Climate Change: Have We Reached the Point of No Return?

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James Hanson, the renowned climate scientist whose warnings about global warming were heavily censored by the Bush Administration when he worked at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, published a paper (with 16 other scientists) this past August titled, Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms . In it the scientists present data that indicate that rapid ice sheet melting now underway will lead to a general sea level rise of several meters (10-14 feet) by the end of the century, which will inundate Pacific Island nations and the country of Bangladesh, flood most of south Louisiana, change the map of Florida, and even flood parts of California’s Central Valley. This presumes the level of atmospheric CO2 continues to rise from the current 400 ppm to no more than 600 ppm by the end of the century – a pretty good bet, given that the current increase in CO2 averages 2 ppm annually.

If these seem like fairly mild and long-term predictions, much worse predictions are easy to find – and not only in obscure scientific journals. The highly respected Monthly Review magazine published an article in its September issue, When Did the Anthropocene Begin…and Why Does It Matter?. In it, the editor of Climate and Capitalism, Ian Angus, reports on the “Anthropocene Working Group”, which will make a recommendation at the upcoming 35th International Geological Congress on whether to designate that the earth has now left the Holocene Epoch and entered a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene – characterized by man’s (devastating) effect on the geology (and atmosphere) of the earth.

The scientists charged with making the recommendation to the International Congress must decide whether to recommend that the beginning of the Anthropocene be designated by the worldwide radioactive nuclear fallout layer found in geologic depositions laid down all over the earth (and detectable for millions of years), or to use, instead, a unique and ever deepening layer of carbon dust deposited by hydrocarbon-emitting smoke stacks and exhaust pipes worldwide.

The Anthropocene epoch is not likely to be one friendly to continued human existence on the planet, according to Ian Angus, in a 3-part series of articles in the online magazine, Climate and Capitalism. In fact, building on the data and modeling presented in the paper by Hansen, et.al. Angus presents a future climate likely to be closer to hell on earth for those of our descendants who manage to survive into the next century.

He writes: if current trends continue, the average temperature by the end of this century will definitely be 3.5° degrees above pre-industrial levels, and there is a strong possibility that the increase will be more than 4 degrees.Although 4 degrees may not sound like much, he points out that during the last ice age when much of North America lay under several kilometers of ice average global temps were only 5 degrees cooler than today.

The likelihood of going from a 2 degree to a 4 degree Celsius increase world by the end of the century, is a near certainty, according to Angus, and the effects will be devastating for human life on the planet. A 2011 paper by scientists at the Stanford University Wood Institute for the Environment states that by 2070-2099 80% of summers in non-tropical North America, China, and the Mediterranean will be far hotter than the hottest summers of the late 20th century, with the weather permanently in an unprecedented heat regime. Billions of human beings will be faced with living and working in places that will be hotter than anywhere on Earth has been since before our species evolved.

In 2015, a panel of United Nations experts identified some major risks posed by 4° warming: fisheries and agricultural production will be greatly reduced, extinction of species will be accelerated, ocean warming and acidification will increase with total loss of arctic summer ice, and the risks to human populations from flooding and extreme weather events would become very high. The British medical journal, The Lancet, concluded in 2009 that “climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and in 2015 stated the threat had grown much worse: that, “…future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.”

British climatologists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larking write that keeping the increase below 4° requires radical action that entails “a reduction in the overall size of the global economy”, and that,

Only if emissions from industrialized nations reduce immediately and at unparalleled rates and only then if less well-off nations begin a rapid transition to low-carbon development with emissions declining from 2025 on, is there any reasonable probability of not exceeding 2°C.

The likelihood of this happening with our current crop of world leaders who serve at the pleasure of the capitalistic energy corporations is minimal to nil. They may give lip service to keeping global warming below 2°C, but it is clear it won’t happen if the necessary emission cuts depend on the approval of corporations like Exxon and Volkswagen. The shift to a non-capitalist economic system may be the only hope for the survival of humans, but any shift will be too late once we enter the 4 degree world. The time for change is at hand.