The Global Warming Time Bomb

by Michael G. Livingston

A version of this article appears in the March 2005 edition of Socialist Action newspaper. For a one-year subscription, send $8 to Socialist Action, 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94103.

If TV news or local daily papers in the U.S. were your only source of information, you would be pretty much in the dark about the time bomb ticking away on the planet, a time bomb that threatens humanity with extinction. The time bomb I am talking about is of course global warming.

Scientists are not known as alarmists. In fact, in your training in graduate school you are punished with relentless criticism if you stray too far from your data, or you reach for conclusions beyond what your data will support. That is why the scientific reports that have been published in the last two months should make any sane person crazy with fear. Let’s examine the new evidence.

As reported on the CNN web site on January 24, an international group headed by Stephen Byers, a close confidant of Tony Blair, and U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine released the “Meeting the Climate Challenge” report.  The report, which used the phrase “an ecological time bomb,” called for redoubled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report was timed to coincide with the meeting of the G8 industrial nations and was part of Blair’s efforts to pressure his good buddy George Bush into adopting the Kyoto Protocol. In conjunction with the release of the report, the English organized a conference to review the latest research on global warming.

Among the studies presented was one that is to be published in Nature, the prestigious science journal. The article in Nature projected that global warming will be twice as bad as predicted in the next century. Concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) will rise from 280 parts per million (ppm), the pre-industrial level, to 560 ppm. This will raise global mean temperature by 11 degrees Celsius, almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In the higher latitudes such as the Arctic Circle, the rise in temperature will be closer to 20 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were measured at 379 parts per million (ppm). Scientists are not sure when the global climate system will cross a threshold, a tipping point after which all hell breaks lose, but they are starting to suspect that 400 ppm is the likely threshold. If that is the case, we have fewer than 10 years to take forceful action. An increase in global mean temperature over one degree Celsius will cause the melting of the Greenland Icecap. The Greenland Icecap alone holds enough water to raise global sea level by 20 feet. Visit London, Holland, Florida, New York, and Washington soon. They will not be there in 40 years, along with much of the rest of the world’s island and coastal areas.

If you think the news in January was bad (and indeed it was), the news in February was worse. Research from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany’s leading center for the study of global climate, integrated the findings from existing studies on food production, water availability, wildlife extinction, and ecosystem stress to develop a timeline of environmental collapse. The impact from global warming will multiple as the global mean temperature goes from 1 degree Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius and from 2 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees Celsius. We are currently over one-half a degree Celsius over the global mean temperature. At 1 degree, rates of drought and species extinction start to increase and net GDP starts to decline in hard-hit countries. At 2 degrees, water scarcity increases and 1.5 billion people experience severe water shortages, the oceans become more acidic, and flooding starts to increase. Also at 2 degrees Celsius the U.S. and Europe experience plagues of pests and severe forest fires. At 3 degrees and above, you have widespread species extinction in the higher latitudes and in the oceans, increased temperature and acidic content of the oceans, widespread forest fires on all parts of the planet, the rapid spread of tropical diseases, and war for water and food. At 3 degrees, the report estimates that 5.5 billion people will experience food shortage and starvation and 3 billion will experience acute water shortages. Also at 3 degrees Celsius the report predicts global economic collapse as measured by a steep decline in per capita global GDP.

Also, changes in the ocean temperatures will increase drought conditions in the northern hemisphere, which is already experiencing large-scale drying.

In other news in early February, British scientists reported data showing that the West Antarctic ice sheet may break off soon. The West Antarctic shelf has enough water in it to raise global sea levels 15 feet. Fifteen feet plus 20 feet equals 35 feet. Not a pretty sight for the 90% of humanity that lives near costal areas.

In mid-February, researchers at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting reported on deep ocean studies of global warming. These studies provided researchers with conclusive evidence for global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Tim Barnett, the lead researcher from the University of California, remarked that “the debate on global warming, at least for rational people, is over. And for those who insist that the uncertainties remain too great, their argument is no longer tenable. We’ve nailed it.” In response White House spokesperson Bill Holbrook of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said: “The science of global climate change is uncertain.”

Also in mid February researchers at Harvard reported that global warming will stifle the normal cold fronts that move down across the U.S. from Canada. These cold fronts bring fresh air to the Midwest and the Northeast and sweep away harmful pollutants. With the number of these cold fronts decreasing, pollution will build up dramatically over the Midwest and the Northeastern U.S.

Now you would think that a story about the possible collapse of our civilization along with massive human-caused “natural” disasters and the possible extinction of our species would be news in the U.S. But no, it is not. What is going on here?

Well, the U.S. media is certainly a big part of the problem. The corporate-controlled media are reluctant to cover a story that might have a negative effect on corporate profits, and the corporate-controlled administration, for the same reason, has taken global warming off the political agenda.

In Europe there is also relatively little coverage of global warming, but since a number of politicians are pressing the issue (chiefly Tony Blair), and since the various Green parties have a political presence in the European Parliament, the issue does get some coverage. Compared to the U.S. media, the European media’s low amount of coverage of global warming seems like a lot.

The U.S. environmental movement is another part of the problem. Many mainstream environmental groups have refused to take up global warming as an issue, have been willing to work for minor incremental changes in U.S. policy, or have been waiting until things get worse. The role of the U.S. media and the failure of the mainstream environmental movement are detailed in Ross Gelbspan’s latest book on global warming—Boiling Point (2004), a must read for serious environmental activists.

But as Gelbspan shows, the main culprits are the oil, gas, and coal industries, and the politicians of the two main political parties, who are willing to bend over backward for their capitalist masters. This should come as no surprise. After all, those who pay the fiddler call the tune. It does mean that we can not rely on lobbying or electing “friendly” Democrats to solve the global warming problem. And we can not expect the corporations to “heal themselves.” We, the people of this planet, must solve the problem by building a massive, politically independent, democratic social movement on a global scale. Some ideas about how we can build that movement, and what the movement’s program will look like, will be the focus of a future article.

All hyperbole aside, global warming is a time bomb that is ticking away and our time is running down.

February 21, 2005

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