Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, famously said: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only paranoid survive.” Grove’s sage advice hopefully rings a bell with advocates of the climate change issue. They should take heed, stop and listen to what is said, because they may be inadvertently breeding complacency when paranoia is needed more so than ever before. For example, The Economist “Digital Highlights,” May 24-30, 2014, carries an article, Weighing the Future, that says the following about the climate change issue: “Scientists have recently given warning that polar ice is melting at a faster rate than was previously thought. For many people hearing this news, anxiety melted away after learning that the world would only be affected over the ‘coming centuries’.” The Economist is absolutely correct, and their assessment is indicative of the one of the biggest problems facing the climate change debate, which is the time element, i.e., climate change is slow, over centuries and millennia, or isn’t it? And, when anxiety melts away, as mentioned in the article, the issue dies with it. After all, who can really identify with the coming centuries when our collective plate is already full today and full tomorrow with basic issues about life today and life tomorrow? People live in the here and now, not in 2100 or 2200. But, here’s the rub, climate change and global warming are multifaceted, complicated, knotty problems, not just ice melting and seas rising whilst Miami drowns over the next 100 years. No, climate change involves a range of scenarios, some of which have already started to emerge. As such, climate change is here and now, not centuries away. The danger of complacency or of anxiety melting away vis a vis climate change is roughly equivalent to waiting to build Noah’s ark after the deluge starts. It’s too late. Furthermore, as for immediate dangers, the disaster movie has already started; it’s too late for concessions. But, it’s never too late to get off fossil fuels and onto renewables because nobody knows the ending. The Starvation Problem One major, huge, momentous, far-reaching, climacteric problem is the threat to worldwide food supplies within the next decades, not centuries. Syria is a prime example of this quandary as that country suffered the worst drought in the history of the Fertile Crescent from 2006-11, suffering the most severe set of crop failures in recorded history. Syria is at the heart of the Fertile Crescent and for centuries has been a major component of the breadbasket for the Middle East, similar to Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa in the United States. As it happens, Syria lost half of its water resources between 2002 and 2008 because of an embedded drought. Furthermore, in 2009 the UN and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire means of livelihood because of drought. Additionally, the drought caused three million people to fall off the middle class bandwagon into an endless state of abject poverty, which adds another dimension to Syria’s civil war. Meanwhile, embedded droughts know no borders as regions of China are experiencing a series of rolling droughts, maybe the most severe in a couple hundred years. And regarding these many zany weather patterns, Colorado’s torrential downpour and massive flooding of Boulder County in 2013 was as fierce as superabundant coastal tropical storms but not at all like mid-latitude Middle America storms. Global warming is altering the planet’s climate in the fiercest ways possible, and it is reflected in anomalous weather patterns all across the Northern Hemisphere. The results: Agricultural production is increasingly at risk of collapse and costs to repair infrastructure skyrocket. Here’s the problem: Scientists now know (discovered only a few years ago) that global warming is altering the jet streams over the Northern Hemisphere, specifically over the Arctic, causing the jet streams to elongate into big swooping loops rather than tight little loops swirling around the top of the planet. This, in turn, causes weather patterns to embed droughts and torrential rain storms like never before, e.g. Pakistanis standing on tiny patches of ground surrounded by water featured on nightly U.S. news programs only a couple of years ago as the country experienced a daily deluge for over one month, due to an embedded weather pattern. Looking into the future, how would the U.S., and the world for that matter, react to a 5-year drought, similar to Syria’s, embedded across the U.S. Midwest grain belt? Venus Syndrome Prelims Not only are crops at risk because of mercurial climatic behavior, a bigger risk for all humanity is the distinct potential for runaway global warming. Nobody wants to believe this could happen, and understandably so; however, it may be, could be, who knows for sure, on the not-too-distant horizon. In that regard, a select group of scientists formed the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) in order to monitor that very event. Based upon their research, runaway global warming could commence within decades, not centuries. As such, people should collectively keep their fingers crossed, hoping that AMEG’s assessment is dead wrong, or at the least, partially wrong. If they are correct, all bets are off. By then, the heebie-jeebies about food shortages will be inconsequential. If they’re correct, anxiety levels will skyrocket as the onset of runaway global warming advertises its arrival as methane (CH4) levels in the atmosphere skyrocket because of the loss of the protective layers of ice in the Arctic. Ominously, an ice-free Arctic in September would be a strong leading indicator of incipient runaway global warming because, as more ice melts, more warmth is absorbed rather than reflected (the albedo effect) off the Arctic’s snowy white surface, which, in turn, exposes methane hydrates for release into the atmosphere, which becomes a self-reinforcing event, i.e. positive feedback, called runaway global warming. Once it starts, there’s no turning back. Over time, the planet turns into a furnace, but nobody knows whether the timeline would be years, decades, or more. As such, unknown variables that no humans have ever experienced will determine whether runaway global warming toasts the planet, similar to Venus. Today, Venus’ surface temperatures of 870 F are contained within a thick atmosphere of 96% carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the same gas that haunts planet Earth at nearly 400 ppm, which fortuitously is a tiny fraction of CO2 levels on planet Venus. James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists and the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (1981-2013), in his book Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury Press, 2009) argues that burning fossil fuels puts Earth in “imminent peril.” As stated by Hansen and other noted scientists, it is important to focus on the causes behind the effects of global crop loss and onset of runaway global warming. The source of these problems is human use of fossil fuels like oil and gas, especially coal. “Clean coal” is flimflam that belies shades of “Mad Men” lurking behind the scenes. Predictions by Arctic Methane Emergency Group The distinct risk of a major breakout of methane as a result of the melting Arctic is the raison d’être behind formation of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). The following predictions by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group are very controversial and not necessarily agreed to by many scientists. As such, there’s an awkward and eerie aspect to AMEG’s theories because there is no way for anybody to know the likelihood of the predictions, until it is too late. Here is a quote from AMEG’s web site: “In fact, the September sea ice volume is already down 75% with a trend to zero by September 2016, suggests that the Arctic is heading for complete meltdown, which would be a planetary catastrophe. The loss of Arctic ecosystems and the climate implications of ice disappearance are in fact acute risks NOW as both ice and ice-dependent species are set to disappear within a matter of years.” In essence, AMEG scientists are expecting the advent of a planetary catastrophe within years, not centuries. But, nobody really knows for sure how the catastrophe will play out beyond the fact that it can’t be good. For sure, it’ll be bad. Here’s another quote: “World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.” Who is AMEG? Peter Wadhams is a founding member of AMEG. Peter Wadhams Sc.D. Professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge is an oceanographer and glaciologist involved in polar oceanographic and sea ice research concerned with climate change processes in the polar regions He leads the Polar Ocean Physics group studying the effects of global warming on sea ice, icebergs and the polar oceans. This involves work in the Arctic and Antarctic from nuclear submarines, autonomous underwater vehicles, icebreakers, aircraft and drifting ice camps. He has led over 40 polar field expeditions. According to an article written by Professor Wadhams:
“Satellites can track ice area, but ice thickness distribution can be most accurately measured by sonar from underneath the ice. Since 1971, I have been going to the Arctic in UK nuclear submarines, mapping the ice thickness using upward-looking sonar along the vessel’s track. U.S. submarines have also allowed such availability. Opening these submarines to scientific work has been a marvelous service to climate research. It was thanks to submarines that I was able to show for the first time that the ice in the Arctic is thinning (in a 1990 paper in Nature (2), showing a 15% thickness loss in 11 years), and recent work from UK and US submarines now shows a loss of more than 43% in thickness between the 1970s and 2000s, averaged over the ocean as a whole (3). This is an enormous loss – nearly half of the ice thickness – and has changed the whole appearance of the ice cover. Most of the ice is now first-year rather than the formidable multi-year ice which used to prevail,” (Professor Peter Wadhams, Rebuttal: Imminent Collapse of Arctic Sea Ice Drives Danger of Accelerated Methane Thaw, Arctic News, March 7, 2012.)
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed (executive director, Institute for Policy Research & Development), Ice Free Arctic in Two Years Heralds Methane Catastrophe, The Guardian, July 24, 2013, interviewed Professor Wadhams about his views on the Arctic. Dr. Ahmed challenged Prof Wadhams to explain the discrepancy between his views of the Arctic and the views of another established scientist, Prof Tim Lenton of Exeter University, “…who specializes in climate tipping points, says the process in the Arctic would take thousands if not tens of thousands of years,” Ibid. Here is Prof Wadhams’ response: “His [Lenton’s] earlier conclusions are out of date. His oft-cited paper on tipping points is two years old now and was based on literature surveys rather than direct research. An ice-free summer (September) Arctic is clearly nearly upon us, and will be achieved within three years or less – this is plain from the observational data on ice extent (satellites) and thickness (submarines and altimeter satellites). I am sure that he is about to revise his views if he hasn’t already done so,” Ibid. Complacency and the Kiss of Death As long as people embrace the self-deception that global warming is an event well beyond today’s lifetime, as long as people remain complacent, the Kiss of Death will creep up on humanity in the form of ferocious weather patterns that, over time, destroy agriculture’s routines and bounty. And, in dastardly fashion, the Kiss of Death will stealthily bring in its wake incipient runaway global warming. Still, nobody has the foggiest idea how this will play out. But, it is also fair to say that an ice-free Arctic will jar loose gigatons of methane that has been entrapped within the ice for millennia, resulting in a new experience and challenge for all humanity. Lamentably, there is no positive spin to that. Nevertheless, as of today, there are measures that serious-minded governments, like Scotland 100% renewables by 2020, can take to avert the Kiss of Death and maybe prevent it, who knows? After all, at the turn of the century, who would’ve known that the Arctic would lose nearly 50% of its ice mass or that Europe’s great Alpine glaciers would shed 32 feet of thickness or that one-half of the glaciers in South America’s Andes would disappear by 2014? Meanwhile, U.S. energy policy is dedicated to fracking our way to energy independence by forcibly pressuring undisclosed cocktails of toxic chemicals (trade secrets) deep into Earth to retrieve tightly embedded fossil fuels (The Bush/Cheney 2005 Energy Policy Act included a provision that prohibited the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act.) Boy– oh boy– what can one possibly say? Postscript: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule,” Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher 1844-1900) Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.