Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

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An Inflection Point in the Climate Fight?

The weather in Tompkins County has been beautiful this June. Spring got off to a slow start in April, with one rainy, gray day following another and temperatures at night dipping into the 30s even at the end of May. But then June arrived and with it so did the warmer and sunnier days. Gardens are exploding with new growth, the fields and roadside ditches are full of wild flowers and the landscape is green and lush.

 

We have every reason to be grateful. But in much of the world the climate emergency continues unabated. Just a few of the noteworthy items in the news recently:
  • Record-shattering heat assailed Europe this past week, with temperatures hitting well above 100 degrees F in France, Germany, Poland, and Spain. In fact, Europe’s five hottest summers in the past 500 years have all occurred in the last 15 years.
  • The wave of scorching weather has been even worse in India, where hundreds of villages have been abandoned because of acute water shortages and crop failures. The temperature in the city of Churu, hit 123 degrees, “making it the hottest place on the planet,” according to the Guardian. Several of India’s biggest cities are on the verge of running out of water.
  • In the Canadian Arctic permafrost is thawing 70 years sooner than scientists predicted. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • A new United Nations report warned of “climate apartheid,” asserting that human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were all increasingly at risk. The report observed that developing countries will bear 75% of climate crisis costs, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the face of this mounting evidence of runaway climate change, the U.S. refused to join nineteen other nations this week at the G20 Summit in Japan in a reaffirmation of their commitment to implementing the Paris Treaty. The U.S. objected on the grounds that doing so would hurt American workers and taxpayers.
As the 2018 achievements of Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) coalition members show, our community has pursued a wide range of activities to tackle the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The unanimous approval by the City Common Council of Mayor Svante Myrick’s Green New Deal for Ithaca is another dramatic indication of the local commitment to battle the climate crisis, marking a potential inflection point. But clearly there is much work to be done and, as the onrush of global developments starkly reminds us, there is little time to waste. If we are to bend the curve of history in the right direction and avoid catastrophe, we must redouble our efforts and push onward, refusing to rest on our laurels.

The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.