Almost no one notices, but the debate on climate change is not over.
Now, scientists around the world have accumulated a set of unassailable evidence to support the conclusion that the warming of our planet is underway mainly caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
The shrinking range of climate “skeptics,” a group of oil and coal industry leaders, retired teachers, and semi-obsessive teachers, is now on the defensive.
Although names like Fred Singer, Philip Stott, and Bjorn Lomborg still appear from time to time in the popular press in England and the United States, their views are notable for their absence in specialized literature. Meanwhile, the world, as we knew, is beginning to come apart. Signs are everywhere, even in Britain.
Chestnut, oak, and ash are coming into leaf more than a week earlier than two decades ago. The growing season now lasts almost all year: in 2000, there were only 39 official winter days.
Destructive winter floods are part of this warming trend, while in lowland England, the snow has become a thing of the past. Where I live in Oxford, six of the last ten winters have been completely snowless – something that happened only twice in the entire 30-year period between 1960 and 1990.
The heating rate has become so fast that it is equivalent to your garden, moving up south at 20 meters every day. In other parts of the world, the signs of global warming are more dramatic.
Researching a book on the subject, I witnessed significant changes caused by the climate on the five continents, changes that are leaving millions homeless, destitute, and in danger.
In Alaska, I spent a week in the Eskimo village of Shishmaref, on the state’s remote west coast, just 100 kilometers from Russia’s east coast. As the midnight sun shone outside, I heard village elder Clifford Weyiouanna tell me how the sea, which used to freeze in October, was now ice-free until Christmas.
And even when sea ice ends up forming, he explained, it is so thin that it is dangerous to walk and hunt. Seasonal changes are also affecting animals: seals and walruses – still crucial elements of the Eskimo diet – are migrating earlier and are almost impossible to catch. The entire village found only one walrus [in 2002] after traveling thousands of kilometers by boat.
Shishmaref lives in perpetual fear. The cliffs on which the community of more than 600 people sits are thawing, and, during the last major storm, 15 meters of land was lost during the night. People struggled with 90 km / h winds to save their homes from the waves.
I was on the coast [in 2002] with Robert Iyatunguk, the coordinator of the Shishmaref Erosion Coalition, looking at a house left on top of the cliff. “The wind is getting stronger, the water is increasing, and it’s noticeable to everyone in the city,” he told me. “It just scares you inside your body and makes you wonder exactly when the big one is going to hit.” In July 2002, residents voted to abandon the site, a narrow barrier island that has been continuously occupied by the Eskimos for centuries and has moved elsewhere.
In Fairbanks, Alaska’s central inland city, everyone talks about heating. The manager of the hostel where I stayed, a talented hunter, told me how the ducks were swimming in the river in December (it was supposed to freeze in the fall), how the bears were so confused that they didn’t know whether they would hibernate or not.
Stay awake with those winter temperatures, which used to drop 40 degrees below zero, now barely reached 25 degrees below. Throughout the city, roads are curved, and houses fall as the permafrost under them melts.
In one house, the occupants, a cleaning lady, and her daughter showed me that crossing the kitchen meant going up (the house was tilted sideways) and how the shelves had to be rebalanced with pieces of wood to keep everything from falling over. Other houses were abandoned. The new ones are built on adjustable stilts.
Scientists have long predicted that global warming will lead, in some places, to intense floods and droughts. When I visited China in April 2002, the northern provinces of the country were in the worst drought in more than a century.
Entire lakes dried up, and, in many places, dunes advanced through farmers’ fields. A lakefront village in Gansu province, close to the old Silk Road, was abandoned after the waters dried up apart from a woman who lives in ruins with some chickens and a cow for company. “Of course, I’m alone!” she cried in response to my insensitive question. “You can imagine how annoying this life is; I can’t move; I can’t do anything.
I have no relatives, friends, and money.” She was plagued by memories of what it had been like when neighbors talked and exchanged stories until late at night before the place became a ghost town. Minutes after I left, a dust storm blew.
These storms are becoming more frequent, and even Beijing is now hit repeatedly each spring. During a previous visit to a remote village in eastern Inner Mongolia, not far from the ruins of Kubla Khan’s famous Xanadu, I experienced an even stronger storm.
The day turned to the night when a dust and sand storm swept over the mud-brick buildings. I huddled inside a house with a family of Mongolian peasants, sharing rice wine and listening to stories of how the grass had grown to the waist in the surrounding plains. Now the land is little more than the arid desert, thanks to persistent drought and overgrazing.
The storm lasted for hours. When it calmed down in the late afternoon, and the sun came up again, the village cocks sang, thinking that the morning had come early. Drought in northwest China is partly caused by runoff from nearby mountains, which, due to rising temperatures, are now covered with less snow and ice than before.
Glacier shrinkage is a repeated phenomenon in the world’s mountain ranges, and I also saw it firsthand in Peru, stunned by altitude sickness in the Andes, 5,200 meters above the capital, Lima, where one of the main water supply glaciers has shrunk more than a kilometer during the past century.
A senior manager at Lima’s water authority later told me how melting ice is now a critical threat to the future supply of freshwater: this city of seven million is the second-largest desert metropolis in the world after Cairo, and mountains supply all of their water through coastal rivers that pour from the ice fields high above.
It is the snows that keep rivers flowing all year round – after the glaciers are gone.
Rivers will only flow in the rainy season. The same problem affects the Indian subcontinent: dependent on the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra rivers that flow from the Himalayas, hundreds of millions of people will suffer water shortages like original glaciers. Unless alternative sources of water can be secured, Lima will be depopulated, its people spread out as an environmental refugee.
This is a category already familiar to residents of Tuvalu, a group of nine coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific. Tuvalu, along with Kiribati, Maldives, and many other island nations, has made the world community known, and a planned evacuation, displacing 75 people a year to New Zealand, is already underway.
I saw firsthand how the islands are already affected by rising sea levels, paddling in knee-deep water during the spring tides of , which submerged much of Funafuti and almost surrounded the airstrip.
Later that night, the country’s prime minister after independence, Toaripi Lauti, told me of his shock when he found his pulka crop (a root vegetable like taro, grown in sunken wells) dying from saltwater intrusion.
He remembered how they all woke up one morning, a few years earlier, to find that one of the islets on the edge of the atoll had disappeared from the horizon, bathed by the waves, its coconut trees were broken and destroyed by the rising sea.
As severe as these impacts on climate change seem, they are like the canaries in the coal mine – just the first whispers of the holocaust that lie ahead if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists gathered under the banner of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted warming during the 21st century of up to six degrees Celsius, which would take the Earth to dangerous and unknown waters. [In June 2003], scientists at the UK’s Hadley Center reported that the warming might be even higher because of the complexities of the carbon cycle.
The IPCC’s worst six-degree forecast could be almost unimaginably catastrophic. It took just six degrees of warming to trigger the mass extinction at the end of the Permian 251 million years ago, the worst crisis that has ever hit life on Earth, leading to the death of 95% of all living species at the time.
For humanity to avoid a similar fate, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced between 60% and 80% below current levels – precisely the reverse of the emissions forecasts recently produced by the International Energy Agency.
A good start would be the ratification and rapid implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which should be replaced, after the next decade, by the “contraction and convergence” model proposed by the Global Commons Institute in London, allocating equal rights of issue per person among all the nations of the world.
Meanwhile, a network of campaigning groups is currently mobilizing under the “No new oil” banner, demanding an end to the exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves, based on current reserves only insufficient quantities of oil, coal, and oil, totally to destabilize the world’s climate.
Looking for more is as illogical as waste. Avoiding dangerous climate change and other large-scale environmental crises will need to become the critical organizing principle around which societies evolve. All the signs are that few in power understand this – much less the current US government, which has committed itself to a policy of arbitrary destructiveness, with control and exploration of oil as a central theme.
We must abandon the old mindset that demands an oil-based economy, not only because it unleashes wars and terrorism, but because the future of life on Earth depends on leaving it behind.