As Trump's Denialists Get to Work, the Climate Is Changing 170 Times Faster
by Dahr Jamail - Truthout
March 27, 2017
You can feel it, can't you?
You already know what is happening to the planet. To Gaia. To Earth. To the only planet humankind will ever "permanently" inhabit. We've nowhere else to go but here ... this incredible, majestic, beautiful Garden of Eden that has held us, and carried us, this far.
We have ignored the fact that we are, at best, mere stewards. We have forsaken the Earth by fantasizing that the planet was ours to control. To exploit. To manipulate. To drill, mine and desecrate. To gain riches from. The balance is upset, the die is cast, now we reap the consequences of a whirlwind of forces so vast we cannot comprehend them.
We needn't look far to see how very far off the climate precipice we have already fallen, as our pace accelerates by the day. A recent study, Extinction Risk from Climate Change, published in the prestigious journal Nature, shows that half the species on Earth today will likely disappear by the middle of the century -- within 33 years.
Although this information is devastating, perhaps we should not be surprised, since we've known for years now that we have already entered the Earth's sixth mass extinction event.
Last month, a paper titled The Anthropocene Equation revealed that anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is causing the climate to change 170 times faster than it would if only natural forces were affecting it. "The human magnitude of climate change looks more like a meteorite strike than a gradual change," one of the authors of the study said. Both NASA and NOAA data showed that this January was the third hottest January ever recorded, with the brunt of the warming extremes occurring, distressingly, in the Arctic. Some anomalies were as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal over the winter.
The amount of dissolved oxygen in Earth's oceans is currently declining, according to a recently published paper in the journal Nature. This will assuredly have severe consequences for all marine organisms. For perspective on where we are in relation to what has happened in Earth's history, National Geographic recently published a piece that shows how sudden and dramatic changes in the planet's climate have historically been catastrophic for humans, bringing plagues, famines and heat waves. The article highlights the importance of not only the extreme change that is predicted over the next 100 years (4° to 6° Celsius, which could be an extremely conservative estimate), but also the rate of change, as it far exceeds nature's ability to adapt in order to sustain most life forms. National Geographic goes on to point out that this exceptional rate of change will test adaptability by all global species, including humans, and that over the long term, all of our survival is far from certain.
In 2015, NASA launched a massive mission to study how quickly the oceans are melting Greenland, and the findings that are now coming in are disturbing. While we don't yet have all of the results, the study has already enabled the lead researchers to provide some broad brushstrokes on what they are finding.
"Overall, together I think these papers suggest that the glaciers as a whole are more vulnerable than we thought they were," Josh Willis, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the principal investigator on the mission told the Washington Post. "We could be in for more sea level rise than we thought," he added.
"And we're not alone; the fact is that almost every time some new results come out of Greenland or Antarctica, we find these glaciers are more vulnerable than we thought."
At roughly the same time Willis was making those comments, US satellite data from Antarctica showed that sea ice around that continent had hit a record low. That means that the sea ice around Antarctica has shrunk to its smallest annual extent on record, after having been at its record high just a few years earlier.
It's also worth noting that in mid-February, the Larsen C ice shelf there shed a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice into the sea. On February 22 Truthout reported that the next major bleaching event to hit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia had begun. A little over two weeks later, the first survey for this year was conducted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), and the survey confirmed that another mass bleaching event had occurred and was ongoing.
"In total, those extreme weather events and the overall impact of climate change is a major threat to the future of the reef," the GBRMPA's David Wachenfeld said grimly to the media of his findings. Closer to home in the US, on February 12 the tallest dam in the country, the Oroville dam, was at risk of disintegrating due to an onslaught of torrential flooding that prompted the evacuation of more than 200,000 people living downstream.
The crisis underscored how infrastructure mechanisms like dams are in no way built to withstand the impacts that ACD is already causing, let alone future impacts. Truthout published an article that contained an interview with Deborah Moore, who was a commissioner with the World Commission on Dams, an international body that investigated the performance of dam projects across the world. Moore was asked what experts like herself should be looking at in terms of incorporating climate science into engineering design. Her response?
"We can no longer use historic data in order to plan these projects because it's no longer relevant."
The evidence of runaway ACD across the land sectors of the planet is glaring. A recent State of the Environment Report for Australia has warned that ACD could be "irreversible," and that ACD's impact to ecosystems continues to increase. "It [ACD] is altering the structure and function of natural ecosystems, and affecting heritage, economic activity and human wellbeing," the report's summary said.
"Evidence shows that the impacts of climate change are increasing, and some of these impacts may be irreversible."
As if to underscore this point, another report from Australia emerged recently, which showed that country's wheat productivity has "flatlined" as a direct result of ACD. Lastly in this section, spring has arrived nearly a full month early for many plants in the Arctic. Scientists have warned of ominous consequences from this, as the change marks the greatest shifting of the spring plant emergence that they have ever observed in the Arctic.
"As a climate scientist who studies the start of spring, I struggle to answer the question, 'What is spring?'"
Heidi Steltzer, a professor at Fort Lewis College and author of the recent scientific paper, told the New York Times. "A longer spring opens up the potential for gaps -- points in time when it would be spring with no spring-like events occurring. Would this still be spring?"
As is usually the case in these dispatches, the watery realms are where runaway ACD is the most visible. Major droughts, which are looking more permanent with each passing year, are persisting around the globe.
In Somalia, a country that has had to grow accustomed to drought, words like "unprecedented" and "record-breaking" have begun to lose their meaning. The drought there is now so bad that hyenas won't even eat the carcasses of goats, sheep and camels that have died, as there isn't enough meat on their bones to make it worth their while. In early March, in one 48-hour period, at least 110 people died in Somalia from famine and diarrhea resulting from the ongoing drought conditions. Famine warnings have now been issued for Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia, all of which are experiencing their worst droughts in decades, with no end in sight.
By February, it became clear that the climate in the Arctic was, and had been for several months, already well advanced into abrupt ACD. Temperatures in many areas, including the North Pole, were clocking in between 30°-40°F above normal for extended periods of time, and the Arctic sea ice was hitting record minimum extent levels. In January, what is normally one of the colder months of the year there, sea ice extent was nearly half a million miles below the January 1981-2010 long-term average, an average that was already well below what a healthy preindustrial age sea-ice level would have looked like. A recent study showed that as Arctic warming continues to ramp up, Canadian glaciers are paying for it dearly; the melt-off from them has risen by a staggering 900 percent. This has now caused them to become a major contributor to sea level rise.
Another recent study revealed that of all the permafrost that exists in the global Arctic, at least 10 percent is already melted out. Anchorage, Alaska will lose its drinking water source before 2100, according to another recent study. The city's water comes from the Eklutna Glacier, in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, which is in the process of melting away, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) Scientist Louis Sass, the lead author of the study.
"Eklutna looks like it's going to more or less disappear," he said, adding that the only question is how long that will take. According to Sass, who this writer accompanied on a USGS glacial survey of another Alaskan glacier twice during 2016, if the climate remains as it was between 2008 and 2015, the Eklutna will be gone by 2100. But, he said recently, if the climate warms more, which of course it will, the timeline could be half that long.
To give you an idea of how fast the glacier's melt rate is increasing: Between 1957-2010, the rate of melting ice there was 5 percent per year. Between 2010-2015, that rate had risen to 7 percent. And during that same period, during hotter years like 2013 and 2015, the rate even reached 13 percent. Farewell, Eklutna.
Meanwhile, sea level rise continues, and coastal regions are paying a price. A recently published study showed that US coastal cities could be flooding three times every single week by 2045. That means, if you buy a home in those areas now, before you finish paying off your 30-year mortgage, you would have a little trouble selling your constantly flooding real estate.
Lastly in this section, even life in the deepest seas is being impacted negatively by runaway ACD. A recently published study has shown that creatures living in the deep ocean are facing major food shortages, rapidly changing temperatures and other human-caused problems. The deep ocean plays an essential role in the sustenance of commercial fishing and also removes major amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, but the study notes that food supply in the deeper areas of the oceans could fall by a stunning 55 percent by 2100, which will of course starve the animals and microbes that live there.
So much for fire season being in the summer. In early March, within just a few days, wildfires had torched a 1.5 million acre swath across the Central US, incinerating at least six people. The area, ripe for burning due to ACD-warmed temperatures and an ongoing drought, detonated into fires that spread across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. In addition to the deaths, the fires caused vast amounts of damage: Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, much livestock was burned to death, vast expanses of cropland were lost, and numerous structures went up in flames. In Kansas, one wildfire burned more than 1,000 square miles, breaking the record for that state's largest-ever fire. These fires were ongoing in all three states at the time of this writing.
In February near the North Pole, temperatures were 50 degrees warmer than normal, yet again. In one area of Greenland, temperatures surged upwards of 43 degrees in a mere 12 hours as scientists continue to watch in amazement and shock as the Arctic literally goes into meltdown. Moreover, these dramatic temperatures were simply one of many major heat waves sweeping the planet in February. Temperatures in North Texas reached into the mid-90s by mid-February, and one area in Oklahoma nearly reached 100. At the same time, parts of Australia were baking in 115-degree heat. February was so hot across much of the US that the Great Lakes' already weak ice cover was cut down to nearly nothing and ski conditions across the Northeast looked more like they usually do in April. To give you an idea of how hot things have been in the US, according to Climate Central,
"There have been 3,146 record highs set for the month-to-date compared to only 27 record lows, ensuring February will go down as the 27th month in a row with more highs than lows. The astonishing 116-to-1 ratio of highs to lows would easily set a record for the most lopsided monthly ratio in history. There have also been 248 monthly record highs and no monthly record lows."
Evidence of abrupt ACD abounds, including torrential downpours following record-setting drought. This sequence is precisely what we saw in California last month, when an extreme weather event that was referred to as a "bombogenesis" or "weather bomb" brought torrential rains and floods, killed four people, swallowed cars, disrupted flights, and knocked out power for more than 150,000 people. Additionally, it seems that a previously unforeseen nightmare scenario may have already begun. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its most recent summary, includes the fact that the carbon equivalent contained in Arctic permafrost is 1,400-1,700 gigatons, and the IPCC estimates that by 2100, between 800-1,400 gigatons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere.
Currently, humans are emitting roughly 40 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere on an annual basis. Amazingly, while the IPCC does note these amounts of terrestrial carbon in the Arctic from the melting permafrost, they do not include their release and the implications thereof into their modeling predictions. The release of all this extra carbon from melting permafrost represents yet another ACD-driven positive feedback loop: The carbon released from the permafrost will add to atmospheric warming, which will only accelerate the feedback loop by melting more permafrost.
Denial and Reality
Given that we are in the country of Trumpistan, we can now safely assume we will be fed a steady diet of ACD denialism. With the Trump administration full of ACD deniers, climate scientists are already facing threats, harassment and a very real fear of "McCarthyist attacks." Abusive and vulgar verbal attacks, and even death threats, have already become the norm. In just the two months since he entered office, Trump has already undertaken the most ambitious regulatory rollback since the Reagan era and, of course, some of the most dramatic acts of deregulation have been happening on the environmental front. Trump's frontrunner for the role of science advisor is William Happer, a man who has described climate scientists as a "glassy-eyed cult." Also in Trump's denial cabal is Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA (which means he's the person in charge of destroying that particular agency), who recently publicly questioned whether the EPA is even empowered to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
During a recent interview Pruitt was questioned as to whether he believed ACD was caused by humans, to which he replied:
"I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so, no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."
At this moment, it is worth harkening back to a 1991 film produced by the oil giant Shell, which warned that the climate was already changing "at a faster rate than at any time since the end of the ice age." The film, titled Climate of Concern, went on to state that the rate of ACD even at that time, more than a quarter of a century ago, was "changing too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation." It minced no words, stating that the world was warming and serious consequences could result.
"Tropical islands barely afloat even now, first made inhabitable, and then obliterated beneath the waves … coastal lowlands everywhere suffering pollution of precious groundwater, on which so much farming and so many cities depend," the film narrates.
"In a crowded world subject to such adverse shifts of climate, who would take care of such greenhouse refugees?"
Like Exxon, which knew, early on, of the dire consequences of runaway ACD and then covered up the facts, Shell is currently immersed in an elaborate charade, acting for the benefit of its bottom line. Whether the denialists in Trump's cabinet are engaged in their own charade -- or whether they really believe their bizarre rhetoric -- no one truly knows, but there's no doubt that they are acting in the interest of the fossil fuel industry. Once again, the oil giants have realized profits beyond their wildest dreams, while the consequences continue to be thrust upon every living being on Earth.
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last 10 years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.
His third book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon. Dahr Jamail is the author of the book, The End of Ice, forthcoming from The New Press. He lives and works in Washington State.