Climate change a clear and present danger

Graeme Maxton says despite repeated warnings of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, most recently in the form of Hurricane Sandy, we've been focused on other, senseless battles for too long

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 3:56am

It almost seems fitting. The country that uses the most oil, has produced the greatest amount of carbon dioxide emissions for decades and has consistently denied the evidence of climate change has been given the slap it required. With tens of deaths, a crushed infrastructure and billions of dollars worth of damage, Hurricane Sandy is the wake-up call America needed. More than that, it is an event to which we should all pay heed. It is time to stop wasting money on fake wars and start spending it to protect us from a much graver threat.

A few weeks ago, I attended the general assembly of the Club of Rome, in Bucharest. There, we were presented with the latest evidence on the effects of climate change, and they were scary. Predictions made just five years ago have already proved wildly wrong.

In 2007, scientists said they thought the Arctic would be ice-free by the end of this century. At the current rate of melting, however, it will now be ice-free in the summer by 2015. It will be ice-free all year by 2030. This is not the main worry, however, as this is floating ice. When it melts, it does not raise sea levels. The real worry is the Greenland ice shelf, which is also melting at an unprecedented rate. If this disappears too, the effects will be catastrophic.

Sea levels around the world will rise between six and seven metres, wiping out cities like New York, London and Shanghai. The addition of so much cold fresh water into the seas would also change ocean currents and weather patterns in ways we can barely imagine.

At the same time, rising temperatures in the northern hemisphere now risk melting much of the Siberian permafrost, which will release vast clouds of trapped methane, accelerating the speed of climate change even more. This risks starting a chain reaction, which we could do nothing to stop.

The effects of what we are doing to the planet are all around us, from the storms and floods this year to the record droughts. Since 1980, the number of natural catastrophes has risen from an average of 400 a year to about 800 now, according to reinsurance company Munich Re. Ironically, North America has already been more affected by "weather-related extreme events" than anywhere else.

We need to make urgent changes to the way we live if we want to avoid a crisis. The changes now anticipated will not just affect our children and grandchildren. They will affect us all.

When predictions were made a few years ago, scientists said it would all be more or less OK if we limited the rise in average global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

Yet we have missed that target already. Because we have not actually done anything to halt the damage we are doing, the amount of greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere has continued to grow.

Without change, we are now heading for a four-degree rise, which will take the earth's average temperature back to levels last seen 40 million years ago. This will cause the Antarctic to melt too, with sea levels rising 60-70 metres. The droughts and floods we would experience along the way would make the planet virtually uninhabitable.

While these changes have been happening, while they have been denied and ignored, we have been fighting two senseless wars instead. The first has been against debt. Governments around the world have spent trillions trying to prop up their economies, to keep them growing and keep people spending. In the process, they have kept us digging up ever more of the world's raw materials and consuming even more stuff we don't need, making the changes to the climate even worse.

The second senseless war has been the "war on terror". According to a study by Brown University last year, the cost to America in the first 10 years after the attacks of September 11 was a staggering US$4trillion. Trillions more have been spent in Europe and elsewhere.

During all this time, there have been just 251 terrorism-related deaths in the developed world and none in the US. Over the same time, tens of thousands have been killed by climate change. According to Munich Re, 30,000 people have been killed in North America alone, between 1980 and 2011 because of weather-related incidents.

For more than a decade, we have been chasing the wrong demon. The biggest threat to our existence is not the lack of economic growth, or al-Qaeda. It is the earth itself. Unless we learn to treat it with respect and start responding to the signals it is sending us, it will consume us all.

Graeme Maxton is a fellow of the Club of Rome


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