage of the planet’s food surpluses will become arid and infertile. The glacial sources of many of the world’s great rivers will disappear. Very quickly water will become more valuable than oil, and men will kill each other with ever increasing ferocity to control it. Famine, Pestilence and War will raise their reeking banners above a sweltering earth. Billions will perish.
Could we have prevented this? Was the current unfolding climate catastrophe ever avoidable?
Probably not. The human animal is not very good at dealing with slow-moving threats. The slightest tremor in the leaves, the faintest rustle of crushed leaf-litter, and your average homo-sapiens is instantly alert, chipped flint spearhead, or rifle, in hand. Humankind’s evolutionary programming has equipped it superbly to handle immediate and short-term threats to its survival. Long-term threats, however, are much harder to resist, not least because the measures required to meet these less-than-imminent dangers will, themselves, be perceived as immediate and/or short-term threats!
As a species, we have evolved the intelligence to perceive long-term threats, but not the wisdom to come together and do what is necessary to eliminate them.
Faced with the imminent danger of being overwhelmed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States of America was prepared to direct (or take over) private enterprises, impose strict controls on the operation of the market, raise billions through higher taxes and the sale of war bonds, and require its citizens to restrict dramatically their consumption of fossil fuels. To free up resources for the war effort, neighbourhood “war gardens” were promoted and radical recycling measures made mandatory.
If, from the moment the world’s scientists agreed that it was real, the US Government had treated the threat of man-made global warming as the “moral equivalent of war”, the planet might have been spared.
Better still, if the nations of the world had truly united in the aftermath of World War II; if, instead of waging a Cold War against one another, the USA and the USSR had jointly waged a war against want, ignorance and disease; then maybe the peoples of the planet would have developed the wisdom necessary to avoid the catastrophe being cooked-up by their industrial civilisation’s relentless pursuit of economic growth and material consumption. If, in exploring the solar system, the world’s peoples had grown accustomed to thinking of their planet as a unique and fragile ark, carrying through the void of space everything they hold dear, then perhaps, just perhaps, humanity could have rung the changes necessary for its own survival.
Alas, it was not to be. The Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change is unlikely to produce any sort of useful agreement in Paris. Only the world’s scientists understand the width of the gulf between the extinction level event seriousness of anthropogenic global warming, and those whose will and resources are required to, at best, soften its impact.
That tremor in the leaves; rustling in the leaf-litter: it is ourselves.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 December 2015.