2 September 2012

The End of the World (As we know it)

So farewell then Arcticice. The REM song seems appropriate to me, particularly since their name standsfor rapid eye movement (one of the stages of sleep), and we are sleepwalkinginto a different state for our planet. The record low ice coverageset earlier this week may have attracted only sparse mention on the main newschannels, but in the context of its importance for the planet should havedominated the headlines. Instead we were bombarded with stories about arelatively minor hurricane and treated to extensive analysis of a man who may becomethe US President in a year’s time; a man who thinks addressing climate changeis a joke. More attention too was paid to Tim Yeo, a former environmentminister who thinks it would be a good idea to build a new runway at Heathrow;after all, there’s no issue about the climate is there? How can our news focusso much attention on the trivial with just a throwaway coverage of the trulyimportant? Does this sound angry? Well that’s probably because I am.

Back to that Arctic ice,and I make no apologies for covering it again in this column despite havingmentioned it less than a month ago. The extent of the melt this year is so farin excess of the previous record that it renders questions of whether we willsee an ice free Arctic redundant; the only question now is when. Each recordlow makes it easier for an even more extreme melt to happen in succeeding yearsas multi-year ice is replaced by that which has formed over a single winter andthe volume of ice is falling even faster than the extent. So suggestions thatwe could see an ice-free Arctic ocean before the end of the current decade nowlook highly plausible - Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University suggestsit could be gone as soon as 2015.

With the rapid increasein temperatures in the high latitudes is coming a new threat to global warmingin the form of increased methane emissions from the warming seabed. This is a crucial feedback which is likelyto give an unpleasant upward twist to the pace of global warming given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas.

This isn’t just an issuefor the polar bears, walrus, seals and other forms of aquatic life which relyon the ice for their existence – though how they will survive in these changedconditions is certainly a serious question. It is also an issue of fundamentalimportance for all of us given the impact which the Arctic has on our climate.Our dismal summer this year may have been influenced by the abnormal conditionsin the Arctic, as may the heatwave in the US which has devastated crops andcontributed to sharp rises in food prices in the last couple of months.

The further we drive ourclimate away from the conditions which have existed for virtually the whole ofhuman development, the greater the risk that we will see more occurrences ofcrops being destroyed by drought, or excessive rain. We don’t know what we areletting ourselves in for and this at a time when there are more people thanever before for our farming system to feed. How many thousands (millions?) willhave to starve before world leaders take climate change seriously. Andincidentally before they ban the absurd practice of turning food into fuel –40% of the US corn crop is made into ethanol, rather than used as a foodstuff.

How much more of ournatural world are we willing to see slip away with only a hint of remorse? Theenvironment mustn’t get in the way of business as usual. Growth is good. Repeatto the end.


  1. In July, The Scientific American printed a piece by David Biello citing an article in the on-line journal Nature Climate Change which found that satellite and ground surveys do now indicate that Himalayan glaciers are shrinking, which is bad news in the long term for those in China, Nepal,India, and much of south east Asia who rely on water from the major rivers (eg Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze) that originate from these glaciers. Its not just happening in the Arctic!


  2. Shocking. Better write more internet pieces.