Climate Change Revolution

by G.E. Mortimore

Mainstream climate scientists agree (with some exceptions and quibbles) that Earth's climate is changing, that humans are helping turn up the heat, and that the changes may cause serious damage.

In view of this often-repeated consensus, which has become a boring truism, why do political/economic leaders of industrial countries fall short of effective action to reduce the danger? The authors of Ice Chronicles do not frame the question in such stark terms; they lean over backwards to be cautious andwell-balanced; but they give half an answer by feeling their way around two related puzzles.

  1. Climate is constantly changing from natural causes. It has been fluctuating for hundreds of millions of years, so why blame humans for it?
  2. How can "global warming" trigger an ice age, rising seas and burning droughts, all at the same time—a possibility that climate scientists, including Mayewski, conjure up?

These riddles are both scientific and political. They are veiled in a fog of political uncertainty that gives comfort to climate-change deniers in the zone where science and mass communication overlap. Mayewski and White approach the solutions in an entertaining way. They show us how Nature in the form of fluctuating solar energy, variations in the Earth's orbit and the tilt of its axis, volcanic eruptions and other factors, continues to vary the global temperature from heat to ice and back again in cycles whose imperfectly understood patterns are still being teased out by scientists.

They make a pop-science sandwich by alternating technical explanations with the personal adventure of doing science—the science of drilling holes in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to track climate change by measuring the chemicals tinged into the ice and the dust and gases in air-bubbles trapped in ice cores that span 110,000 years.

Why blame humans for climate change?

Because human-made gases from smokestacks, landfills and car tail pipes are adding their weight to natural processes and forcing them in a dangerously unstable direction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has examined and put forward evidence to confirm this.

"Evidence that the economy is in conflict with the Earth's natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, eroding soils, deteriorating range lands, expanding deserts, rising carbon dioxide levels, falling water tables, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, melting glaciers, rising sea level, dying coral reefs and disappearing species. These trends, which mark an increasingly stressed relationship between the economy and the world's ecosystem, are taking a growing economic toll. . . . The challenge is to reverse these trends before environmental deterioration leads to long-term economic decline, as it did for so many earlier civilizations."

Earth's ceiling of greenhouse gas lets the sun's rays pass and blocks heat from radiating. This natural greenhouse makes Earth habitable. But added greenhouse gases thicken the ceiling. They raise the heat to a high, wobbly level.

"Unstable" is the key word in the Mayewski and White explanation of a seeming paradox.

Among other manifestations of climate instability, heating the Earth could send part of the Earth into a deep freeze. Scientists say it has happened before, and some say it may happen again in as short a time as 10 years. Icebergs melted by global warming could shut down warm ocean currents.

The heat pouring from the outer coils of a refrigerator provides a homely analogy. A fridge is a heat pump. An ocean current is a different kind of heat pump. The Gulf Stream is a conveyor belt moving tropical warmth to the cool "temperate" shores of Europe and North America. East-west winds carry moisture from Atlantic to Pacific, and make the Atlantic more salty. The colder and more salty the sea water becomes, the heavier it is; therefore, as the northbound Gulf Stream sheds heat, its cold salty water reaches a point in the North Atlantic where it sinks deep, reverses direction, and the conveyor belt is on its way south and east to pick up another load of tropical heat.

Lightweight fresh water from melted icebergs, intruding into the current's turning zone, may stop the water sinking and bring the conveyor-belt to a halt. Mayewski has plenty of support from other scientists for this theory. William Curry, Ruth Curry and Terrence Joyce of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution argue that glacial meltwater spreading through the Atlantic could soon cause a minor ice age. Not so minor, at that. National Academy of Sciences estimates the cost of agricultural losses alone at up to $250 billion US (Brad Lemley: "A New Ice Age," Discover magazine, September 2002).

A profile of 110,000 years of climate changes, drawn from ice-cores drilled through the Greenland ice sheet, indicates a surprising fact: Some natural Rapid Climate Change Events happen within only a few years. One such Rapid Climate Change Events was the Medieval Warm Period.

In this time the Vikings colonized and farmed in Greenland, vineyards flourished in southern England and the Maya in Middle America might have over-exploited their environment in a time of drought and subsequently adjusted by abandoning their great stone cities and ceremonial centres, repudiating their priestly ruling class, and resuming a simpler peasant corn-planting way of life.

The Medieval Warm Period (one of the irritating sets of initials in the Mayewski and White book) was followed by the Little Ice Age. In that time the English vineyards disappeared, the Thames froze over, starvation ravaged Europe, sea ice spread more widely across high latitudes, and the Greenland Norse colony died out because the colonists failed to adapt their farm-based life while the Inuit continued hunting and gathering with little hardship. Some scientists believe we are still in the Little Ice Age, but its icy effects are being masked by heat-raising human-caused fumes.

If that theory is true, then we are in extra trouble, because changes linked to human activity are more far-reaching than the numbers indicate. The numbers are alarming enough: a greater greenhouse-gas increase in one industrial century than in hundreds of thousands of years before; carbon dioxide up 30 per cent 1850-1980.

Moderate tone joins cumulative alarm

The tone of Ice Chronicles is gentle, moderate and reasonable. But scores of other books and articles, both popular and scientific, have sounded a cumulatively loud alarm. People are beginning to awaken to the alarm. Most politicians and business leaders, feeling some heat, have learned the ritual rules and language of the Envirogame. And yet they stonewall demands for action and hide in clouds of narrow self-interested double-talk.

Mayewski and Lester R. Brown know what the problems are, and they know what we should do to save ourselves from impending disaster, but they offer no plausible strategy to force or persuade all of us and our political leaders to make the needed changes in mind set and behaviour.

Brown hopes for and half-predicts an Environmental Revolution equal in scope to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, but compressed by the urgency of the crisis into tens of years instead of hundreds. Underlying Brown's hopes of transformation are theories of multiple pressures leading to critical mass or takeoff speed, as in the case of the anti-tobacco movement, and theories of triggering by catastrophic event, as in the case of Pearl Harbour and its transforming effect on US society.

To these mechanisms might be added pressure from corporate/political elites, inspired by the dawning realization that "green" behaviour on the part of citizens is essential for survival and profits. Oil and car companies have started to invest in sun, wind and hydrogen power, which can build into jobs and profits exceeding those lost from the phasing out of Earth-damaging practices—pushing from the bottom upwards as well. Protesters have taken to the streets because existing political machinery shuts them out, widens the rich-poor gap, and trashes their demands for policy that conserves clean air, water and life. Far right-wing governments, such as that of BC, have started to offer the appearance if not the reality of decision-making citizen assemblies. Once the process of information-exchange begins in earnest, self-promoting and arguably self-deluded anti-environmental elites may find it harder to exercise control.

The Environmental Revolution has already started. It is also a political revolution targeted to make democracy really do what it pretends to do.

Transformations of the Environmental Revolution

  • The leap from oil to hydrogen, solar, wind and geothermal power,
  • Laws and tax shifting to help this and other changes happen,
  • Removal of subsidies on fossil fuels and ocean fishing,
  • Waste water recycling,
  • Population control,
  • Cities designed for people rather than cars,
  • Symbiotic clusters of factories and land-and-water farms in which the waste from one is the raw material of another, and
  • Partnerships between ecologists and economists who will work together under a new market system that places value on the natural capital of life, air and water.

* Lester Brown, Eco-Economy, 2001

*G.E. Mortimore is a Victoria-based writer. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Goldstream News Gazette. G.E. Mortimore and Tanis Doe collaborated to present a paper on the politics of Canadian health care at the meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago last August.
* Mayewski, Paul Andrew, and Frank White: The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change, (Hanover and London: University Press of New England: 2002).
* Brown, Lester R.: Eco-Economy, (New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001)

[From WS December/January 2002-3]

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