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Issue #1752      October 12, 2016

Q&A on a heating planet

A guide for people engaged in the exchanges on a daily basis of climate change.

Insurance premiums against weather events like flood and bushfire have increased by 50-100 percent over the past decade.

1) “It’s not really happening. We’re just noticing extreme weather events more because of modern media coverage.”

Global warming is certainly happening. Any cursory glance at mean annual temperature graphs since the 1880s (when records began) shows a steady increase in the world’s annual temperatures, but there was a noticeable spike in the 1980’s which meant two thirds of the 0.8C degrees increase over the past 100 years has happened in the last three decades.

On this trend, 21st century global surface temperature will increase to 2.9C degrees on the lowest carbon emissions scenario and 6.4C degrees on the highest. In other words, we are facing an increase in global warming of at least 3C degrees (because we are not holding to minimal emissions) over the next 90 years, an extraordinary change.

Worst affected are the polar ice caps, especially, at present, the Arctic. Melting of ice into the oceans slows their warming down, but land temperatures continue to grow and impact upon surrounding seas. Oceans rise, currents are being altered, which affects weather patterns.

To use an old metaphor, we are living in a sealed greenhouse within which more and more people are breathing out CO2. The effect is to create denser humidity and more extreme storms, floods, cyclones, winds, heat and cold – yes cold, because increased humidity and cloud cover can produce extreme hail and snow falls as well …

Insurance premiums against weather events like flood and bushfire have increased by 50-100 percent over the past decade – way beyond the rate of inflation. This is because the number of “classifiable weather or bushfire disasters” in Australia grew from 25 in the 1980s to 54 in the ‘90s and 60 in the 2000s. Hard-nosed capitalists do not raise prices for nothing: increasing extreme weather events are a reality.

2) ”Global warming is a conspiracy of scientists, seeking to extract more money from government sources.”

Of all “sceptic” claims, this is the most pernicious, illogical, and implausibly, dishonest. We already know that fame and fortune are most likely to accrue to “scientists” – often deniers are not scientists but writers, shock jocks and industry commentators having no relevant qualifications whatsoever – who have “discovered” evidence to contradict global warming.

This is because the general public has an understandable resistance to the idea of human-induced climate change. It confronts comfortable habits of consumption and capitalist precepts of maximal exploitation, and thus job security. The media have a history of inflaming prejudice to inspire rabid reaction and accrue profit. It is they who are most likely to lie or distort, not the 95 percent of scientists world-wide who have devoted their lives to expanding human knowledge.

To suggest that tens of thousands of people from such differing academic communities as China, India, Europe, the USA and Australia, from as widely varied sources as geographers, atmospheric scientists, marine biologists, biogeochemists, physicists, meteorologists and applied mathematicians to name a few, have all joined together in some kind of plot to extract money from their respective governments, beggars belief.

The supposed “proof” of a conspiracy, some hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia, and jumped upon as “evidence of a cover up” by such noted News Ltd luminaries as Andrew Bolt, have simply been misinterpreted and beat up to try and undermine the overwhelming weight of real evidence.

A 2008 Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Australians believed that human-induced climate change was real. A survey of 3,146 earth scientists conducted by Doran, found that 82 percent of them held human-induced climate change was real. Of these, furthermore, the specialist “climatologists”, that is, those scientists who had specifically published, undergone peer review, and established their detailed knowledge of the science, 97 percent said that human-induced climate change was real. In other words, the more people know, the more detailed their appreciation of the facts, the more certain they are of global warming.

3) “Climate change is not new. It has happened many times before in the Earth’s history. It is natural.”

While there have been fluctuations in Earth temperature over the past 2,000 years (the so-called “mini-Ice Age” of the late mediaeval period), none of them have been so abrupt or severe as those being experienced in the 20th century and now – we are currently living through the hottest decades in world history.

“Pre-history” is another matter. Over the past 2 billion years the Earth has undergone its own process of development. It began as a molten mass but its distance from the Sun allowed cooling, which in turn formed an “atmosphere” of various liquids and gases. Once it had established its climate, four major factors continued to naturally influence the future of the planet:

Variations in the Earth’s orbit: This “tilt of the axis” ranges from 22.5C degrees to 24.5C degrees. Currently the Earth’s tilt is 23.5C degrees, exactly midway, but heading for the further lean. When the world’s tilt is smaller, the temperatures of the seasons are milder, when it is higher, they become more extreme. The cycle takes 26,000 years overall. That is, in 13,000 years time, our summers will become hotter and our winters colder. The problem is everything is becoming much hotter, NOW.

Volcanic eruptions: At one stage in Earth’s pre-history, its crust was thinner and volcanic activity was rife. The effect was to produce a greater land mass and to cool the atmosphere for, despite the heat of exploding magma and gas, the sulphur dioxide of volcanoes mixed with the stratosphere to cloud the Earth’s surface and limit the impact of the Sun’s rays. In turn, when volcanic activity decreased and the clouds cleared, the Earth warmed up. This process took millions of years to happen.

Variations in solar output: Periodically sunspots and storms alter the amount of energy coming from the Sun. Climate change deniers have sometimes argued that such events provide a “natural” explanation of global warming. The problem is, that the overall direction of the Sun’s energy is in decline and that the basic impact of more frequent sunspots on the Sun is to reflect cooler temperatures, while the Earth is getting hotter. Generally, the hypothesis of the Sun “naturally” causing global warming has been scientifically debunked.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide variation: The volume of carbon dioxide has indeed varied throughout the Earth’s prehistory, although evidence suggests that in the distant past, this has been more of a symptom than a cause. When the Earth’s temperature has varied due to factors previously mentioned, the oceans stored more C02 when colder, and released more as temperatures rose. Again, this “natural” process occurred over hundreds of thousands of years ... the situation is different now.

Now, human-produced carbon dioxide is driving the heating of the Earth, not the reverse. And it is happening at an ever faster rate, faster than anything in history or pre-history. By warming the oceans and clearing forests, humanity is making the “natural” task of absorbing C02 difficult, if not impossible.

Climate scientists are not stupid. The natural variations mentioned here, and many others, as many as might rationally be considered to have an effect on the Earth’s climate, are factored in to computerised models of present and future climatic projections, such as those produced by NASA. The one constant, irrefutable factor that dominates these projections is the growing presence of human-caused carbon dioxide, accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere. There is no escaping it: it is causing the heating of our globe.

4) “Carbon dioxide is a weightless gas. It is pointless to try and arrest it.”

Apparently both Tony Abbott and commercial radio commentator Alan Jones have been caught out on this point. Of course it is utterly false. Carbon dioxide is a gas, and relatively light. But it has a weight, and that weight is caught in increasing amounts in the Earth’s atmosphere.

C02, compared to other major gases such as nitrogen and oxygen, is a relatively small component of the total atmosphere. However, its role in moderating the world’s temperature is crucial. It is one of the few gases that captures heat, and without it, the Earth would have frozen over eons ago. But over the past 100 years, since industrialisation, the relative volume of C02 has increased from .028% to .039%, an overall increase in CO2’s share of 70%.

The “natural” ecosystem deals with 255 billion tonnes of C02 per year, but industrialisation has added a further 5.5 billion tonnes (and growing) from burning fossil fuels every year, and this has tipped the balance above the capacity of the environment to absorb. Thus extra carbon dioxide is accumulating around us every day.

According to the Garnaut Climate Change Review the average Australian emits 28.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which is twice the OECD average and four times the global average. This is largely because of our dependence on coal-fired energy sources and a need to consume copious amounts of fossil-fuel power for mining, manufacture, heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, entertainment and transportation.

5) “Why should Australia stick its neck out? The rest of the world is doing nothing.”

It’s true that, today, China is the world’s biggest manufacturer, and its biggest polluter, producing some 17 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. On the other hand, the Chinese response to issues around climate change has been swift and meaningful.

At Copenhagen they tabled plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-50 percent and increase forest cover an extra 40 million hectares by 2020. Also, renewable power sources would take up 15 percent of energy generation by the same year (Australia’s now is 9 percent).

China once used 37 million barrels of crude oil to manufacture plastic bags – they are now universally banned. They have also committed to the elimination of incandescent light bulbs, and being the producer of 70 percent of the world’s light bulbs, this process is virtually guaranteed.

China is also no slouch when it comes to manufacturing green technologies and now produces more solar panels and wind turbines than any other country. China leads the world in voltaic cell research and production. The Chinese government recently committed US$216 billion in subsidies to further develop the nation’s green technology sector. In 2009 China spent twice as much as the US to fund so-called “green markets”, which was close to 50 percent of world expenditures overall. China’s per capita CO2 emissions, incidentally, are currently 6 tonnes.

Countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary, Belarus and Britain (among many others) have drastically reduced their per capita emissions over the past decade while Australian emissions have continued to increase.

6) “So what?”

Some deniers argue that climate change, whether natural or human-induced, will happen anyway. It is unstoppable, so why bother trying. We could all do with less polar ice (the Antarctic will be easier to mine!) and a few less glaciers. With the changing weather patterns, we might even be able to plant crops in the desert.

Again, a shallow and unscientific analysis. We most certainly will not be able to “cherry-pick” the plethora of changes that will occur with global warming. Many species will not survive the rapid acceleration of heat. It is not just a question of relocating several million people when the oceans rise. If the ocean becomes acidic, most current species dependent on it will die. It is entirely possible that we will end up with a dead planet in the not-very-distant future.

It is no longer, really, a question of whether global warming is happening, it is a question of how much Planet Earth can stand. Our future, the future of the globe, is too important to allow privateer corporate barons to exploit on a rampaging, cut-throat basis, without regard to the total ecology. Now, more than ever, the people of the world, the 99 percent if you will, must grasp the ownership of the Earth’s major resources in order to save it!

“Self regulation”, whether in the media, advertising or problem gambling, simply does not work. “Carbon trading schemes”, taxes and regulation are only half-baked measures designed to make capitalism behave like a good citizen – it never does. The production, use and distribution of energy is too important to be left in the hands of profit-motivated cowboys. It is a “commanding heights” industry!

This is the very worst time for governments to be privatising electricity. Working people must assert and extend their management over such vital resources. The future of Spaceship Earth demands it.

These and other subjects of discussion on this urgent issue are available in the excellent CPA booklet Hot Earth, available from the Party Bookshop.

Next article – Myanmar – Hidden strengths, hidden struggles

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