Runaway Climate Change - A Frightening Lack Of Leadership
By Bill Henderson

20 November, 2006

The scientific consensus, already clear and incontrovertible, is today moving towards the more alarmed end of the spectrum. Many scientists long known for their caution are now saying that warming has reached dire levels, generating feedback loops that will take us perilously close to a point of no return...The question is not whether climate change is happening, but whether, in the face of this emergency, we ourselves can change fast enough. Kofi Annan

This is now my ninth op-ed* on runaway climate change (runaway global warming, runaway global heating) and I've been waiting for some awareness from the world's political and economic leaders of how desperately close we are to possible human extinction. Increasingly probable runaway climate change means human extinction.

I've been waiting for some leadership in confronting the intractable problem of making impossibly radical change in developed and developing countries, TODAY, so that the world fifty years from now is still habitable by man and the flora and fauna we now recognize as nature.

Scientists and journalists have spoken out and written eloquently about feedback loops that will take us perilously close to a point of no return. For example, James Hansen and George Monbiot have sounded the alarm:

"Further global warming of 1 °C defines a critical threshold. Beyond that we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know." James Hansen

"(T)he science is clear. We need not a 20% cut by 2020; not a 60% cut by 2050, but a 90% cut by 2030 (1). Only then do we stand a good chance of keeping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below 430 parts per million, which means that only then do we stand a good chance of preventing some of the threatened positive feedbacks. If we let it get beyond that point there is nothing we can do. The biosphere takes over as the primary source of carbon. It is out of our hands." George Monbiot

I wrote to educate; I wrote in despair. I wrote trying to get out the alarm, to try and cry out "Emergency". But escaping runaway climate change is a much more 'wicked problem' than first perceived.

I tried to write to make the case that there were these possible feedback loops, these carbon bombs, this presently safely sequestered carbon. I remember Jeremy Rifkin arguing back in the 80s that these feedback loops existed and could come into play if warming from human caused greenhouse gases raised global mean temperature and especially polar region temperatures past a certain point. I don't understand why people in leadership positions are doing nothing - not raising the alarm when severe climate change in the Arctic is already releasing methane from melting permafrost. People like Rifkin had made a logical cause and effect argument and it is coming true.

Then I found out that carbon bombs were just one possible set of positive feedback loops leading to runaway climate change. David Wasdell lists nine active positive feedback loops:

1) Increase in sea temperature decreases CO2 absorption

2) Reduction in planktonic capacity to process CO2 with rising water temperature and reduction in availability of rising nutrient-bearing currents (lowered density of surface water with rising temperature)

3) Decrease in oceanic absorption of CO2 with rising acidity of surface water

4) Acidification of oceanic surface layers reduces optimal conditions for planktonic life and therefore further reduces plankton absorption of CO2

5) Increasing respiration of soil-based bacteria releases more CO2 with rising temperature
6) Rising sea and air temperature generates higher levels of atmospheric water-vapour, itself a powerful GHG

7) Increased temperature generates increased cloud-cover (mixed feedback since clouds reflect sunlight back into space, while also preventing radiation from the ground. The domination of the positive feedback is thought to increase with rising temperature.)

8) Thawing of permafrost (land-based and coastal shallow seas) releases more methane

9) Decreasing snow/ice surface decreases light/energy reflection.

I also wrote to model the impossibility of conceiving of eminent human extinction. There is great difficulty in individuals grasping that their actions today - driving, consuming, flying, etc. - are cumulatively leading to a world where their children or grandchildren will perish, to human dieoff and extinction. You can sort of think it, say it ...but you really can't completely think or communicate the closeness, the 'Big Picture', the horror.

I've used metaphors:

Dad, Mom and the kids are out boating on the reservoir: little Johnny's helping Dad fish (and the fishing is hot); Mom's enjoying a relaxing nap and the twins are playing in the front of the boat. Everybody's having so much fun they aren't really aware that they are drifting towards the dam and the spillway. Even if the fishing is wonderful, reasonable people would make sure that they stayed far away from the point of no return past which they couldn't escape death for the whole family.

but it's not a question of pointing out a danger to reasonable people. TEOTWAWKI

But I keep trying cause of my granddaughter Bella and the billions of people she represents. Lead time, the need to make changes now, TODAY, (the changes we didn't make over the past decades) because of the multi-decade time lags in the global warming process. The need to cut emissions substantially this decade.

There are paths back from the brink. Something like Lester Brown's PLAN B where individual governments at least could formalize the danger as akin to the danger the Allies faced in WW2 and put in place a mobilization of society and the economy so that change of a necessary scale was possible.

We need some such governance innovation so that we can get off the path we are on and ... but China and India, the failure of developed countries to accept their greenhouse gas legacy, the Kyoto failure. And Bush totally corroding and marginalizing emerging global governance with stupid, criminal unilateralism in Iraq - choosing the resource war path for everybody.

Nearly three-quarters of British Columbians (the West Coast of Canada where I live) believe life as we know it will end in another two or three generations unless drastic and immediate action is taken to curb global warming, according to the results of an exclusive Vancouver Sun poll. The cause and effect of runaway climate change may not be completely understood but citizens know enough to fear for their children's future.

But each Canadian continues to consume a huge footprint, emitting greenhouse gases now some 30% above our supposed Kyoto targets. Each Canadian, like each American or Aussie, is trapped in a car culture lifestyle that doesn't allow any real possibility of slimming down personal emissions.

In the Canadian forward to his new book HEAT George Monbiot nails us Canucks and our spineless government while heretically advocating the governmental leadership we need:

"You [Canadians] think of yourselves as a liberal and enlightened people, and my experience seems to confirm that. But you could scarcely do more to destroy the biosphere if you tried."

"When they (the Conservative government) say that Canada cannot reach its Kyoto targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they mean that they do not intend to try. ... [it's] an astonishing instance of political cowardice."

"I am sorry to say that only regulation -- that deeply unfashionable idea -- can quell the destruction wrought by the god we serve, the god of our own appetites."

We desperately need leaders in government and business globally to speak out and demand massive change right now, massive cuts in fossil fuel use and emissions, massive change from our drawdown economy to an economy that grows but not materially, that grows in knowledge and quality, but shrinks in energy use and material throughput.

We need leaders to free us from the present unsustainable economy and motivate and empower us today to make the changes necessary to save us from extinction.


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