On Thinning Ice

Michael Byers

  • Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
    Cambridge, 139 pp, £19.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 521 61778 2

The polar bears stare forlornly at Hudson Bay. It’s late November and they should be out on the sea ice hunting ring seals, but the ice hasn’t formed and the bears are starving. Ursus maritimus doesn’t hunt on land and normally fasts for months each summer. Now, however, the summers are growing longer across most of the Arctic, and the waters of Hudson Bay are ice-free for three weeks longer than they were thirty years ago. In a decade or two, polar bears won’t be found this far south; by the end of the century, they might exist only in zoos.

In the two hundred years since industrialisation – a geological millisecond – we’ve increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by 35 per cent; a third of that has appeared in the last four decades. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, trap heat that would otherwise radiate into space. As greenhouse gas levels rise, the lower atmosphere heats up and the climate changes, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The global average temperature has increased by about 0.6°C over the last two centuries. Most greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades, and have an ongoing, cumulative warming effect. In 2001, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 2500 scientists, predicted an additional increase during the 21st century of between 1.4 and 5.8°C. In October, a body of nearly 300 scientists completed the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a report based not on worst-case scenarios but on observed changes to-date combined with projected temperature increases that are below the middle range of those anticipated by complex, increasingly accurate global climate models. Despite this methodological caution, the predictions made in the Assessment are terrifying. By the end of the century, annual average temperatures in the north will rise between 3 and 5°C on land and up to 7°C over the Arctic Ocean, with winter temperatures increasing even more. Sea-ice cover will decline by 50 per cent, and could disappear entirely in summer.

The Assessment expresses particular concern about ‘feedback loops’ exacerbating climate change. The first such loop is already operating, as rising temperatures melt snow and ice and expose more open water and bare ground each summer: these darker surfaces reflect 75 per cent less heat away from the planet’s surface and this means further warming, which melts more ice and snow, which reflects less heat, and so on. In addition, the atmosphere is thinner at the Earth’s poles, and rising greenhouse gas levels therefore have a more immediate impact on surface temperatures. In the Arctic the average annual temperature has already increased almost twice as much as it has globally: in Alaska and north-west Canada, average winter temperatures are up by more than 3°C. In summer, across the Arctic, the average extent of sea-ice cover is 15 per cent less than three decades ago. More than two million square kilometres of highly reflective sea ice has been lost, an area eight times the size of the UK.

The second feedback loop involves fresh water from melting Arctic and Greenland ice flowing south into the North Atlantic and disrupting the Gulf Stream, the ocean current from the Caribbean that moderates temperatures in Northern Europe. The Assessment reports a ‘tentative indication from the North Atlantic of an initial slowing of the deep ocean circulation’. Were the circulation to slow significantly, or stop, the result would be a dramatic reduction in winter temperatures and rainfall levels in Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia, at least for a few decades. It is because of this possibility of localised cooling that the term ‘climate change’ is preferred to ‘global warming’.

The third feedback loop involves melting permafrost releasing huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide as the plant material in the soil decomposes. Methane is 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. As methane and carbon dioxide from the melting permafrost reach the atmosphere, they cause further temperature rises, which in turn cause more melting, and so on. According to the Assessment the southern limit of permafrost is liable to retreat several hundred kilometres northwards during this century. Melting permafrost has already forced the Alaskan state government to cut from 200 to 100 days the annual period during which oil and gas equipment is permitted to travel on the Arctic tundra. The impact of this third feedback loop may already be apparent: measurements from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory show that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increased by 2.08 parts per million in 2002 and by 2.54 ppm in 2003, considerably higher than the 1.50 ppm average of recent decades.

Massive quantities of methane are also trapped on the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean in the form of solid hydrates. As the temperature of the seabed rises, these hydrates could decompose, releasing additional methane into the atmosphere. Although the Assessment describes this as ‘a less certain outcome’, it warns that ‘if such releases did occur . . . the climate impacts could be very large.’

A rise in the sea level is also a concern. Melting sea ice does not affect the water level any more than an ice cube melting in a glass. But there are about three million cubic kilometres of land-based ice in the Arctic, and in most places it is melting. The Assessment foresees a rise of 3°C in Greenland’s temperature in the course of this century and the eventual disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet. In August 2004, the Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark reported that in the southernmost part of the island the ice is already thinning at a rate of ten metres per year. In several centuries’ time, when the ice sheet has melted completely, it will have caused a global sea-level rise of about seven metres; the melting of the Antarctic icecap could push that even higher. During this century, we may see only a 50 centimetre rise, with much of that resulting not from melting ice but from the expansion of water as it warms. Yet even this rise will inundate several entire island-nations and large portions of the world’s best farmland, displace hundreds of millions of people, and impose potentially unbearable costs on low-lying cities such as Amsterdam, Calcutta, London, Manila and New Orleans. During high tides in November, 80 per cent of Venice was underwater. A new report by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research – part of the Met Office – indicates that large parts of Britain, including London’s Docklands, will soon be under threat.

Climate change is distinct from ozone level depletion, which is linked to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration units, fire extinguishers and some industrial processes. CFC emissions have dropped dramatically as a result of the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the consequent switch to alternative technologies. But the ozone layer, which protects living things from ultraviolet radiation, will still take decades to recover, and increasing levels of greenhouse gases could – in a blurring of the distinction between climate change and ozone depletion – cause further delay. For although greenhouse gases warm the lower atmosphere, by trapping the heat down low they cool the upper atmosphere, contributing to the formation of polar stratospheric clouds that support ozone-destroying chemical reactions. The Assessment projects elevated UV levels at northern latitudes for decades to come.

It’s difficult to overstate the perilousness of the situation. Climate change, instead of occurring slowly over millennia, will soon outpace the ability of many species to adapt and evolve, and not just in the Arctic. An article a year ago in Nature estimated that between 15 and 37 per cent of terrestrial species – that is, more than a million discrete forms of life – will be extinct by 2050. In any case, climate change is already disrupting the lives of millions of human beings. According to James Morris, the executive director of the World Food Programme, the number of people suffering food crises as a result of natural disasters has tripled in the last thirty years. Such effects are usually attributed to a combination of overpopulation, widespread deforestation and degrading soils, but weather events brought about by climate change can provoke and exacerbate humanitarian crises. This past summer, while wealthy Floridians survived a succession of hurricanes relatively unscathed, millions of impoverished Bangladeshis and Chinese lost their crops and homes to cyclones. At the end of 2004, four typhoons tore through the Philippines in rapid succession, killing more than 1300 people. Even the crisis in Darfur, usually portrayed as an ethnic conflict, is linked to a long-term drought that is itself probably associated with climate change.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment concludes with the following message:

Strong near-term action to reduce emissions is required in order to alter the future path of human-induced warming. Action is also needed to begin to adapt to the warming that is already occurring and will continue. The findings of this first . . . Assessment provide a scientific basis on which decision makers can consider, craft and implement appropriate actions to respond to this important and far-reaching challenge.

The scientists who wrote this were undoubtedly disappointed when, two weeks after the Assessment was published, the governments of the eight member states of the Arctic Council, which commissioned the report, issued a three-page response that merely ‘noted’ its findings and ‘acknowledged’ that it would ‘help inform governments as they implement and consider future policies on global climate change’. Several governments did push for a statement supporting limits on carbon dioxide emissions, but their efforts were stymied by the delegation from the US.

George W. Bush and his advisers are so deeply embedded in the oil, gas and coal industries that even the most rigorous scientific analysis cannot shake their commitment to fossil fuels, or make them acknowledge that burning these fuels has serious environmental consequences. In April 2001, Dick Cheney said of his energy plan (a plan that Enron helped to write): ‘Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.’ The vice-president was wrong: switching the US car and truck fleet to currently available petrol-electric hybrid technology would eliminate the country’s need for Middle Eastern oil. Contemporary corporate America and the politicians who serve it seem unable to think beyond next month’s share price, or to understand the true price of oil.

The Bush administration’s reluctance to address climate change can be partly explained by the tendency of right-wing Americans to see human relations in competitive, individualistic, game-theory terms. From this perspective, climate change presents a collective action problem (‘the tragedy of the commons’, as Garrett Hardin termed it) that simply can’t be resolved. With hundreds of governments, thousands of stateless transnational corporations and billions of consumers relentlessly pursuing growth inside fossil fuel-based economies, the necessarily co-operative exercise of stabilising the atmosphere seems destined never to get going.

A more sinister explanation for Washington’s resistance has to do with the centrality of military strategy in contemporary policy-making. Donald Rumsfeld and others like him have apparently calculated that climate change will enhance rather than detract from the country’s long-term security. The US, with its flexible economy, temperate location, low population density and access to Canadian water, oil, natural gas and agriculture, would suffer less than other major countries as a result of climate change. ‘With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology and abundant resources,’ a report prepared last year for the Pentagon concluded, ‘the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses . . . even in this continuous state of emergency the US will be positioned well compared to others.’ (The report is available at www.s-e-i.org/pentagon_climate_change.pdf.) In comparison, China and India would struggle to cope with severe storms, decreasing agricultural production, energy shortfalls and mass population displacements, while the EU is ill prepared for the Siberian climate that would follow the collapse of the Gulf Stream, not to mention the waves of environmental refugees from North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East that would hit European shores. If the weakness of one’s opponents is as important as one’s own strength, the emissions generated in the US by SUVs and climate-controlled houses could be conceived as an insidious weapon in a ruthless struggle for power.

John Kerry raised the issue of climate change twice in his first election debate with Bush, despite the likely absence of any pay-off with undecided voters. Had he prevailed, he would have found allies on Capitol Hill. John McCain, for instance, has said of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment that it ‘clearly demonstrates how the Arctic region is acting as the canary in the coal mine’. Earlier this year, McCain and Joseph Lieberman sponsored a bipartisan bill calling for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Bush’s victory and the increased influence of the Republican right mean there’s now no prospect of the bill being adopted, let alone signed.

Tony Blair, in a speech in September, acknowledged that climate change could be ‘so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence’. He identified the rate of change as ‘simply unsustainable in the long term. And by long term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own.’ Blair promised to make climate change the central thrust of his chairmanship of the G8 next year, and raised the possibility of a government-encouraged but market-led retooling of British industry that will make the UK the leading instigator and prime beneficiary of alternative energy technologies. ‘We need,’ he said, ‘to develop the new green industrial revolution that develops the new technologies that can confront and overcome the challenge of climate change’ and ‘combine reducing emissions with economic growth’.

There are at least two problems with Blair’s new set of intentions. First, alternative energy sources can provide only a partial solution. They cannot on their own achieve the almost immediate 60 per cent worldwide reduction in emissions that is required to stabilise greenhouse gas levels. It will take decades to bring alternative sources fully on line – in other countries it will take even longer – and we simply don’t have the time. As the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment points out, the climate would continue to change significantly even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, as the control system adapts to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and the feedback loops take time to unwind. Much more dramatic changes in consumption are needed if catastrophe is to be avoided. In Britain, a starting point would be to introduce steeply graduated transportation taxes – as the French government did earlier this year – to get people out of their petrol-guzzling vehicles and into trains, buses and hybrid-fuel cars. An environmentally directed landing fee at airports is also necessary, along with the reversal of last December’s decision to allow new runways at Heathrow, Stansted, Edinburgh and Birmingham. New Labour’s encouragement of low-cost air travel is its greatest environmental failing: flying to Lanzarote and back causes more damage to the atmosphere than a year’s worth of motoring.

The second problem with Blair’s policy is that focusing on a market-based approach to climate change is like betting your house on a racehorse. There’s no room for such risk-taking. As well as arguing that alternative energy makes sense in a modern economy, Blair needs to tame energy-extravagant consumerism. He said in his speech that tackling climate change will take ‘leadership, dynamism and commitment’, but that much is obvious. Preventing runaway climate change requires drastic alterations in how we live, alterations that might require a drop in economic output and individual incomes. Taxes, regulations and subsidies designed to prevent unnecessary travel, to promote local products and in-country holidays, to improve public transport, to retrofit homes and businesses with high-efficiency heating and insulation, and to provide a far-reaching programme of environmental education and practice in workplaces and schools: these kinds of policy – a necessary complement to the quest for alternative energy sources – cannot responsibly be postponed.

Blair’s sincerity on this issue must be questioned. He boasts that annual British greenhouse gas emissions are now 14 per cent below 1990 levels and on target to meet the country’s Kyoto Protocol commitment, but it was Margaret Thatcher’s forcing of the shift from coal to gas that accomplished this: since 1997, Britain’s emissions have been rising steadily. During most of Blair’s tenure, France has spent ten times as much as the UK on supporting the development of alternative energy sources – despite the fact that climate-friendly nuclear power already accounts for 80 per cent of French electricity production. Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, rather than announcing new conservation measures, has recently conceded that the government will fall far short of its own target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. Could it be that Blair’s new focus on climate change has something to do with next year’s general election, and the need to distance himself from Bush? After all, the queen, who’s privy to top-secret correspondence, has let it be known that she’s had to push the prime minister to put pressure on Washington on these matters. Not that it worked: when Blair visited Bush last month, climate change wasn’t even mentioned in his public remarks. It has since been reported that Downing Street is proposing a ‘Kyoto-lite’ agreement, whereby the White House would simply admit that climate change is a problem.

In Canada, where I live, greenhouse gas emissions need to fall to 6 per cent below 1990 levels if we are to meet our Kyoto commitments. Canadian emissions have been rising steadily; to reach the target, we’d now need to cut back by almost a quarter. Given that Canada is on the front line of climate change – as an Arctic country, and as the main resource-base for a climate-challenged US – it might be thought that our Liberal government would be particularly concerned, and eager to act. But Canada is instead seeking to renegotiate its Kyoto commitment so that it can receive emissions credits for selling large volumes of natural gas, which when burned produces less carbon dioxide than oil, to the United States. And when representatives from California’s State Assembly travelled to Ottawa last month to ask that Canada take measures in line with the California Pavley Bill – legislation that will raise the emission standards for cars and light trucks by 30 per cent – the response was polite but non-committal. Nine other US states, including New Jersey and New York, are planning to adopt similar regulations: if Canada joined the effort, a third of the North American automobile market would be subject to the higher standards. Ottawa is concerned that its heavily subsidised car and truck factories might relocate to Mexico or the (union-free) Southern US, and so prefers to discuss purely voluntary controls. A decade of living within Nafta has dulled the nationalist instincts of Canadian politicians, and taught them that capital is always willing to flee regulatory constraints.

London and Ottawa’s lack of will is particularly disappointing given that a small window of opportunity has recently opened. Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, in return for EU support for its bid to join the WTO, brings the agreement into force for all the member countries next year. Canada and Britain could in principle become influential leaders of a new movement to make Kyoto work, one which would respond strongly and uniformly to Washington’s environmental wrongdoings. Implementing Kyoto is the first step, but it’s also time to begin thinking about applying political and economic pressure on the US, by means of tariffs and even sanctions. Such measures would inevitably lead to WTO and Nafta complaints, and quite possibly retaliatory action, but there’s room to invoke the national security exceptions built into those agreements, and even to draw analogies to apartheid-era Rhodesia and South Africa. Governments that today refuse to prevent climate change may well come to be regarded in the future as having perpetrated international crimes.

If Kyoto fails, there’s little chance that we’ll soon see the more substantial measures that would stabilise the atmosphere, prevent widespread humanitarian crises and save the polar bears. And if the US, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, continues on its reckless course, the long-term viability of our own species might also come into question.