Excerpt from Breaking the Code of History, by David Murrin (Apollo Analysis Limited, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.
From Chapter 10: Climate Change
The Changing Landscape
We cohabit with 5-10 million other species. However, our effect on this shared environment is astonishingly disproportionate. Mankind’s average footprint per capita is 2.2 hectares each year, yet only 1.8 hectares can be regenerated by the planet over the same timescale, meaning that each person is running at a 0.4 hectare deficit. This will only get worse as populations expand. Essentially, our success is destroying other species of life in all habitats at an alarming rate. Since 1970, land and marine species have declined by 25-30 percent.
Trees have a significant value in areas like Africa, where wood is the primary fuel source for cooking and boiling water. The resulting deforested land is used for pasture, agriculture and human settlement, but if left unattended it often becomes a wasteland subject to desertification in temperate zones.
While deforestation can be seen as a problem of the emerging nations, it is worth remembering that this is chiefly because forests have already largely vanished from the developed world. Britain’s forests, for example, were decimated in the construction of the country’s shipping fleet, in the days when a Nelsonian battleship required 6,000 mature oak trees. The majority of trees that survived the ship-building programme were felled during the Industrial Revolution.
Some 13 million hectares of trees are lost each year, half being from virgin forests. Today, the worst affected areas are the poorest, with Africa’s rate of deforestation double that of the global average. In Afghanistan, where war has raged for two decades, of the original 16 million sq. km of forest that existed before 1947, only half stands today.
Trees are a vital resource, as they encourage rainfall, store water, capture C02, and recycle and clean our supply of oxygen. The burning of the tropical forests around the equator is estimated to be responsible for almost 20 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions when the carbon stored in the wood is released. The saying that ‘the forests are the lungs of the planet’ is not an exaggeration – without them, we could suffocate.
The Expanding Tropics
The zone of the tropics has expanded between 2 and 4.5° of latitudes, or some 200 miles, since 1979 as the waistband around the Earth becomes hotter at an increasing rate. This will have a direct impact on the 250 million people who live within this zone, particularly on their ability to access water and food.
The encroachment of deserts on fertile land is a gradual, non-linear process, as the desert zones have fragile and delicately balanced ecosystems that can suddenly collapse. Climate change is impacting on this process – the Sahara Desert is shifting south at a rate of 48 km per year into the equatorial forests, and the Gobi Desert is moving south into China’s heartlands, losing 3,600 sq. km of grasslands each year. Dust storms are a regular occurrence in this region, which has further devastated the country’s agricultural capacity. To counter the threat, the Chinese are planting a 5,700 km long ‘green wall of China’, but the African nations lack such resources and will suffer the consequences in the form of famine.
The encroachment of deserts onto fertile land is also caused by the destruction of rainforests. In Madagascar’s highland plateau, for example, 10 percent of the land has become desert after deforestation. But this is a worldwide phenomenon. Forests take groundwater up into their canopy where it evaporates and produces rainfall cycles. Without trees, the local climate becomes drier. Trees also reduce the rate of water run off, so without them the rain runs straight to the oceans via rivers. Any land that is deforested, overgrazed or overcultivated has a reduced water content and increased salinity, increasing the risk of desertification. As these dry areas expand, they feed back into the climate-change process and accelerate the transformation of the Earth.
The Kyoto and Copenhagen Protocols
The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was the first attempt by the world’s governments to tackle the issues of climate change. This was to be done by the limitation of greenhouse gases created by human emissions. The agreement, which only came into force in 2005, outlined legally binding emission limits for C02, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and peruorocarbons. At the core of the agreement was the target of collectively reducing emissions by 5.2 percent of 1990 levels. National reduction limits varied from nation to nation, with the EU expected to decrease emissions by 8 percent, the US by 7 percent and Japan by 6 percent, but allowing Australia an increase of 8 percent. When compared with the unfettered emission levels of 2010, the agreement represented a 29 percent global decrease.
However, the agendas of individual nations resulted in the creation of an accord that was not capable of properly addressing the rate of climate change. The majority of the world’s nations – 181 in total – signed and ratified the agreement, with the notable exception of the world’s leading industrialised power, the US. The US Senate, with protectionist motivations, decided that it should not be ratified if it harmed the US economy; and George W Bush opposed the treaty because it did not place limits on China.
However, the agreement did not anticipate the explosive industrial growth of India and China, which at the time were not major contributors to greenhouse gases, and were viewed as emerging nations with low per-capita emission rates. However, as of 2008, China has become the largest emitter of C02 in the world, mainly from its power stations, while India is the third largest emitter after the US. The net effect of the Kyoto Protocol has been extremely limited. The reality is that the three largest emitters of C02 competing for geopolitical power have no limitations on their emissions.
The Copenhagen Conference in 2009 attracted 192 nations. Twelve years after Kyoto, the evidence for climate change had by then become overwhelming. Indeed, many nations had experienced its realities, even if some still refused to acknowledge the need for political intervention. Also, the rise of Asia was now a palpable reality in the new geopolitical world. The collective rhetoric reached new heights, with the stated goal being to defend against a temperature rise across the planet. However, the US, which was struggling to maintain its position in the world and was unable to invest in new technology without a decline in economic growth, was neutral in its commitment, as were the rising Asian powers of both China and India. The only meaningful action came from the EU, which unilaterally instigated binding measures to reduce emissions significantly by 2020. This was no coincidence, as Europe, in legacy and reformation, has no aspirations to build an empire or defend one, yet has sufficient resources and technological abilities to instigate emission-control mechanisms, foremost of which is an effective carbon-trading programme.
The resulting non-binding, voluntary agreement fell short of expectations, and the measures needed to defend the 2°C barrier. So we must assume that the temperature rise is inevitable. The world’s nations have failed to work together, so they now need to find their own ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on their territories.
Recognition of Climate Change
The result of two decades of scientific research has given us clear and obvious evidence that climate change is a reality and, worse, that it is accelerating. So why have we been so slow to face up to the unfolding changes? There are five key reasons:
- The message of scientists in the Western world was initially stifled by the politicians, often at the request of the hydrocarbon lobby. Even now, when changes have accelerated to the point where they are undeniable, the understanding of the magnitude of the problems and commitment to solve them still fall short. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 by the UN and the World Meteorological Organisation, has over time mounted an unanswerable case in a series of reports. The most recent, in 2007, stated categorically that the probability that climate change is the result of natural processes alone is less than 5 percent. However, the IPCC is a skeletal organisation employing only six people and reliant on the gratis contributions of thousands of scientists. It is also subject to political machinations. In 2002, it was revealed that ExxonMobil sent a memo to the Bush White House calling for the removal of Robert Watson, the atmosphere scientist who was the IPCC’s first chair. The Bush administration successfully lobbied for his removal. In addition, despite repeated assurances that it would not sponsor organisations that dispute the human source of climate change, it has now been revealed that ExxonMobil gave almost $1 million last year to that very cause.
- The different perspectives of the world’s developed and undeveloped economies – one which seeks to maintain their lifestyles and the other to achieve explosive growth, means that neither is motivated to focus on, or solve, the problem.
- The institutions that advise governments are often slow to recognise change and unable to cope with non-linear dynamics. This is a reflection of the general inertia of the collective consciousness of all human societies, particularly those in decline (e.g. those in the West). While those in expansion are better at coping with non-linear shifts, climate change has been a very low priority for the emerging nations.
- The rate of climate change has been matched by the rate of power shift from West to East. As noted earlier, this has been accompanied by a huge wave of industrialisation in China and the emerging world. It is perhaps because the scientists and politicians studying climate change are from developed countries that they have failed to foresee the effect that the new wave of industrialisation would have on the established world order.
- We did not fully comprehend the impact of industrialisation on the Earth’s ecosystem when the pace of change was slower and more manageable. The reality is that the changes now greatly exceed our understanding and modelling, and therefore we are struggling to keep up with accelerating environmental shifts that are creating new cycles of their own.
‘Too little, too late’ aptly describes the current collective global measures to prevent climate change. We must now find new ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on our civilisation as the current counter measures will not prevent or arrest the changes that are daily unfolding.
Our New Climate
Future temperature rises represent a major challenge to our civilisation. Projections of how our climate will develop are at best estimates, and, as has been repeatedly stressed, most models to date have consistently underestimated the rate of climate change. Although the speed of change may have escaped these projections, the predicted environmental effects at various average temperatures should be considered reasonably reliable. It is important to note that the average temperature is just that – an average – and that various latitudes will undergo different rates of temperature change, with the greatest occurring across the north polar latitudes, the equator and the South Pole.
Climate change is measured against the climate in 1800 at the start of the first industrial age. To understand the effects of the changes as the temperature increases, it helps to look at the effects in 1°C increments:
+ 1°C represents a 0.3°C rise from the current 0.7°C level, leading to an acceleration of all of the present climate-change trends: higher levels of greenhouse gases, melting ice, deforestation and desertification.
+2°C is the level that the Kyoto Protocol was designed to defend against. However, this rise is now seen to be inevitable, although with the time lag between temperature change and greenhouse-gas trends, it will probably be reached sooner than forecast. A world 2°C warmer will be blighted by equatorial deserts, although in Northern Europe increased warmth could improve agricultural outputs.
+3°C is the level at which the Alps will have lost all snow and glaciers, there will have been widespread wildlife extinctions on land and in the oceans, sea levels will be consistently higher than expected and coastal cities will suffer from storm surges.
+4°C will cause heatwaves in Northern Europe, the rainforests will be disappearing, and the melting of the Greenland ice cap, along with meltwater from the Antarctic, will cause sea levels to rise by 7-14 m, changing the geography of all landmass.
+ 5°C will lead to global crop failure, starvation and drought, accompanied by continuing catastrophic rising sea-levels.
Climate change will increasingly cause massive social stress on mankind by reducing the available productive land per capita to sustain the human population. Indeed, long before the temperature of the Earth increases by 2°c, the competition for basic food and water resources will have initiated new waves of conflict across the globe.
Cities will inevitably become much hotter. Buildings store their heat for longer than open land, and urban areas produce more heat as a by-product of energy use and population density. This means that built-up areas could be as much as 10°C hotter than their surroundings during the Summer, well up from the current 2-3°C differential. As more than 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities, this heating effect will be a constant reminder of the effects of climate change for all urbanites.
Climate change will have different ramifications for the various zones of the Earth. In turn, this will affect the commitment that each nation is prepared to make in addressing and mitigating its effects.
Europe will see an increased risk of inland flash flooding, rising sea levels, and flooding of low-level coastal areas and population centres. Most at risk are Venice, the Dutch lowlands, London and East Anglia. There will be reduced snow and glacial coverage of mountain areas, all but destroying the Winter sports industry. There will be an increase in crop productivity in Northern Europe and a decrease in the southern Mediterranean countries. The differential effects across Europe may exacerbate economic differences, creating a two-zone continent with a richer north and a poorer south.
The US will experience a loss of snow and glaciers in its western mountains. While some areas may see a 10 percent increase in crop yields as a result of greater rainfall, the west coast of California will increasingly suffer from a dry, hot climate, with heatwaves and fires. It is no coincidence that this state is a leading proponent of the development of new clean technologies. In the Gulf of Mexico, the trend towards more frequent, more powerful hurricanes will prove destructive to the regional economy. In Louisiana, 1 million hectares will be lost to flooding, and low areas in Florida will be extremely vulnerable to rising seas. Indeed, many of the US’s east coast cities are close to water and are therefore likely to suffer greatly from higher sea levels. Interestingly, where the federal government has ignored the Kyoto Protocol, a number of states have voluntarily capped emissions in response to their citizens’ desire to mitigate against climate change.
Tropical forests will be replaced with savannah, leading to a loss of biodiversity as thousands of species become extinct, particularly in the eastern Amazon. As a result of deforestation, the area will suffer considerable reduction in water supplies to agriculture and to its growing population. Brazil has built a large renewable-energy-based economy, which is unique in the modern world, but set against this it has failed to prevent illegal logging and burning.
Africa will face major climate-change challenges. Some 50 percent of the population is fed from dry-land farming, which is extremely vulnerable to reduced rainfall. Without dramatic changes towards irrigated agriculture, the continent faces a 50 percent reduction in grain production, which will inevitably lead to famine, and wars over food and water. These effects will be most prevalent in the tropical zone.
As already discussed, the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas will initially produce flash flooding as meltwater breaks its natural dams. However, it will later dramatically reduce the availability of fresh water, leading to widespread drought that will affect nearly half of the world’s population. The most conservative estimates predict severe disruption within twenty years, but like all such predictions they may prove to be underestimations.
Flooding resulting from rising sea levels and increasingly erratic and intense monsoons will impact on the many cities and population centres close to the coasts. Floods will lead to an increase in the incidence of diarrhoeal diseases, linking climate change through social stress to disease.
Desertification will also be a growing problem. This will significantly reduce the amount of available agricultural land, particularly around the Gobi Desert.
The Polar Regions
While the loss of ice will have significant effects, it will also reveal huge swathes of land in the north of Canada, the US, Russia and Greenland, which may support new settlements. This could reduce some of the friction generated by population expansion. However, it is unlikely that the nations involved will open their doors to the populations of the more crowded equatorial zones.
Man’s Giant Footprint
The sobering reality is that the Earth’s resources are being used approximately 25 percent faster than they can be replenished. The average individual ecological ‘footprint’ is 2.2 hectares per year, but this figure conceals quite dramatic differences. Taking two extremes, the average US footprint is 9 hectares, while that of Afghanistan is 0.04 hectares. Globally, our personal allowance is 1.8 hectares, so many of us are operating at a significant ecological deficit, which will only become worse as the population expands and average footprints increase in industrialising nations. (For ecological footprint by region of the world, see Figure 62.)
Even if we could stop all greenhouse-gas emissions instantly, due to their long lifespan, we would still have to cope with the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the failure of the world’s governments to formulate effective measures to stop emissions makes the situation worse. For the nations of the WCSE, the damage to their economies and infrastructure will exacerbate the decline of the US and increase the period that Europe spends in legacy and reformation. For the poorest of the emerging nations, which lack the resources to adapt, there will be wars over water and food. For the richer emerging market nations, like India and Brazil, there will be economic consequences that will drag on their growth, but they can be expected to adapt and still grow.
The effects of climate change on China could well catalyse greater aggression in its efforts to expand to empire status. Indeed, as it becomes the strongest nation on Earth, there is a risk that China will choose self-interest over global considerations, taking what it needs to fuel its expansion from nations that cannot defend themselves. It has yet to be seen if China will instead choose to join the other nations of the world in finding solutions to the enormous problems that collectively face the planet before the effect on our ecosystem is totally catastrophic.
Excerpted from Breaking the Code of History by David Murrin. Copyright © 2010 by David Murrin. All rights reserved.
Breaking the code of history
Lord Anthony Giddens on the politics of climate change
The politics of climate change in the US – TechKnow
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