Water World: Slipping Toward Climate Catastrophe
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Editor's Note: George Monbiot is a British journalist and author whose expertise is on climate change and other environmental issues. Monbiot's article reveals that government ineptitude in the face of increasingly frightening scientific data on climate change is not limited to the United States: The UK government is dangerously negligent on energy and climate issues even though it knows better.
Reading a scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at NASA, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic.
The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59 centimeters this century. Hansen's paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets the panel expects doesn't fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another. When temperatures increased to 2-3 degrees Celsius above today's level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels rose not by 59 cm but by 25 meters. The ice responded immediately to changes in temperature.
We now have a pretty good idea of why ice sheets collapse. The buttresses that prevent them from sliding into the sea break up; meltwater trickles down to their base, causing them suddenly to slip; and pools of water form on the surface, making the ice darker so that it absorbs more heat. These processes are already taking place in Greenland and West Antarctica.
Rather than taking thousands of years to melt, as the IPCC predicts, Hansen and his team find it "implausible" that the expected warming before 2100 "would permit a West Antarctic ice sheet of present size to survive even for a century." As well as drowning most of the world's centers of population, a sudden disintegration could lead to much higher rises in global temperature, because less ice means less heat reflected back into space. The new paper suggests that the temperature could therefore be twice as sensitive to rising greenhouse gases than the IPCC assumes. "Civilization developed," Hansen writes, "during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12,000 years in duration. That period is about to end."
I looked up from the paper, almost expecting to see crowds stampeding through the streets. I saw people chatting outside a riverside pub. The other passengers on the train snoozed over their newspapers or played on their mobile phones. Unaware of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully detached from their likely termination, we drift into catastrophe.
Or we are led there. A good source tells me that the British government is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions -- 60 percent by 2050 -- is too little, too late, but that it will go no further for one reason: it fears losing the support of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Why this body is allowed to keep holding a gun to our heads has never been explained, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just appointed Digby Jones, the former director-general of the CBI, as a minister in the UK government department responsible for energy policy. I don't remember voting for him. There could be no clearer signal that the public interest is being drowned by corporate power.
The government's energy program, partly as a result, is characterised by a complete absence of vision. You can see this most clearly when you examine its plans for renewables. The EU has set a target for 20 percent of all energy in the member states to come from renewable sources by 2020. This in itself is pathetic. But the British government refuses to adopt it: instead it proposes that 20 percent of the UK's electricity (just part of Britain's total energy use) should come from renewable power by that date. Even this is not a target, just an "aspiration," and it is on course to miss it. Worse still, the British government has no idea what happens after that. I recently asked whether it has commissioned any research to discover how much more electricity we could generate from renewable sources. It has not.
It's a critical question, whose answer -- if its results were applied globally -- could determine whether or not the planetary "albedo flip" that Hansen predicts takes place. There has been remarkably little investigation of this issue. Until recently I guessed that the maximum contribution from renewables would be something like 50%: beyond that point the difficulties of storing electricity and balancing the grid could become overwhelming. But three papers now suggest that we could go much further.
Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to North Africa and Iceland with high voltage direct current cables. This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandanavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80 percent of Europe's electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.
At about the same time, Mark Barrett at University College London published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power. At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95 percent of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.
Now a new study by the Center for Alternative Technology takes this even further. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 the United Kingdom could produce 100 percent of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that it could do so while almost tripling its supply: British heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and transport systems could be mostly powered by it. It relies on a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs into which water can be pumped when electricity is abundant, constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their batteries to meet fluctuations in demand. It contains some optimistic technical assumptions, but also a very pessimistic one: that the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal were to be combined with these ideas, it's possible to see how one might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.
If Hansen is correct, to avert the meltdown that brings the Holocene to an end we require a response on this scale: a sort of political "albedo flip." The British government must immediately commission studies to discover how much of our energy could be produced without fossil fuels, set that as its target then turn the economy round to meet it. But a power shift like this cannot take place without a power shift of another kind: the UK needs a government which fears planetary meltdown more than it fears the CBI.