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The Heat Death of American Dreams

Overshadowed by last month's hurricanes was the news that global warming is likely to accelerate much faster than feared, and it's already begun.

A number of news reports and commentary on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have linked the disasters to global warming. Almost nobody noticed a crucial scientific finding, two weeks earlier, that foreshadows disasters on a far greater scale in the decades to come.

According to August 11 articles in the magazine New Scientist and the British newspaper the Guardian, a pair of scientists, one Russian and one British, report that global warming is melting the permafrost in the West Siberian tundra. The news made a little blip in the international media and the blogosphere, and then it disappeared.

Why should anyone care? Because melting of the Siberian permafrost will, over the next few decades, release hundreds of millions of tons of methane from formerly frozen peat bogs into the atmosphere. Methane from those bogs is at least twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that currently drives global warming. Dumping such a huge quantity of methane on top of already soaring CO2 levels will drive global temperatures to the upper range of increases forecast for the remainder of this century.

According to the most recent forecast by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compiled in 2001, human industrial emissions are on course to raise global temperatures between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. The IPCC models didn't account for methane releases from the Arctic, nor did they consider other natural sources of greenhouse gases that could be released by human activity. The agency judged Arctic methane releases to be a real but remote possibility, not likely to emerge for decades. Now we find that it could very well be happening today.

The news of melting Siberian permafrost means, in all likelihood, that global warming is accelerating much faster than climatologists had predicted. The finding from Siberia comes amidst evidence, presented at Tony Blair's special climate change conference last February, that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could be in danger of disintegrating -- another warming-induced event once thought to be decades or centuries away.

Meanwhile, according to a September 29, 2005 report in the Guardian, scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center have measured a drastic shrinking of ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. Arctic waters are now expected to be ice-free well before the end of this century.

How many more milestones will there be? The prospects of a worst case scenario, with a temperature increase approaching or exceeding 5.8 degrees Celsius, are increasing dramatically, with all the attending disasters that would entail -- inundated coastlines, extreme storms and drought, disease pandemics, collapsing agriculture, massive environmental refugee flows.

And how far will it go? Climate forecasts have long noted that every increase in global temperature heightens the odds of runaway global warming, beyond any human control. Continued overheating could unlock more methane from Arctic regions beyond Siberia. It could cripple the vital ability of plants and oceans to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, turning them into gushing sources of new CO2 that accelerate the superheating even further. The ice caps that help cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight into space could vanish. In the end, the relentless rise in temperature could induce a cataclysmic venting of billions of tons of methane from the oceans.

A paper by British scientists Michael J. Benton and Richard J. Twitchett, published in the July 2003 issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution, shows how this could happen. 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian era, a release of carbon dioxide from volcanic eruptions apparently heated the Earth's atmosphere by about 6 degrees Celsius.

This initial increase in temperature triggered, in turn, a massive release of methane from Arctic tundra and the oceans. Research by Jeffrey Kiehl and others at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at University of Colorado, Boulder, tells us what happened next. According to their paper in the September 2005 issue of the journal Geology, the Earth's annual mean surface temperature rose by an additional 10 to 30 degrees Celsius.

The result of this runaway global warming was the greatest mass extinction since life emerged from the sea -- 95 percent of all species in existence died. That from an initial temperature rise only 0.2 degrees Celsius more than what the IPCC says could occur by the end of this century. We now know that human industry is causing in our lifetimes the same kind of methane release that triggered the Permian extinction.

The news from Siberia means that putting a brake on climate change in our lifetimes, or our children's, is impossible. If the entire human race miraculously slashed industrial carbon dioxide emissions today by the most drastic feasible amount, the temperature would continue to increase for decades, maybe centuries, according to IPCC forecasts.

The Arctic methane driving the atmosphere toward runaway warming would thus continue to spew from the permafrost. In any case, the reality of human behavior is that we will almost certainly not cut our carbon emissions to zero, so long as current politics and paradigms endure. Unless something changes in the global zeitgeist, nations will debate and muddle along, and maybe eventually adopt some further showpiece compromises like the Kyoto protocol, and we'll tell ourselves it's enough.

By the time political and economic elites realize the ghastly scope of what's happening, the truly catastrophic changes in our climate and biosphere will probably be unfolding already.

It seems likely that we are staring down the barrel of the full force, worst-case scenarios studied by the IPCC and other research organizations. The future foreseen in those scenarios is hidden amidst a mind numbing tedium of graphs and scientific jargon. The language is bland, almost routine. Implicit in the abstract language, though, are real events and consequences that will devastate the lives of real human beings, on a scale no one has ever seen. Katrina was a harbinger. The future will be far worse.

To imagine what it might be like is to invite charges of fear mongering, because it violates the scientific ethos of caution, restraint, and neutrality, the political and cultural norms of can-do optimism. But we've reached the point now where we have to start envisioning what we will face. We have to see the data and projections in human terms, if we hope to be ready for what our children and their children will have to endure. We have to start thinking clearly about what the numbers might mean.

For decades, the right derided environmentalists as doom-sayers. Environmental organizations themselves often hesitated, for fear of losing credibility, to put their case in stark, apocalyptic terms. It may not be politic to say so, but growing evidence suggests that the worst-case forecasts are coming true. The ability of our planet to sustain life is beginning to disintegrate.

The collapse will accelerate and intensify with each passing year. At some point, the cataclysm that ended Earth's Permian era, 251 million years ago, will repeat itself. During the decades or centuries of its recurrence, we will see the end of technological progress, the destruction of our civilization, and quite possibly the extinction of our species.

Preventing that outcome will, and should, override any other political and social issue. Quite literally, nothing else matters now. Every policy, every issue, must be viewed in terms of how it contributes to human survival. The impractical and the impossible are now imperative, whether we know it or not. We will have to eliminate carbon emissions. All of them. Post-carbon energy sources will be crucial to the eventual recovery of our climate, centuries or millennia from now.

In the meantime, the environmental collapse will continue regardless, over many human generations. Human societies face the task of riding it out as best they can, minimizing the death and misery their inhabitants must endure. In the end, they will have to redefine civilization.

It's time for progressives to face what's coming. Normal politics isn't enough anymore. Once, the left sought justice and plenty for everyone in the world of material abundance created by the Industrial Revolution. The task now is to save something decent and humane as the former things pass away.

What do we need to do, here and now? How can we do it? What comes next? Let the conversation begin here.

Ed Merta is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.