Global Warming: “the greatest challenge to ever face the human race” (Part I)

October, 2014

Scientists … project a rise in sea water levels and the loss of coastlines around the world. Small island chains … might entirely disappear under the ocean. Snow atop many of the world’s great mountain ranges is melting … More than one-sixth of the human race lives in mountain valleys and relies on the snow for irrigation, sanitation, and drinking water. Relocating nearly a billion people in less than forty years seems unfathomable.

-from The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin

A few weeks ago I watched Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President, a powerful film about former president Mohamed Nasheed’s fight to save his country from rising sea levels. For me, this film was a reminder of an issue that has – largely – faded into the background of our global consciousness (at least where mainstream media is concerned). And while we are growing less interested, climate change remains a threat. Though it may seem somewhat dramatic, I believe Jeremy Rifkin is correct when he writes that global warming is “the greatest challenge to ever face the human race.”[i] If anything is deserving of dramatic language, it is climate change.

For a couple of weeks I have been attempting to understand this challenge. This post (part one of two) is an effort to clarify a number of things: what global warming is, what it means for our planet, and why there is still resistance to the idea of human-caused climate change. (I apologise if this week’s post seems obvious or repetitive, however I believe there is value in getting the facts straight.) In my next post I will investigate how we should be responding to climate change as well as how we are actually responding (our actual response turns out to be a little more hopeful than I had originally thought it would be).

It should be noted that in both this post and the one to follow I have relied on three major sources for information. The first is Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution. Second, the UN’s summary of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment report. And finally Alex Magnin’s series of sustainability videos available on YouTube (wonderfully clear and beautifully drawn).

What is global warming (climate change)?

To understand global warming we first have to understand that Earth experiences regular and natural climate cycles. We know that over the last 400,000 years, for example, there have been four major climate cycles, all with similar ups and downs.[ii] These repetitive variations in climate are sustainable: that is, they occur as part of a delicate balance of rhythms that make our planet conducive to life.[iii] One of the reasons Earth is able to support life is the presence of gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in its atmosphere that trap heat and warm the planet.[iv] For hundreds of thousands of years these gasses have existed in our atmosphere in sustainable quantities, resulting in a climate that shifts back and forth slightly but remains supportive of life. Carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses are, in fact, largely responsible for our existence.

The second thing we have to understand is that the safe level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since about 1960.[v] Warming since then cannot be explained by the Earth’s natural cycles – the (at least) 400,000 year old pattern has changed, and is no longer sustainable.[vi] The cause of this unnaturally large amount of greenhouse gas and the subsequent rise in the Earth’s temperature is – according to a majority of scientists – us. More specifically our recent enthusiasm (since the Industrial Revolution) for burning fossil fuels that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[vii] The IPCC, in its Fifth Assessment of global warming which will be finalised this month, states that “the human influence on the climate system is clear.”[viii] Less clear is exactly is exactly how devastating the effects of this influence will be.

What does climate change mean for our planet?

At the moment scientists are predicting a rise in temperature of at least three degrees Celsius by the end of the century.[ix] According to Rifkin, the most serious aspect of global warming is the effect it has on the Earth’s water cycle. A change in temperature leads to an increase in the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water. This in turn changes the way water is distributed on Earth: in other words, global warming effects how often and how much it rains. Scientists believe global warming will cause rainstorms to be shorter and less frequent but much heavier, resulting in an increase in both floods and droughts.[x]

We are already starting to experience some of the effects of climate change. Longer and hotter summers mean more bushfires in certain regions of Australia, for example, and the number of serious hurricanes has doubled over the past forty years.[xi] Ocean levels are expected to rise more than 1 metre by the end of the 21st century due to the rapid melting of Antarctic ice – devastating news for island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives that sit just a few metres above sea level.[xii]

Predictions for effects in the near future are also sobering. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) a rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius could lead to the disappearance of 25% of the Earth’s plant and animal species (such a rapid shift in climate would leave most living creatures without enough time to adapt).[xiii] The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between the years 2030 and 2050 climate change will cause approximately 250,000 more deaths per year by directly contributing to the rates of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.[xiv] And then there is the growing number of climate refugees from areas rendered uninhabitable by global warming. Already some Pacific islands are beginning to relocate communities: earlier this month New Zealand granted residency to a family unable to return to their island home because of the effects of global warming.[xv]

Not all of the future effects of climate change are so easily predictable, largely due to something scientists call feedback loops. Rifkin gives a number of examples of feedback loops (or feedback events) in his book. Here is one:

[W]hen the ice in the Arctic melts from a rise in the Earth’s temperature because of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, it prevents heat from escaping the Earth. The diminished snow cover means a loss of reflective capacity – white reflects heat and black absorbs heat – and less heat escaping the planet. This, in turn, heats up the Earth even more and melts the snow faster in an accelerating positive feedback cycle.[xvi]

It is impossible to anticipate all of the changes that climate change will cause to the Earth’s natural systems, not to mention how those changes might feed back into the warming of the planet. Feedback loops are one of the reasons it is so difficult for climatologists to accurately predict just how much and how quickly climate change will cause the Earth to warm.

Why is there still resistance to the fact that humans are causing climate change?

In spite of the facts and urgent pleas from scientists for swift and strong action against climate change, many of us are still dragging our feet. Australia, for example, is the highest per-person greenhouse gas polluter among all developed nations.[xvii] Yet in July of this year the Abbott government repealed the country’s price on carbon (a tax designed to discourage the burning of fossil fuels).[xviii] How can we be so laidback when it comes to dealing with the human race’s greatest challenge?

The most obvious reason, of course, is the fact that modern society is built on the burning of fossil fuels. (As Rifkin notes, “virtually every commercial activity in our global economy is dependent on oil and other fossil fuel energies … We have built an entire civilization on the exhumed carbon deposits of the Carboniferous Period.”[xix]) Our survival, ultimately, depends on the restructuring of our entire system of energy production – a daunting (and for many a seemingly impossible) task. It also means a huge loss in revenue for those currently profiting from the coal and oil industries (companies and countries wealthy enough to influence government decisions when it comes to climate change).

A second reason for our collective reluctance could be a simple misunderstanding of how our climate works. Climate change ‘deniers’ will often point to a heavy dump of snow and say “How can the Earth be warming up if it’s snowing so much?” This sort of thinking is wrong because firstly, as outlined above, global warming doesn’t just cause heat waves but all kinds of extreme weather due to unpredictable feedback loops, and its effect on the Earth’s water cycles (this article from the Independent outlines how global warming can actually cause colder winters).  Secondly, a statement like the one above fails to recognise the difference between weather (short term fluctuations in temperature etc) and climate (greater changes over longer periods of time). Neil deGrasse Tyson explains this difference wonderfully in the final episode of Cosmos (watch his explanation here). The other major argument against the existence of human-induced climate change is that the Earth’s climate has shifted quite drastically over hundreds of thousands of years. This is true, but it has always shifted within the boundaries of Earth’s natural cycles; i.e. the peaks and troughs have followed regular patterns. The current warming of the Earth breaks this ages-old rhythm right at the moment when humans begin to pump massive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere – a gas that, scientists agree, works to trap heat and warm the planet.

Finally, I suspect that many of us are overwhelmed by the size of this problem. It seems too big to tackle, too enormous, even, to be real. The greatest challenge to ever face the human race? Surely that’s an exaggeration, surely it’s not that bad. The dramatic reality of climate change can lead us to either dismiss it as scaremongering, or throw up our hands in frustration. The problem is so big – what can I do? The good news is – as I will explore in detail in part two of this article – that there are many things we can do, and that we will be forced to do. The threat of climate change may actually push us in a greener, more sustainable direction. Global warming could be the kick up the arse we need to make our lives better.

Whatever the reasons for resistance, it is clear to me that global warming is an important and urgent problem that needs to be faced right now. In my next post I will look at what has already been done to reduce the effects of climate change, as well as what climatologists believe we should be doing, and what the future might hold.

[i] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Alex Magnin, “Is climate change human made?” – video

[iii] Alex Magnin, “Sustainability definition” – video

[iv] Greenpeace

[v] Alex Magnin, “Is climate change human made?” – video

[vi] Greenpeace

[vii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[viii] The UN

[ix] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[x] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xi] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xii] The Guardian

[xiii] WWF

[xiv] WHO

[xv] The Guardian

[xvi] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xvii] WWF

[xviii] The Sydney Morning Herald

[xix] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

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