Humans have transformed the earth in a dramatic way, especially over
the last 50 years. Not only have we drastically changed the carbon
cycle by burning fossil fuel
and coal and by increasing forest fires, we have also changed the
nitrogen cycle worldwide by the amount of nitrogen being fixed by
industrial agriculture and fertilizer use.
We have transformed more than half the land surface through
agriculture, deforestation, mining, industry, paving, and ever-growing
cities. These changes have altered the climate systems by the way
moisture is exchanged between earth and the atmosphere.
We have destroyed biodiversity by shifting plants and animals to places
and conditions where they cannot survive. We are seeing the most basic
of our needs – air, water, housing, and energy – disappear before our
eyes. And this demise of our common life-support system is being
accelerated by ever more energy intensive activities, by which a
privileged group of people attempts to secure its survival.
A conference on avoiding dangerous climate change at the Hadley Centre
in Exeter was held explicitly to convince the Bush administration to
join the rest of the industrialised world, and to use the July 2005 G8
meeting to set limits
on greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and Australia, the
world’s two largest polluters, were refusing to be part of any global
agreement to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
The G8 meeting came and went. The US, with 42 per cent of global fossil
fuel CO2, and 34 per cent of combined greenhouse gas emissions, not
only remained outside the
climate- stabilisation effort but also fought vigorously to prevent any
progress in setting limits. Given the extraordinary amount of
greenhouse gases emitted by the US, this country alone can dramatically
slow climate change, or bring the planet to the boiling point.
Three weeks before the G8 summit, The Observer printed a set of leaked
documents revealing how the Bush White House derailed attempts to
address global warming. These submissions to the G8 action plan show
that Washington officials deleted even the suggestion that global
warming has already started.
Among the key sentences removed were: ‘Our world is warming. Climate
change is a serious threat that has the potential to affect every part
of the globe. And we know that ... mankind’s activities are
contributing to this warming. This is an issue we must address
At the Hadley Centre Climate Change Conference in February 2005, the
International Climate Change Task Force UK said that if we do nothing
the climate system will collapse.
Stephen Byers, the co-chair of that task force and an advisor to Tony
Blair, said the point of no return could be reached in a decade. The
Bush delegation to the July 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, probably even
George Bush himself,is aware of that deadline.
At the UN Climate Conference in Montreal in December 2005 the US again
undermined the talks. The Bush administration had sent Harlan Watson,
senior climate negotiator for
the US Department of State (suggested for that position in 2001 by
ExxonMobil, a company that has consistently opposed mandatory curbs on
Exxon was present behind the scenes in Montreal as well, and on
December 8, 2005, The Independent revealed the extraordinary campaign
by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (an Exxon funded think-tank
that takes credit for having prevented US adoption of the Kyoto
treaty), to destroy Europe’s support for an extension of the treaty by
lobbying large EU corporations to join in dismantling Kyoto in Europe.
Watson held out until the very last day to sign the Montreal agreement,
doing so only when it became clear that, of 188 other countries, only
Saudi Arabia would side with the US. While the 157 Kyoto signatories
agreed to extend the treaty’s emission-cutting targets after formal
expiration in 2012, 189 countries – including the US, China, and India
– agreed only to non-binding discussions.
The perceived need to include the US, the world’s largest polluter, in
future negotiations had a devastating effect on the treaty’s language,
leading to an agreement at the
lowest common denominator: ‘non-binding discussions’, ‘voluntary
measures’, ‘marketbased opportunities’ – this when stringent emission
reductions are urgently needed at once, not in six years.
However, the US is not solely responsible for the stalemate. Tony
Juniper from Friends of the Earth, remarked: ‘Tony Blair had thrown
doubt on the whole future of Kyoto before the talks, when he seemed to
side with George Bush and stated that no country would want to
negotiate another agreement with targets and timetables like Kyoto.’
The Global Business Network wrote in the only official document that
does not deny climate change, ‘Climate Change as a National Security
Concern’, commissioned for Donald Rumsfeld by Pentagon defence adviser
Andrew Marshall, and made public in February 2004: ‘The focus in
climate research has slowly been shifting from gradual to rapid change.
In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding
that human activities could trigger abrupt change. A year later, the
World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, included a session at which
Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
in Massachusetts, urged policymakers to consider the implications of
possible abrupt climate change within two decades.’
Whether in a decade as UK scientists say, or two as the Pentagon study
says, a consensus is developing that we are reaching a phase of
dangerous, abrupt, and irreversible climate shifts. However, for the
Bush administration, this is not an ecological or humanitarian issue,
but a military issue. They question only how to protect US borders from
environmental refugees, how to overpower nations collapsing
under environmental pressures, how to keep access to food, water, and
energy as other parts of the world go hungry and thirsty, and how to
keep nuclear pre-eminence, while thoseweapons in other countries fall
into the hands of insurgents.
The eerie similarity of these goals and methods, with those of the
so-called war on terrorism, raises the question of whether that war on
terrorism is not really already a war on the earth. And, as in the war
on terrorism, the already occurring ecological disasters – like the
Osama bin Ladens – are needed and promoted. And the religious
fundamentalists are driving this forward because God has given them
dominion over the planet to do as they wish.
The year 2005 was the second warmest year on record, and among the four
warmest years since 1861, according to the World Meteorological
Organization (WMO). And it may well be the year of ecological
landslides, when climate change becomes self-reinforcing and begins to
spin out of control. Consider these news items from the last months of
In October, glaciologists meeting at the Royal Society in London argued
that the South Pole could be the principal cause of rising sea levels.
The edges of the West Antarctic
ice sheets are crumbling at an unprecedented rate. The Pine Island and
Thwaites glaciers are discharging more than 110 cubic kilometres of ice
each year, a rate three times that of a decade ago.
NASA reported in September that in the summer of 2005 the Arctic sea
ice around the North Pole shrank to 200 million square miles – 500,000
square miles less than its average
area between 1979 and 2000. In August 2005, Arctic sea ice reached its
lowest monthly point on record, dipping to an unprecedented 18 per cent
below the long-term average.
In November, Geophysical Research Letters published evidence that
Greenland’s vast ice cap may be at the point of irreversible meltdown.
Glaciers that have been stable for centuries, such as the giant
Helheim, which dropped 100 feet in summer 2005, are melting. Its
leading edge – unchanged in location since records began – has
retreated four-and-a-half miles.
The vast amount of fresh water discharged into the Northern ocean now
threatens the Gulf Stream, which warms Britain and the rest of northern
Europe whose latitude is that of
Labrador. In a December 2005 article in Nature, a group of British
oceanographers from the National Oceanography Centre reported that the
flow of the Gulf Stream has diminished in strength by 30 per cent over
the past 50 years, alarming them; they had not expected such dramatic
changes so soon.
The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) announced in
November 2005 that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere today than at
any point in the last 650,000
years. Today’s still rising level of CO2 is already 27 per cent above
the highest peak during all those millennia, according to lead
researcher Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, Switzerland.
Moreover, that rise is occurring at a speed ‘that is over a factor of a
hundred faster than anything we are seeing in the natural cycles.’
In October 2005, the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA announced that
the hole in the Antarctic ozone was as severe as at any point on record
in the past 10 years. The hole extended to near-record proportions at
about 27 million square kilometres, vaster than North America. This
occurred in spite of the reduction of ozone-depleting chemicals such as
chlorine and bromine compounds.
In early December 2005, the New York Times reported a record-breaking
drought in the Amazon River Basin – the worst since record keeping
began a century ago. Scientists say the drought is most probably the
result of the same
rise in water temperatures that added to the severity of the 2005 hurricane season.
Daniel C. Nepstad, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center
in Massachusetts, told the New York Times: ‘We have no idea of the game
we have played into, by running this worldwide experiment of pumping so
much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.’
A leading US climatologist warned that the world has just one decade to
slow down climate change: NASA’s Dr. James Hansen told a meeting at the
Geophysical Union in San
Francisco that a further one degree centigrade increase in world
average warming would take the earth into climate patterns it has not
experienced for more than 500,000 years.
In early August 2005, the New Scientist reported that in Western
Siberia a permafrost area, the size of France and Germany combined, is
thawing for the fi rst time since the Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. What
was, until recently, an
expanse of frozen peat is turning into a broken landscape of mud and
lakes, some more than a kilometre across. The area’s peat bog contains
an estimated 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more
potent than CO2,
which, if released, could dramatically increase the rate of global warming.
Even in a best-case scenario, were the methane to be released slowly
over a period of 100 years, it would effectively double atmospheric
levels of the gas, leading to a 10 to 25 per cent increase in global
scientists at the Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK.
There may be some, cynical enough to think that climate change is an
interesting science fiction experiment, or greedy enough to want to
extract the last drop of oil from the dying earth for a profit.
But what about the rest of us: not cynical, not greedy or arrogant? It
is pretty clear that there need to be BIG changes in the way we live –
and that is frightening for many, since we have become so dependent on
this technological civilisation. However, scientists tell us that the
extreme weather events to come, such as floods, hurricanes, sea-level
rise and unprecedented heat waves, are more frightening than any change
in the way wechoose to live now.
There is a set of figures that is both deeply depressing and hopeful.
The last published World Bank data for CO2 emissions per capita
indicate that, while every man, woman, and child in the US puts out 20
metric tons of CO2 per annum, those in the European Union put out eight
per person per year, China two, and the output of Nigerians, who supply
us with much of the oil that we burn into CO2, is zero – below scale.
In 2002, US-Americans used over 12,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity
per person, Europeans used less than half the amount, while the use in
China is 987 kilowatt-hours per person. The US per-capita use of oil is
twice that of the European Union, and more than eight times that of
What if China aspires to our standard of living? And why not, if we are
not willing to cut back? Europe gets by with so much less CO2 -output
and energy-input, while already
planning for further cuts. Where is the measure of global justice
between those who cause no harm and those whose extravagant use of
fossil fuels harms everybody else?
Regardless of who is driving this – industry, the military, religious
fundamentalists, or any permutation of government, be it red or blue –
responsibility for the approaching climate collapse will fall
the United States. Since the US government and corporations not only
refuse to cut back but are driving eco-collapse forward, it is up to
ordinary people to refuse collaboration and to control the perpetrators.
George Monbiot, addressing the December 3 London Climate March in
London, said: ‘We inhabit the brief historical interlude between
ecological constraint and ecological
catastrophe… The structure, the diversity of our lives, everything we
know, everything that we have taken for granted, that looked solid and
non-negotiable, suddenly looks contingent… We need not a 20 per cent
cut by 2020; not a 60 per cent cut by 2050; but a 90 per cent cut by
The opportunity and time to make a difference that will affect the entire planet is now. But will we?
¦ Maria Gilardin produces TUC Radio, a weekly half-hour radio programme
that is distributed for free to all radio stations via Pacifica Radio’s
KU Band, and as an mp3 file on TUC Radio’s website: www.tucradio.org.
She may be reached at email@example.com
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2006