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Lethal Threats: Global Warming, Elite Power And Bounded Debates


“Global warming is great,” wrote space technologist Duncan Steel in the comment pages of The Guardian recently, “because it protects us from the unpredictable big freeze that would be far, far worse.” (‘Global warming is good for you’, The Guardian, December 5, 2002). Steel is technically correct; with no atmospheric blanket to trap planet-warming greenhouse gasses, the Earth would be not so much in a permanent Ice Age, as Moon-like and utterly without life. Nonetheless, Steel’s well-written article is a good example of an academic blithely promoting the ‘public understanding of science’ while masking, or perhaps simply overlooking, the true extent of the dangers of human-induced climate change, and the underlying state-corporate responsibility for stalling the truly substantive action that is urgently needed to minimise those dangers. “That there are substantial drawbacks to global warming is unarguable,” Steel notes mildly, adding that: “Certain low-lying areas such as Bangladesh and various Pacific islands may well be flooded.” Steel believes that: “It will be the responsibility of the developed nations, which produce most of the carbon dioxide emissions, to find ways to assist those people most affected.” That such a framework, namely the Kyoto Protocol, will quite likely fail even on its own trivial aims, is politely left unsaid. Nor is there any mention by Steel of the logical successor to Kyoto: the equitable, pragmatic and powerful ‘contraction and convergence’ approach pioneered by the London-based Global Commons Institute, which has created a truly global framework for tackling global warming that has the support of a growing number of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations, including China and India (see www.gci.org.uk).

In any case, it is not only regions of the developing world that will likely be inundated. As Steel points out, “most of Florida, rather than just the Everglades, may become a swamp.” A century from now, Miami may well be underwater but, never mind, “a century ago there was almost nothing there.” And at that point Steel rests any case for tackling human-induced global warming, with any number of vital issues left unaddressed:

* No spelling out of likely nasty ‘surprises’, such as the possible weakening or even collapse of the North Atlantic ocean circulation system, including the Gulf Stream, that warms western Europe.

* No mention of the risk of release into the atmosphere of immense volumes of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas – molecule for molecule – than carbon dioxide, from the melting of methane hydrates in reservoirs under the Arctic tundra and shallow Arctic seas. Although nobody knows exactly how much hydrate there is around the Arctic, it probably amounts to tens if not hundreds of billions of tonnes. Atmospheric methane currently holds only 5 billion tonnes of carbon. Not much methane hydrate would need to be melted, therefore, to make global warming more severe.

* No mention of the fundamentalist opposition of virtually all corporate business, not just the fossil fuel ‘cowboys’ of the defunct Global Climate Coalition, to tackling climate change with the required commitment to serious social change.

* No mention that the Kyoto Protocol demands a trivial five per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from developed nations, when global cuts of eighty per cent are probably required to stabilise atmospheric concentrations.

Steel’s anodyne Guardian article is a remarkable example of a ‘rational’ contribution to what passes for the narrowly bounded ‘climate debate’ in mainstream media today.

Consider the enormity of what is being addressed here. Last year, the third scientific assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consisted of the most authoritative and comprehensive scientific analysis of climate change, and included significant upwardly revised estimates of likely global warming. The predicted range of temperature rise of 1.4 – 5.8 degrees Celsius was described by the IPCC as “potentially devastating.”

The Independent’s environment correspondent Michael McCarthy for once did not mince his words when he warned that the report “implies absolute disaster for billions of people” (‘Heat is on the US as it claims that planting trees will stop global warming, The Independent, 14 November, 2000). Since then, however, there has been relative media silence on the responsibility of powerful elite actors in imposing such a fate on the world at large. For example, although an archive search of The Guardian and The Observer (The Guardian’s sister newspaper) at www.guardian.co.uk yields 383 articles this year that at least mention “climate change”, only two of them also mention “poverty”, and none at all mention “globalisation ” or “corporations” or the “World Trade Organisation”.

A brief recap is in order at this point. In 1988, in response to mounting concern about global warming, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The body comprises three working groups investigating, respectively, climate science; impacts, adaptations and mitigations related to climate change; and social and economic dimensions of climate change. The panel works to the highest levels of rigour and probity, but it has been subject to immense pressure from oil-rich nations, corporate representatives from the coal, oil, electricity, chemical and automobile industries, and fossil fuel-funded sceptic scientists (see, for example, Jeremy Leggett’s 1999 book, The Carbon War). During the 1990s, IPCC scientists continued to investigate global warming and, in particular, the evidence for an anthropogenic fingerprint on climate change. By 1995, there was a remarkable convergence of the relevant science, summarised in the IPCC second assessment report. Researchers at American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s Bell Laboratories reported a strong correlation between global warming and a decrease in the temperature difference between winter and summer. This disproved the claims of sceptics that changes in solar output, and not rising industrial activity, were to blame for observed warming. Meanwhile, the US National Climatic Data Center revealed that the US climate was moving towards ‘greenhouse’ conditions. In Germany, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology published an analysis showing that there was only one chance in 40 that natural climate variability could explain the warming over the previous 30 years (‘Climate Change 1995. The Science of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996). Moreover, research led by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California demonstrated that climate modelling which took into account the short-term cooling effect of sulphate aerosols (which are mainly produced by burning coal, but also by volcanic eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991), revealed a clear greenhouse signal since about 1950. As Dr Michael McCarthy, chair of one of the IPCC’s working groups put it: ‘If everyone in the world could magically [remove the sulphates from coal and oil], you would see the fingerprints of warming in a very short time.’ (Quoted in Ross Gelbspan, The Heat Is On, Perseus Books, Reading, 1998, p. 20). In the UK, scientists at the Meteorological Office included the effect of sulphates in a sophisticated computer model that includes realistic interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean, and managed to simulate past climates, thereby boosting confidence in the predictive power of such models in looking at future climate change. An unprecedented consensus on climate science had thus emerged, enabling the IPCC’s Working Group I on climate science to conclude famously in its 1996 Second Assessment Report that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” But the report also warned: “Future unexpected, large and rapid climate system changes (as have occurred in the past) are by their nature difficult to predict. This implies that future climate changes may also involve ‘surprises.’” Such surprises may occur as a result of so-called ‘positive feedbacks’: effects which mutually reinforce each other, leading to a runaway climate change (‘negative’ feedbacks would tend to dampen, rather than amplify, changes). One example is that of cloud feedbacks, a source of uncertainty in climate models. Thin, high-altitude clouds in a warming world may trap more heat than the lower-altitude clouds which reflect heat back into space. Another possible positive feedback mechanism is the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Were this to happen, a smaller Arctic ice cap would result in a lower Earth albedo (reflectivity), meaning that more heat would be absorbed by the planet. Further dangerous possibilities, noted above, are that great quantities of methane may be freed into the atmosphere if Arctic reservoirs of methane hydrates start to melt, and that temperatures in northwest Europe may plunge by five degrees or more as a result of the possible weakening, or even shutdown, of the thermohaline – driven by differences in heat and salt content – ocean circulation in the North Atlantic. While the IPCC cautiously warned of the “scope for surprises” in the climate system, it did not actually spell out any worst-case scenarios in which positive feedbacks would accumulate and lead to runaway global warming. A truly precautionary approach by humanity would certainly have to address the need to insure against the risk of such a catastrophic possibility. Certainly, however, the IPCC has warned that future climate change “is likely to cause widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation” and that “potentially serious changes have been identified, including an increase in some regions of the incidence of extreme high temperature events, floods, and droughts, with resultant consequences for fires, pest outbreaks and ecosystem[s].” Vulnerability to climate change will is greatest in those regions where food and water shortages are already major threats, principally in the developing world. Crop production itself may be acutely sensitive to changes in temperature. According to researchers Cynthia Rosenzweig and Daniel Hillel, cereal grain yields are projected to decline in the vulnerable South. Meanwhile, agricultural exporters in the middle and high latitudes, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, will profit from the higher prices they will be able to command. Countries with the lowest incomes are therefore likely to be the hardest hit as climate change continues. Work by researchers Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, published in what journalist Ross Gelbspan referred to in his excellent book The Heat Is On as an “extraordinarily well-ignored report”, reveals that changes in the monsoons that bring India 70 per cent of its rainfall will cause severe food shortages: “Even a half-degree Celsius increase will reduce the wheat crop at least 25 per cent.” The IPCC has also warned that “climate change is likely to have wide ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health with significant loss of life.” As Gelbspan points out, citing the hundreds of heat-related deaths in the United States and India in the summer of 1995, there have already been such impacts. But an even greater threat is the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, cholera, hantavirus and encephalitis. If the IPCC’s projected level of warming holds, the “epidemic potential of the mosquito population” in tropical regions would double, while in the temperate regions – including the United States and most of Europe – it would rise a hundred times. Researchers warn that an increase of three degrees Celsius, well inside the range projected by the IPCC, could cause up to 80 million extra cases of malaria annually around the world. In the last few years, global human population has been growing beyond the 6 billion mark and, according to UN figures, is scheduled to reach somewhere between 7.2 and 8.5 billion in 2020. Given that there is already incredible pressure on natural resources such as oil and natural gas – a major factor behind the U.S. government’s smokescreen of the ‘war on terror’ – the additional threats represented by the spectre of climate change could create unprecedented political and social upheaval. Will national governments adopt new, even more strict, authoritarian measures to limit personal consumption, mobility and privileges, as they have already begun to do in the wake of 9-11, in order to protect ‘homeland security’? Or, as Susan George conjectures in her disturbing 1999 book, The Lugano Report (Pluto Press, London), will the elite political and corporate forces that are directing economic globalisation for their own ends adopt uncompromising and awful measures to perpetuate global capitalism in the twenty-first century, keeping the ‘gains’ to themselves and inflicting the ‘losses’, namely the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, on the rest of us? Whatever the future holds, one thing is virtually certain. “The stress caused by climate change,” warns Gelbspan, will be “lethal to democratic political processes and individual freedoms.” To generalise, and to make the matter even more explicit, the stresses caused by corporate greed and illegitimate political power – whether in terms of human-induced climate change, the military danger posed by the world’s number one rogue state, or the ongoing risk of nuclear meltdown – are serious threats to genuine democracy, individual freedom, environmental sustainability and the fate of billions of people around the planet. David Cromwell is the co-editor of Media Lens (sign up for free media alerts at www.MediaLens.org). He is also the author of ‘Private Planet: Corporate Plunder and the Fight Back’, available in North America (IPG Books) and in the UK (Jon Carpenter Publishing). See www.private-planet.com for details.

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