Lethal Threats: Global Warming, Elite Power And Bounded Debates
mikedf at amnh.org
Sat Feb 8 07:52:14 MST 2003
Lethal Threats: Global Warming, Elite Power And Bounded Debates
by David Cromwell
"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
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
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
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
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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