The Guardian's lead enviro-scribe and author, George Monbiot, offers a realistic but troubling assessment of how mankind has allowed itself to become overrun by global warming. Even progressives, probably out of feelings of haplessness, have remained largely passive.
What we are seeing, here and now, is the transformation of the atmospheric physics of this planet. Three weeks before the likely minimum, the melting of Arctic sea ice has already broken the record set in 2007. The daily rate of loss is now 50% higher than it was that year. The daily sense of loss – of the world we loved and knew – cannot be quantified so easily.
...This great dissolution, of ice and certainties, is happening so much faster than most climate scientists predicted that, one of them reports, “it feels as if everything I’ve learned has become obsolete.” In its last assessment, published in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that “in some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.” These were the most extreme forecasts in the panel’s range. Some scientists now forecast that the disappearance of Arctic sea ice in late summer could occur in this decade or the next.
...The melting disperses another belief: that the temperate parts of the world – where most of the rich nations are located – will be hit last and least, while the poorer nations will be hit first and worst. New knowledge of the way in which the destruction of the Arctic sea ice affects northern Europe and North America suggests that this is no longer true. A paper published earlier this year in Geophysical Research Letters shows that Arctic warming is likely to be responsible for the extremes now hammering the once-temperate nations.
The north polar jet stream is an air current several hundred kilometres wide, travelling eastwards around the hemisphere. It functions as a barrier, separating the cold, wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Many of the variations in our weather are caused by great travelling meanders – or Rossby waves – in the jet stream.
Arctic heating, the paper shows, both slows the Rossby waves and makes them steeper and wider. Instead of moving on rapidly, the weather gets stuck. Regions to the south of the stalled meander wait for weeks or months for rain; regions to the north (or underneath it) wait for weeks or months for a break from the rain. Instead of a benign succession of sunshine and showers, we get droughts or floods. During the winter a slow, steep meander can connect us directly to the polar weather, dragging severe ice and snow far to the south of its usual range. This mechanism goes a long way towards explaining the shift to sustained – and therefore extreme – weather patterns around the northern hemisphere.
...Our governments do nothing. Having abandoned any pretence of responding to the environmental crisis during the earth summit in June, now they stare stupidly as the ice on which we stand dissolves. Nothing – or worse than nothing. Their one unequivocal response to the melting has been to facilitate the capture of the oil and fish it exposes.
The companies which caused this disaster are scrambling to profit from it. On Sunday, Shell requested an extension to its exploratory drilling period in the Chukchi Sea, off the north-west coast of Alaska. This would push its operations hard against the moment when the ice re-forms and any spills they cause are locked in. The Russian oil company Gazprom is using the great melt to try to drill in the Pechora Sea, north-east of Murmansk. After turning its Arctic lands in the Komi Republic into the Niger Delta of the north (repeated oil spills are left unremediated in the tundra), Russia wants to extend this industry into one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, where ice, storms and darkness make decontamination almost impossible.
...Is this how our children will see it: that we destroyed the benign conditions which made our world of wonders possible, then used the opportunity to amplify the damage? All of us, of course, can claim to have acted with other aims in mind, or not to have acted at all, as the other immediacies of life seemed more important. But – unless we respond at last – the results follow as surely as if we had sought to engineer them.
In a sane world, progressives would see global warming as their dominant concern. It eclipses reproductive rights, gender equality, the lot for it determines whether our world will remain capable of sustaining any civilization and not just in Africa or equatorial regions. Climate change will be the defining factor for the world our children and our grandchildren will inherit. We are writing their future today and it's being written indelibly. Our political classes, the opposition included, are, at their best, catatonic. The very notion of recognizing the enormity of this threat much less doing anything meaningful about it is utterly beyond them. Meanwhile subordinate governments, provincial and municipal, are focusing on battening down the hatches, half-heartedly preparing to meet looming climate change impacts. Our targets are set at slowing the spread of this malignancy, not beating it back, even as our parliamentary petro-pols work furiously to push through the export of the filthiest petroleum in the world, bitumen.
Yes, we have acted as though climate change was something we could simply export to the Third World. Why should we worry too much when they endure the droughts and the floods, out of sight - out of mind? Yet as we saw in the deep freeze that hit Europe last winter, the widespread flooding of Britain in the spring and in the scorching drought that hit North America this summer, we're suddenly in this right up to our necks. Sure we're not at the point yet where 2012's mega-drought and agricultural collapse will recur constantly but it doesn't have to. The impacts from this drought will be felt for at least one, possibly two more years. If these droughts begin appearing every few years the effects will be cumulative and could become catastrophic. Should that happen we might well wish we could take back those subsidies and direct investment Ottawa has poured into the Tar Sands.
Fortunately for us, the denialist community is now utterly discredited. They waged their delaying action all too well but they relied on public relations, not science, and thus could never prevail. But there's one denialist sector that's still holding out, the one we elect.