By Neville Sweijd, Benguela Environment Fisheries Interaction Training Programme (BENEFIT)
I’m going to predict that historians will note that Hurricane Katrina in July 2005 was a turning point in the history of humankind. While this weather anomaly was not the biggest nor the most destructive of its kind, it did smash into the consciousness of the American public and government and has spurned a new popular understanding of the climate-crisis issue.
Irritating it may be, but without buy-in from the world’s biggest polluter and most powerful economy and government, the issue simply cannot be effectively addressed. We have known for decades that the earth’s climate is changing, caused chiefly by human industrial activity on a cumulative scale that has affected the delicate chemistry and equilibrium of the planet’s biosphere. What has changed is that people are becoming worried.
Yet many are still asking: “Is this a real problem?” “Is it really going to be as bad as we are told?” In short, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Climate change is a real threat. Life on this planet as we know it will not be able to thrive; liveable habitat will be substantially reduced; and massive impacts on and disruption of society are all but inevitable. So, be afraid, be very afraid – and do something about it. Don’t just be a spectator!
First, however, we need a little perspective. Consider the chart (I’ll guide you through it). The climate on this planet has been highly variable in the history of the earth, and palaeoclimatologists have reconstructed a record of the earth’s temperature and the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere (using frozen samples of atmospheric gases in ice cores). This record shows that the earth was once very much warmer than it is now and that it slowly cooled off and entered an extended period of fluctuation between extremes of ice ages and moderate climates. Let’s examine it (refer to the numbers in the circles on the chart):
1. Between about 60 and three million years ago (mya) the earth was tropical at the poles and then cooled down toward the range of temperatures with which we are familiar.
2. Here the chart scale changes. Moving to the right of the line gives us a higher resolution view of the temperature.
3. The period from three mya and the present is characterised by fluctuations (with ever-increasing amplitude) between glacial periods (ice ages) and inter-glacial periods (warm periods). These are caused by complex natural cycles related to the earth’s orbit and tilt relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun and which are also influenced by continental drift.
4. This is the current era, enlarged on the second panel.
5. This is the plot of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere over the period shown.
6. This is a plot of the average temperature over the period shown.
7. This is the last inter-glacial warm period before the present one. Humans did exist then, but the population was very small relative to the modern era.
8. This is the last ice age, which lasted around 75 000 years.
9. This period is the modern era when all of human civilisation has occurred. This is from the period before the bible until today. All human trials and tribulations and all of history as we have it recorded took place in this current warm period, which has lasted some 10 000 years. In blue is the trace of the temperature and in red is the trace of the concentration of CO2.
10. The concentration of CO2 has never been higher than 300 parts per million (ppm) for the entire period of the record, including during the previous interglacial period. Today the concentration is sitting at 380 ppm, up from around 260 ppm in 1900.
This information tells us two things: Firstly, that climate change is not new to the planet and that change is inevitable, if not overdue anyway. We are living in an unusually long interglacial period and should be heading toward an ice-age if the temperature record holds true. What’s threatening is that humans and modern human society have never really existed outside this very narrow and relatively unusual range of moderate temperatures that we are used to. Secondly, due to our modern industrial lifestyle, CO2 concentrations have reached completely unprecedented levels. It is clear that this is incubating the earth to an extent that the atmosphere’s chemistry is affected and the earth’s temperature is rising. If the current trends are allowed to continue, we will double the concentration of CO2 inside of 50 years. The temperature will follow and average temperatures will rise, although the rates will vary in different locations (the poles warming quicker).
The cause is the massive post WWII human population explosion that has resulted in unprecedented burning of organic fuel (fossil fuels which contain naturally sequestered CO2 in the form of oil and coal). This has resulted in increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The data are strong – we know exactly who is producing the most emissions, we know from what source they come and we can predict the increase in industrial activity as a correlate of economic growth.
It is expected that China and India are going to overtake the USA as the main polluters and note that the global demand for fossil fuels has never been greater. Namibia has just become a viable oil-producing nation on the back of inflated oil prices and Angola is set to double its output. We know that we have experienced the hottest years on record in the last decade and it is predicted that this trend will continue. We have already witnessed unprecedented weather anomalies with devastating effects and we know that the frozen masses on the planet are melting as never witnessed before.
You will hear talk of tipping points – points of no return where the impact of warming has the effect of exacerbating the problem so that the effect ‘snowballs’ (if you’ll excuse the irony) and cannot be reversed. One of these is the frozen tundra which, if allowed to melt, will release such a huge ‘megafart’ of CO2 (currently sequestered in the frozen peat) that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would effectively double – thereby abruptly doubling the magnitude of the problem. There are several other examples, all of which are showing signs of immanent catastrophe.
And if all this actually does happen? Then what? The consequences are very scary and this is what they’ll be: sea levels will rise and flood all low-lying areas, displacing millions of people and eliminating some of the most populous coastal cities. Habitats will be destroyed, biodiversity will be devastated, emerging diseases will spread and old ones will re-appear where they had been eliminated, floods and droughts will occur, soil will dry out, wildfires will rage and conflict over subsequently diminishing resources will erupt. The sea will acidify and cause the collapse of marine ecosystems. Sound familiar? Just read the papers – biblical-scale natural catastrophe is already upon us, yet we seem hesitant to act. In my view this is the ‘Day After Tomorrow’ happening in slow-motion before our very eyes and if we weren’t only human, we should all be having sleepless nights.
The process of climate change and global warming is incremental (although some predict there will be massive and abrupt change) and the problem seems too huge for any one individual to engage. But this is changing. Although some argue that it is already too late, we have to see it as a collective problem. Each of us has a responsibility to humanity and to the planet. Each of us can become carbon neutral. Each of us has a vote and this really is the time to use it. Each of us must campaign for the earth and ensure that our homes, neighbourhoods, suburbs, towns and cities – councillors and parliamentarians – are aware and are acting on this issue. The stakes are simply too high to stand on ceremony or be coy about. Namibia has a wealth of alternative energy resources at its disposal – the abundant sun and wind being two that are starting to receive more attention.
As I write this article, I note that the recently published Stern Report seems to have had a big impact. Sir Nicholas Stern, a British Peer who was commissioned by the Blair government to investigate the potential economic effects of global warming, states that it would be cheaper for governments to deal with the problem proactively than it would be to deal with it after the damage is done. Perhaps this and the recent Democratic Party gains in the US will cause a shift in US policy on the climate crisis. We are told that President Bush will announce caps of CO2 emissions and that talks on a Post-Kyoto Protocol Agreement (this is the global carbon-emission protocol famously not signed by the USA and Australia) are being considered.
From a scientific point of view we can’t claim to know it all either. There are very many variables, such as what the effect of the predicted increased clouding will be. Perhaps it will offset the warming by reflecting more sunlight. Perhaps it will cause even greater incubation. The truth is we don’t know for sure what will happen – but that begs the question: should we wait and see if it turns out okay? Or should we act based on what we already know. Remember that everything that you hold dear is at stake… So join the war on carbon today!
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.