Part of my new series on the 21st Century Crisis and also posted at Blue House Diaries
University of British Columbia geographer Greg Henry never used to wear a t-shirt in the Arctic, even in the middle of summer. But as The Tyee, a British Columbia-based lefty web magazine describes, he does now.
His data shows an average 6 C [nearly 11F] increase in winter temperatures at Alexandra Fjord since 1970, and a 1 degree per decade summertime increase.
The story of his findings is more than a sobering reminder of the inevitability of climate change. Instead it shows that massive climate change is already happening. The Arctic isn't the canary in the coal mine, Henry says, "the mine canary's dead. We're into full-fledged climate change."
After we all watched An Inconvenient Truth last summer we all probably looked around for ways to forestall the inevitable without making a drastic change to the way we live. It wasn't that we needed to stop driving, we just needed to change what we drove. It wasn't that we needed to stop spewing CO2, we just needed to somehow do less of it. Gore's film had a message of hope at its root, the hope that we could bring ourselves to make the small but significant changes that we hoped would forestall disaster.
The Arctic, however, may not wait. Henry and numerous other climatologists now believe that climate change is an irreversible fact of life. It's not something out there waiting for us if we don't drive a Prius, it's something we have already bought and paid for. It is happening.
Henry's forté is glaciation. Or as we should say today, the lack of it. As hundreds of mountain climbers have reported, glaciers around the world are in rapid retreat. In the Andes Mountains this retreat threatens Peru's and Bolivia's water supplies. And in the Arctic, the rate of retreat is stunning. Greenland is seeing a retreat of about 10-15 km per year in its glaciers.
Gore told us that a melting of the Greenland ice cap would alone be a catastrophe. When we watched that we thought it was a dire prediction. We now know, however, that he was merely reporting on a current event.
Henry believes we will see a 10 C [18 F] increase in Arctic temperatures between now and 2100, an average of 1 C per decade. That is merely the present rate; as John England, a University of Alberta scientist points out, we can expect this to accelerate as Arctic warming continues:
England believes that most scientists have, out of a natural caution, underestimated the global dangers ahead. "The sea ice will be GONE," he says, speaking of the Arctic Ocean, "by the end of this century. That's radical. That's HUGE! Once you remove the ice, you remove the solar reflectivity. The darker ocean water absorbs the sun's heat. As the ice goes, the Arctic warms up even faster. And that's not all: the permafrost is melting. It's melting fast! That's releasing a lot of methane into the atmosphere. You have all this carbon dioxide gas and moisture in the air from evaporation... it means more clouds. That warms things even more."
Of course, this means that sea levels will rise. If Greenland melts, we can expect a 7 meter rise in global sea levels. 7m would inundate most coastal cities and many low-lying nations, and it must be added that if Greenland were to melt, it would not do so in solitude.
But let me go back to the first sentence in England's blockquote there. Most scientific reports likely understate the amount of change we can expect. The same is true of the IPCC reports that are currently being generated. This is not necessarily because of complicity or blindness but because scientists are cautious people. If 10C is the actual rate of increase in the Arctic, not the 3-4C being currently projected, then we are fucked.
In short, we have created a Frankenstein's monster. In the 20th century we burned fossil fuels and built sprawl and disregarded not just the effect on our lived environment but also the long term consequences of our actions. We could claim ignorance until about 1970, but after that we knew exactly what we were doing; the social and economic and political costs of our dependence on pollution had become clear. By decade's end we had come to know we were changing the climate as well, and over the last 27 years we have merely filled in the details of this.
Meanwhile we began to delude ourselves that we could continue on as before, without claiming responsibility or admitting a need to change. As I argued last week, this was the Reagan Consensus - that Americans did not have to worry about the effects of their lifestyles and values. They could and should assert their privileges and damn the consequences.
Since 1980 we have dramatically racheted up our pollution of the globe. The results have been clear; as Gore pointed out the last 15 years have been the Earth's warmest on human record. Instead of pausing in the 1970s to fix our problems and find better ways of living, we instead threw caution to the wind in the 1980s. The price is now becoming clear.
And it can be easy for us to believe we will somehow survive unscathed this monster we unleashed. We created and used nuclear weapons, lived through 45 years of a knife-edge nuclear showdown, and told the tale. Nobody today worries about nuclear war any longer, even though more countries than ever before have them. As a species we have a remarkable ability to ignore the obvious and the threatening for as long as we possibly can.
But reality will, and is, smacking us upside the head. The time to change - to fundamentally change - has come. The time to reexamine virtually every single one of our assumptions about politics, society, economics, our interface with the natural world, has come.
THAT is the 21st Century Crisis of which I want to speak to you all over the course of this year. This diary is going to kick off a series, weekly I hope, outlining the massive crisis we now face, one that threatens our very survival and makes Bush look like a mere buzzing gnat. From health care to our food supply to our transportation systems to our political economy, we have reached a point where we cannot continue on as before, where we must instead recognize the need to change.
The 21st Century Crisis, then, is the realization that industrial society, the long 20th century, is over. To maintain its forms and assumptions is to continue to commit slow and sure suicide. It is the moment of profound Crisis that causes us who are decent, intelligent, and humanistic to find a sufficient response, before the forces of concentrated wealth and power impose one on us. We saw their solution, in New Orleans. It is a solution that must be avoided.
Dick Cheney memorably said "the American way of life is non negotiable." What he did not add is that our survival is. If we persist in believing that small cosmetic changes will save us, in the end we may not be much different than Cheney's insistence that no change is needed at all. We must make profound changes, in nearly every aspect of how we live. If these changes are to be inclusive and progressive, and not exclusive and regressive, it is up to us to lead.