Climate Change Status Update

A melting iceberg from the South Sawyer Glacier in the Tracy Arm Fjord, near Juneau, Alaska – Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

A few days after President Obama announced his climate change initiatives, I was catching up on my NYRB back issues and happened across an article that underscored the importance of what Obama is doing.

Bill McKibben has been a passionate and persistent voice on the urgency of addressing the problem, and offered a piece in the May 9 edition that reminds us just how much impact there has already been, and how important it is that we stop making things worse.  It starts this way:

Some Like It Hot!

And the heat goes on. In the last few weeks, new data from the CryoSat satellite system have shown that there’s only one fifth as much sea ice in the Arctic as there was in 1980. New data from the carbon dioxide monitors on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii showed the second-greatest annual leap in atmospheric CO2 ever recorded. A new study of temperature records dating back 11,000 years showed that the planet is currently heating up fifty times faster than at any point during human civilization. New data from the Arctic showed that over the last thirty years vegetation zones have moved seven degrees latitude further north. In other words, the planet continues to show the effects of the early stages of global warming, and those effects are very large. If the one-degree Celsius rise in temperature observed so far is enough to melt the Arctic, we have to ask what further increases will bring.

We will, sadly, find out. At this point, almost all observers agree that because of the inertia in our political and economic systems, it would take an all-out effort to hold temperature increases below two degrees Celsius, the red line that the international community drew at Copenhagen in 2009. And there is no sign of that all-out effort; instead, there’s a constant push to drill and frack and mine for more oil and gas and coal. Instead, also in the last few weeks, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson announced that the company would double the acreage it is currently exploring looking for new oil.

Meanwhile, a new oil find in California was reported to be four times larger than the new oil patch in North Dakota, which was itself compared to Saudi Arabia. And that’s just in the US—in Australia, a new find of shale oil in the Ackaringa Basin was estimated to be even larger than the tar sands of Canada, with estimated recoverable reserves worth as much as $20 trillion.

The mighty political power of the fossil fuel industry has so far been enough to obliterate reason—we’re now a quarter-century past the day when NASA scientist James Hansen first announced in Congress that it was “time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” Those twenty-five years have seen no real climate legislation passed by our Congress. A few countries—notably Germany, which is now supplying 22 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources, and headed for more than 40 percent within a decade—have made good-faith efforts. But in most places the fossil fuel industry has prevailed, both by funding disinformation campaigns and by purchasing the affections of enough legislators to make sure the status quo persists. One sounds like a broken record for saying this, but so far democratic systems (and pretty much every other kind of system) have proven no match.