Opinions of Peter Belmont
Speaking Truth to Power

NYT down-plays Climate Change—but we must not be fooled.

by Peter A. Belmont / 2014-04-01
© 2014 Peter Belmont


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The New York Times ran a front page article called ”Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst is to Come” (March 31). Useful and important as this article is, it fails to explain the urgency of acting to forestall climate change by failing to describe what failing to act early enough may bring down on the heads of mankind.

What the IPCC has stated and implied in its latest report is far more frightening than NYT suggests.

A graphic from Scientific American may make some of the urgency of our problem clearer.

NYT misleads its readers in at least three ways.

First, NYT misleads by saying the “Worst is to Come” by which NYT suggests, falsely, that there is a “worst”. Under the predictable effects of climate change, things can get bad, as they have already done, and then still worse, and then very much worse, and so on, indefinitely. Until human life is extinguished. And then still worse (for the then still surviving life forms).

Second, NYT suggests that very bad problems are all “to come” in the future and thereby, as we have done for years, ignores the seeds of climate disaster that have already been planted and continue to be planted and increased every year that mankind fails to change behavior.

The disasters implicit in climate change are of two kinds. First are the readily-apparent catastrophes, such as major storms, heat waves, droughts and floods, melting arctic ice and glaciers, and disrupted snowfall and rainfall patterns—and, of course, rising sea levels.

Second are the increases in insidious man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere, which will remain there—and continue and increasingly cause catastrophes of the first kind—over the near term (say 100 years), and would do so even if mankind stopped emitting GHGs cold turkey today.

Revolution Is Needed, Not Evolution

Third, in its text, the NYT article down-plays (or ignores) the urgency of the need for the USA (and everyone else) to vastly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as soon as possible. That is, NYT down-plays the urgency of the need for quick or revolutionary—not slow or evolutionary—change to our industrial, agricultural, transportation, home-heating, and other energy-using practices and infrastructures.

Many people view the prospect of achieving the revolutionary change needed to slow the advance of climate change as more frightening than the prospect of the on-rushing climatic effects of failing to do so. They are wrong, of course, but people who think that way are to be found among the most powerful people in the USA and elsewhere: politicians, and the CEOs of the giant corporations whose profits depend on energy-use “as usual”.

Analogizing With War

The effort to reverse climate change should be a war. But, so far, it is not. So far, our leaders are satisfied to lie back and do nothing, to allow horrible disaster to flow over all of us, unimpeded, unopposed.

We go to (military) war easily, at the drop of a hat, even for ridiculous and/or trumped-up reasons. But we have no talent for going to war against our own folly on occasions like this where, as Pogo so memorably said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Why People Refuse To Act

There are several different groups of people who refuse to begin the difficult, costly, uncertain, and vastly inconvenient work of combating climate change.

First, there are the people who do not believe the earth is warming at all, or who do not believe that the observed warming was caused by mankind and who do not believe that continued warming can be fought by mankind. These people are the “climate change deniers”.

Second are people who believe in human-caused warming but do not believe that it is an urgent problem. They do not understand that action must begin immediately and on a large scale. Rather, they adopt a sort of “What, me worry?” attitude because they imagine, incorrectly, that the ill-effects of continuing warming are 100 years away.

Third are people who accept the seriousness of the problem but are stymied because of all the uncertainties of what to do next. And uncertainties are abound. The effort to remake the energy-infrastructure of (industrial) mankind will be the biggest engineering project ever undertaken by mankind, and it will necessarily be undertaken without a “dry run” or a “prototype development”. It must he begun before we really know what we are doing. We will get it wrong. Later honest folk will say, “We made mistakes” and politicians will say, “Mistakes were made.”

There is a still more insidious and dangerous group of people who are working to prevent action to counteract climate change.

The Very Rich—the USA’s Oligarchs—Prevent Action.

In ordinary wars, the very rich send the children of the poor out to fight and die. Here, the very rich—those who have the political clout either to push for meeting the challenges of climate change or to stifle the attempt to do so—have so far opted to stifle not only the attempt to reduce the destructive power of the climate of the near (and also of the distant) future but to stifle even the public discussion of the problem.

By stifling public discussion, they reduce the possibility that the people (democracy) can opt to solve a problem that the powerful (oligarchy) have so far refused to deal with. They have chosen that all children—rich and poor, but as always, primarily the poor— will suffer as climate change overruns us. All children, even their own, to the uttermost generation.

Thus the political problems generally known under the umbrella term “Citizens United”—that is, the subversion of democracy in favor of oligarchic rule by the very rich—is part and parcel of the problem of our non-response to climate change. Maybe the people could get our “leaders” to act. It appears that the oligarchs are dead-set against any action at all that disrupts their own current profits.

Effects of Climate Change Grow Worse By Themselves, But Grow Far Worse, Faster, With So Much Human Help

For 20 or more years scientists have been loudly warning that mankind must cut way back on GHG emissions because the ill effects of GHG accumulation in the atmosphere is cumulative: if mankind stopped emitting all GHGs today, cold turkey, the warming would continue for the near future (say 100 years), and the ill effects would be worse (at any time in that near future) than if we had stopped all GHG emissions 20 years ago. And because we have not stopped GHG emissions, but greatly increased them, the near future is necessarily bleaker. And so it goes, year by year.

Positive Feedback And Tipping Points

There are two self-reinforcing (feedback) loops connected to the melting of arctic ice.

First, as the arctic sea ice melts, water which had long been covered by ice year-round begins to be uncovered. Since ice reflects sunlight, the ice used to prevent the seawater under it from being warmed by sunlight. As the melted ice increasingly uncovers the sea, the seawater warms up. And warmer seawater causes more ice to melt. A cycle which reinforces itself. Warming of seawater leads to greater warming of seawater.

Second, is a feedback loop leading toward a tipping point.

For 20 years scientists have also warned us that climatic warming beyond an as-yet unknown point will cause (by comparison) vastly catastrophic changes called “tipping points”.

For example, as arctic ice and permafrost melt and as arctic seas warm up, the methane—a far more potent GHG than CO2—which is stored frozen in permafrost on land and frozen in sea-floors will melt and be released into the atmosphere. As methane begins to be released in this way, it increases GHG trapping of solar radiation (heat) and thus speeds warming. With warming comes more melting of permafrost and sea-floor methane deposits. This is a feedback situation: more heat leads to more melting methane, and this leads to more heat, etc.

When significantly large amounts of frozen methane will be released is not known. That it will happen if the arctic climate warms sufficiently is clear, but the exact degree of warming needed to release a storm of this methane is not known precisely. When it happens, the game, for mankind, is over. Abruptly. As if someone cut the elevator cable of your elevator car—on the 50th floor.

On Gambling And Sure Things

We should not gamble on this “unknown”. We should not be reassured by the smallness of the climatic changes seen so far. They are the canaries in the mine. Canaries in mines are there for a purpose, to warn. Our canaries are drooping. The IPCC report warns of other “catastrophic or abrupt change”.

It is because so much is not known that mankind is foolish to wait to begin massive, revolutionary, efforts to reduce and ASAP cease all GHG production, especially from fossil-fuels.

What mankind is doing by waiting to reduce CO2 and methane emissions is like playing Russian Roulette year after year with a revolver into whose revolving cylinder more and more live bullets are inserted as the years go on. To survive that game, it is necessary to stop the game.

With climate change, it began, years ago as a gamble, just like Russian Roulette. Each year that goes by without action taken to reverse the man-made forcing of climate change, the game goes from a gamble to a sure thing.


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