Climate change: whats the problem?

“There’s no precedent in history for the radically new relationship between humanity and the planet,” Al Gore told the 180-nation conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, in December.

Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-sponsored panel of climate scientists, recently won the Nobel Prize for their work in bringing climate change to the top of the world’s agenda.



What is the problem?

From pole to pole, glaciers are collapsing. Melting ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is adding billions of tons of water to oceans each year.

Global temperatures are rising. The 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990. Violence in Darfur began in response to worsening drought that caused water and food shortages.

Only about half the human-generated emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide are being absorbed by land vegetation and the ocean. A major reason: alteration of land cover. Wholesale destruction of forests, grasslands and wetlands, then replacing them with freeways, parking lots and strip malls, is handicapping the self-restoring capability of our planet.

Carbon storage in North American ecosystems isn’t keeping up with carbon dioxide emissions from the continent’s automobiles and power plants. Those fossil fuel burners, plus cement manufacturing, spew more than 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year.



What the world’s scientists say

The IPCC’s fourth report on climate change, issued in November 2007, is an update and re-evaluation of data, with plenty of tables and graphs.

The report’s major points:

•1. Warming of the earth’s climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.

•2. Causes of change: Changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system.

“Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important anthropogenic (human-caused) GHG. Its annual emissions grew by about 80 percent between 1970 and 2004.

“Decreases in snow cover cause a corresponding decrease in albedo (reflectivity of the earth’s surface), which increases the rate of warming. This releases stored methane (a potent GHG) from permafrost soils, which increases warming.

•3. Projected climate change and its impacts: Continued GHG emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century. Examples of expected impacts include:

- Increased damage from rising sea level

- Increased risk from extreme weather events and flooding.”



New Orleans — a case study

Many low-lying areas around the world with dense populations, like Bangladesh and New York City, are at particular risk. This is likely to produce millions of environmental refugees.

New Orleans is a case in point.

Over millennia, the Mississippi River carried sediment from the combined Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri drainage systems, and built up the Mississippi delta. For the most part, levees have now stopped that natural process. Walking in downtown New Orleans, and looking up at passing ships is an odd perspective-challenging experience. The city is already largely below sea level and is sinking an average of 6 millimeters a year.

For a clearer understanding of how climate change is affecting New Orleans, I recommend an article in the August 2007 National Geographic titled “New Orleans: A Perilous Future,” by Joel K. Bourne. Louisiana is losing roughly 12 square miles of storm-buffering wetlands each year. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took out an additional 217 square miles, east and south of the city.

A map in that issue shows what will happen when sea level rises just 3 feet — a very likely scenario. The south Louisiana coast will move far inland, engulfing Lake Pontchartrain and stranding New Orleans far out at sea. Robert Giegengack, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it bluntly: “We simply lack the capacity to protect New Orleans.”

Is allowing people to move back into New Orleans and surrounding towns, directly into harm’s way, a form of environmental racism? Are we telling these people that they’re expendable?



Corals and collapse

The IPCC report also tells us: “Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1-3 degrees Celsius are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality.”

All our planet’s ecosystems filter carbon dioxide from and release oxygen into the air by incorporating the carbon into wood, leaves, shells and other “biomass.” Tropical forests, coral reefs and the plankton of the open ocean are the major sites of carbon sequestration and oxygen production — the “lungs of Mother Earth.”

Historically, tropical rainforest habitat totaled 6 billion acres. Today we have less than 1.5 billion acres left, and this remaining rainforest is being cleared at the rate of 30-50 million acres per year.

This risks increasing the rate of extinction of many species in the tropics, and the resulting soil erosion runs downstream, choking coral reefs.

Species are like cogs in the machinery of nature. Take too many out, and an ecosystem — the basic unit of our planetary life-support system — collapses.



Floods and water shortages

“Warming in western mountains of North America is projected to cause more precipitation to fall as rain, less as snow. This will decrease snow pack and cause more winter flooding.

“Competition for over-allocated water resources will be exacerbated.”

In December 2007, here in Washington state, flooding in the Chehalis Valley submerged Interstate 5 — the major highway connecting Portland, Ore., with Seattle — under 10 feet of water from breached levees. Transport of needed supplies was stopped. Hundreds of people were isolated. Livestock drowned. This is one result of the too-prevalent poor planning that encourages development in at-risk flood plains.

“Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surges and erosion of low-lying and small islands.” The report cites “saltwater intrusion and contamination of drinking and irrigation water supplies in coastal areas, causing decreased freshwater availability,” and “impacts to marine ecosystem and fisheries productivity.”

Note that much of the world’s population, especially in Asia and Europe, is dependent upon seafood.



So what can we do?

Don’t get the idea that the IPCC report is all bad news. Warming temperatures are likely to reduce human mortality from exposure to cold. With warmer weather, there’ll be less disruption of transportation by severe wintry conditions.

More good news: the IPCC study suggests many practical strategies to combat this crisis. A few specific ones:

• Development of:

- Advanced nuclear power (generating less nuclear waste, less damaging than CO2, and potentially recyclable)

- Advanced renewable energy, including tidal and wave energy

- Solar design for lighting, heating and cooling

• Change agricultural practices:

- Reforestation, reduce deforestation

- Livestock manure management to reduce methane emissions. Methane is a very effective greenhouse gas. Instead of being added to the atmosphere, it should be captured and burned for energy.

- Improved nitrogen fertilizer techniques to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions. And these emissions would decrease if more sustainable and organic methods were used.

• Incentives to spur development of low-emissions technologies.

• Reduce fossil fuel subsidies: levy taxes or carbon charges on fossil fuels.

• Public sector leadership programs: governments should buy and use technology that contributes to solutions, not worsens the problems.

Such steps can result in co-benefits (for example, improved health due to reduced air pollution) that may offset some of the costs.



Up against the system

One big constraint to adopting these strategies is resistance by vested interests. At some point these strategies will bump up against the capitalist-imperialist system.

For far too long, what is most profitable for corporations has been the driving force in decision-making. This is the primary reason we are facing the global warming crisis today. The capitalist-imperialist system, now in the corporate globalist phase, is something we can no longer afford. We need comprehensive, integrated — dialectical — planning.



Socialism on the agenda

It is possible to deal effectively with these environmental problems. Or we can retain capitalism. But we won’t be able to do both. This places environmental health, justice and sustainability — in a word, socialism —squarely on the agenda.

We all need to learn about these issues and become policymakers. The corporate policymeisters have made such a mess of things, the time to disenthrone them is clearly here.

The opportunities to create jobs and build a more sound and sustainable economic system tap directly into the creativity, entrepreneurship and ingenuity that the fossil-fuel economy has stifled. Van Jones, a champion of “green collar” job creation, puts it like this: “The green economy has the power to deliver new sources of work, wealth and health to low-income people — while honoring the Earth.”

The IPCC’s latest report is a wake-up call. If we don’t change course, we might end up where we’re headed. If you want an example of a runaway greenhouse effect, take a look at the planet Venus, which is now totally devoid of life.

Dave Zink (dcaz @juno.com) is a trade union and environmental activist in the state of Washington.