Cold, hard truths of climate change are catching up with us

Kevin Rafferty fears even stark warnings of unpredictable change won't push us to curb emissions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 5:18am

The discovery this month of a dead polar bear consisting of little more than a sad rug of skin and bones, lying on the earth at Svalbard far north into the Arctic, should be a worry, and a warning that precious life on earth is being threatened by thoughtlessness and the greed of powerful politicians and commercial interests.

It is only going to get worse. The bear starved to death, a victim of the melting Arctic ice: it did not have the sea ice from which to hunt seals, so it had to wander far and wide in a vain search for food.

The Arctic melt is happening so fast that some respected scientists warn that, as early as 2015, the ocean will be ice-free in the summer. The devastating consequences will include uncomfortably rising temperatures, disruption to crop patterns and high seas that could threaten Guangzhou, London, New York, Osaka, Shanghai and Sydney, not to mention low-lying Pacific island states and much of Bangladesh.

Politicians are working at the proverbial speed of glaciers (before climate change started)

One important scientific report that attempts to measure the damage to the earth will come next month from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel prize-winning UN panel of experts.

According to leaked reports of an unfinished work that will be further modified by argument, the panel will report that it is at least 95 per cent likely that human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, are the main cause of global warming.

This is up from the 90 per cent certainty at the time of the last report in 2007, the 66 per cent in 2001 and just over 50 per cent in 1995. It is tempting to say, Big Deal, but what is being done about it?

Professor Reto Knutti, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, was quoted as saying: "We have got quite a bit more certain that climate change is largely man-made." However, he added: "We're less certain than many would hope about the local impacts."

He also ducked questions about the impact on crops, fish stocks and other practical implications. "You can't write an equation for a tree," he said, poetically summing up the failure to take practical action to prevent us all baking.

Hopes of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times - the target of 200 governments - can be abandoned. Temperatures have already risen by 0.8 degrees, and could rise by as much as 5 degrees.

The range is wide, and reflects an increasing nervousness about what is happening. As for the rise in sea levels, the report will say that they could range between 29cm and 82cm by the late 21st century, which is higher than the previous report predicted.

In the past week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank have warned about the impact of flood damage of rising seas on some of the world's biggest cities, with Guangzhou listed as at greatest risk. The report puts a US$1 trillion price tag - per year - on the damage.

That is nothing compared to the warning of pessimistic scientists, who claim that the true danger of melting Arctic ice is being ignored even in the models of the UN panel. "They just don't get it," said Dr John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, who warns that the real danger of the melting ice is that it will release huge amounts of methane gas hitherto frozen under the ice.

Methane emissions are 20 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide.

Nissen is not a lonely prophet. Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, Gail Whiteman, professor of sustainability at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and Chris Hope of Cambridge Judge Business School, warned recently that their economic models showed that methane emissions caused by shrinking sea ice from just one area of the Arctic could come with a global price tag of US$60 trillion or more over the next 10 years.

They have been attacked from all sides for scaremongering and for daring to put a price on the possible loss of a vital human habitat. Wadhams is sticking to his claims.

What should be most worrying is that the scientific evidence is remorselessly being accumulated and we can see weather patterns changing, yet the politicians are working at the proverbial speed of glaciers (before climate change started) to take practical measures that might halt carbon dioxide or methane emissions.

At their elbows are powerful commercial interests who seek to make money out of the world's misery. Big Oil is looking forward to unlocking oil and gas reserves under the Arctic. Shipping companies say that Arctic journeys could cut up to 40 per cent off the traditional times and routes using Panama and Suez. Rogue Russia, especially, is rejoicing, like some sorcerer's apprentice, about uncovering the resources of its icy northern lands - at what cost to the world?

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University