Is climate change unstoppable?

As weather extremes mount in many countries, climate change is receiving increasing attention. A new book that has been published in Australia takes a look at the prospects of halting global warming.

Visiting the COP23 Climate Summit in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017, Frances Namoumou, Climate Officer for Fiji for the Pacific Church Conference, emphasised that the two-degree limit to global warming referred to in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was “more like a death sentence” for her people, and warned that her nation could only survive if a 1.5 degree limit was achieved. But a year earlier, commenting on the Paris goals, professor of international relations David C. Victor, formerly a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that “warming probably can’t be stopped at those levels – the world has dithered for too long, and must now brace for the consequences”. And much further back, in his 1999 Millennium report, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote: “We must face up to an inescapable reality: the challenges of sustainability simply overwhelm the adequacy of our responses. With some honourable exceptions, our responses are too few, too little and too late.”

A call for action

Such daunting assessments are certainly reflected in Geoffrey Maslen’s “Too Late. How we lost the battle with climate change”. But his new book is in fact also meant as “a call to arms for the people to take action, demand their governments are held to account and begin the crucial and difficult steps that are needed to save the planet from extinction”. Setting out from his native Australia, where deadly heat-waves continue to break one temperature record after another, the author, a science education lecturer and journalist, provides a coherent account of how global warming works and what its impacts are across the world. Maslen draws particular attention to the increasing number of self-reinforcing feedback loops that scientists fear.

Sea-level rise has already prompted mass evacuations of Pacific island inhabitants, as Frances Namoumou reported in Bonn, and the process is set to continue. Glaciologists note that while the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are slow to respond to global warming, they will be virtually unstoppable once they get going. Australian and US scientists sounded the alarm just a year ago that the giant Totten Glacier in Antarctica was melting from below. The oceans themselves are warming up. And at the same time, they are turning more and more acidic. One of the most prominent victims of this combined process is the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Oceans will lose their ability to recycle carbon

CO2 emissions grew from two billion tonnes in 1950 to nine billion tonnes in 2017. A quarter of anthropogenic CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. In normal conditions, ocean mixing would cause cold water to constantly move up and refresh water at the surface, with dissolved gas moving down into the deep sea. But under global warming, the warm water saturated with CO2 is kept at the top.

Phytoplankton take in as much CO2 as the tropical forests, absorb sun rays and generate oxygen. When they die, they take the carbon down into the depths of the sea. But disturbed ocean mixing is now hampering nutrient transport from below, slowing down the growth of the phytoplankton. Setting out from present conditions, scientists predict a tipping point in 2035 when oceans will lose their ability to recycle carbon into organisms.

Permafrost covers 20 per cent of the planet and holds around two trillion tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of 120 years of the gas being released by human activities. But permafrost regions also contain methane, a greenhouse gas about 100 times as powerful as CO2 in trapping heat over a ten-year period. The release of vast amounts of methane through the melting of the permafrost could raise the Earth’s temperature more than all of past anthropogenic emissions of CO2 combined.

Will cows become ‘climate-friendly’?

Methane is already being emitted in large quantities. Climatologists reckon that cattle account for around 28 per cent of global methane. Animal experts at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO) have been examining feeding cattle with a seaweed species occurring along the Australian east coast. It seems that supplementing feed with the seaweed not only improves the animals’ health but also drastically reduces methane levels while raising their food production into the bargain. With global warming impacting on marine life at a time when oceans are already overfished, one indirect benefit of growing seaweed as cattle feed could be to provide alternative livelihoods for people depending on fisheries.

While welcoming such approaches, Maslen maintains that tackling climate change requires political change. He argues that no economic, social or technological solution can be achieved without “breaking the deadlock of corporate power, particularly the interests of the fossil fuel industry and powerful pro-business states”.

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany

More information:

Rural 21 issue no 4/17 on Climate Change