A man watches the Thomas Fire in the hills above Carpinteria, California, December 11, 2017. The Thomas Fire in California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties has consumed more than 230,000 acres over the past week making it the fifth largest fire in the state’s history. (Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” lawyer David Buckel wrote in the email sent to The New York Times just before he performed an act of self-immolation at a park in Brooklyn recently. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Nationally known for his brilliant work championing gay rights, Buckel had been distressed by what was happening to the planet for years and was also heavily involved in environmental causes. In his suicide note to the Times, Buckel discussed how challenging it was to change things for the better in the world, even with so many people working so strenuously to do so and mentioned how donating to organizations was not enough.
Deciding to bring his life to an end by using fossil fuels for self-immolation to make his point, Buckel’s last note read, “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.”
To the average person who understands anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), Buckel’s act might seem extreme. It is extreme … but within the context of how truly far along the planet already is (for example, for years now Earth has been seeing 150-200 species go extinct every single day, and half of all of the planet’s marine life has been lost since just 1970), it becomes less so.
The rate of underwater melting around the Antarctic is doubling every 20 years, and is on a pace that will see it soon eclipse melting in Greenland to become the single largest source of sea-level rise on Earth, according to a recently published study in Nature Geoscience. This amount of sub-sea melting of the ice continent is far greater than what was previously known, and the ice there is retreating at a rate five times the historical average. This is raising fears of the specter of a worst-case sea level riseof around 10 feet by 2100.
This is one reason why, after another deadly cyclone struck the island group this month, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that ACD is now brining “almost constant” extreme weather and is literally a threat to the survival of the island nation. Bainimarama told the BBC that his country had entered a “frightening new era” of extreme weather that needed to be confronted.
Things are progressing so fast now with ACD impacts that more than one scientist I’ve been talking with over the years has shifted from being vehemently anti-geoengineering to either giving it renewed attention, or even outright supporting it. This is, to me, deeply troubling.
Scientists in several developing countries are now actively studying ways to dim sunshine and slow planetary warming via man-made chemical sunshade, as they see this as less risky than unchecked increases in global temperatures in the absence of global climate action.
Reuters reported that 12 scholars from countries including China, Thailand, Brazil, Bangladesh, India and Ethiopia published an article in the journal Nature recently, stating that since the poor are the most vulnerable to ACD, “Developing countries must lead on solar geo-engineering research.”
“The technique is controversial, and rightly so,” the scholars wrote of the technique, which involves spraying clouds with reflective sulphur particles high in the atmosphere. “It is too early to know what its effects would be: it could be very helpful or very harmful,” they wrote. The same article cited a panel of UN climate experts who called solar geo-engineering “economically, socially and institutionally infeasible.”
At the current trajectory of emissions and global growth, Earth is on course to see a minimum warming of 3 degrees Celsius (3°C), or far more, above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, and the goal of keeping temperature increases “well below” the 2°C as per the 2015 Paris Agreement among nearly 200 countries currently looks unfeasible.
While self-immolation and geo-engineering are extreme, this month’s survey of the planet provides the context within which these radical phenomena are taking place.
Due to lack of moisture, a recently published study shows that half of Alberta, Canada’s boreal forests could disappear due to ACD and fires by 2100. The study warned that it’s possible that even 75 percent of the forest could disappear if conditions become even more extreme. What is particularly worrisome about this is the fact that the boreal forests store massive amounts of carbon, so as they disappear, that carbon is also released into the atmosphere.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Sahara Desert is expanding, thanks in part to ACD, according to another report. The boundaries of this massive desert have grown by 10 percent in the last century, affecting farming terrain near its southern boundary in Sudan and Chad, places already struggling with famine and food scarcity.
Looking a little further south, rainforests, savannahs and woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa have released approximately 2.6 billion tons of CO2 over the last seven years, according to a recent study. The leading causes of this are ACD, deforestation, wildfires and droughts. This is disconcerting because Africa contains one-third of the planet’s tropical rainforests.
Other direct impacts on human health from ACD this month are clear. A recent report showed how, as the planet continues to warm, ticks are thriving in more places than ever, which makes Lyme disease the first epidemic of ACD.
Meanwhile, ACD’s impacts on animals continue to be prevalent.
A recently published study showed that seabirds are not adapting adequately enough to climate shifts brought about by ACD. As rising temperatures are causing the birds’ food sources like insects, vegetation and plankton to appear earlier each year, the bird populations are not able to sync up their breeding and nesting patters in order to adapt to these changes.
Meanwhile, extreme weather’s economic toll is making itself known in the US, which experienced three different weather disasters in just the first three months of this year, each with more than a billion-dollar price tag, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data.
The pace of melting ice at or near the poles continues to amaze scientists.
A recently published study showed that the Greenland Ice Sheet is seeing its melting nearly double over just the last century. This also means it is melting at its fastest rate in at least the last 4,000 years.
In the US, Western Alaska’s sea ice is at the lowest extent it has been since record keeping began. Rick Thoman, a weather service climate scientist, told the Anchorage Daily News that when looking at the long-term records of coastal sea ice from satellite data, whaler’s logs and Danish and Norwegian ship records, “Nothing even comes close” to how little sea ice this February and March have just witnessed in that region.
On the sea level increase front, a recently published NOAA report showed that high-tide flooding could literally be happening “every other day” by the end of this century, and showed that already, the frequency that high-tide flooding is occurring has already doubled along the East Coast of the US in just the last 15 years.
Another recent report showed how the state of California is facing a massive threat from sea level rise, and indicates that previous flood hazard maps had underestimated the area of land at risk to rising seas by up to 90 percent. The San Francisco Bay Area is going to be particularly hard hit.
Meanwhile, drought across the US continues to persist, and in some places, worsen, as ACD advances.
By early April, a stretch of the Rio Grande River in New Mexico had already dried up, well in advance of summer. Due primarily to record low snowpack, that the river has started to dry up this early in the year is nearly unprecedented.
In Minnesota, another report has warned that ACD will turn Boundary Waters Wilderness Region into “a barren grassland” if human carbon emissions stay the same. As temperatures in that area continue to increase, lush forests are turning into grasslands there, and the waters will disappear with the trees.
A new early-warning satellite system has provided a warning for several countries that are at risk of having their reservoirs shrink from drought to the point that their taps could run completely dry. While Cape Town, South Africa, has featured prominently in the news with its “Day Zero” warning of when the city will run out of water, now countries including India, Iraq, Morocco and Spain could also be seeing “day zero” type water crises as their water reservoirs dry up. For example, Morocco’s second-largest reservoir has already shrunk 60 percent in three years due to recurring drought, and its water level is the lowest it has been in a decade. Iraq’s Mosul Dam reservoir has seen a long decline and is now down 60 percent from its peak, due to ACD-fueled drought, coupled with demand from Turkish hydropower projects upstream and increasing water demand downstream.
Meanwhile, as the oceans continue to warm and coral bleaching events become more common, another report shows that fish populations along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are collapsing in the wake of ongoing coral bleaching events. Not surprisingly, many of the fish species that live among the coral are dropping off as the corals are wiped out by the bleaching events.
To make matters worse, another recently published study shows that marine heatwaves are increasing in both frequency and duration at an accelerated rate in many parts of the planet, particularly so in Australian waters. The study showed that the number of oceanic heatwave days per year has increased a staggering 54 percent globally, as oceans have absorbed 93 percent of atmospheric heat from ACD.
A recently released book by Heather Hansen shows how the US — and much of the rest of the planet — is entering an era of mega-fire, given ACD-fueled droughts and wildfires, along with human encroachment and deforestation.
It has been long known that ACD is amping up the frequency and intensity of wildfires, along with lengthening wildfire seasons, and scientists continue to addressthese facts.
As though to underscore these points, at the time of writing, forecasters in the US began sounding warnings of dangerous, life-threatening wildfire conditions across parts of the southwest and southern plains whilst firefighters in Oklahoma fought blazes that had already killed two people.
The Associated Press reported that weather conditions in drought-stricken areas of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas are creating “dangerous fire conditions,” the likes of which have not been seen in at least a decade.
Amidst a large number of scientific studies recently published, limiting global warming to 2°C will not prevent destructive and deadly ACD impacts as so many people believed it would. Two degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial baseline temperatures, which was long held as the temperature limit for maintaining a safe and healthy planet, is no longer the case. Just that much of a temperature increase is now understood to bring mass displacement of humans from rising seas, wide-scale shortages of food and water across the globe, and accelerated losses of animal and plant species — both of which are already plummeting since we are well into the planet’s Sixth Mass Extinction.
Meanwhile, during the month of March, high temperature records across Asia fell like dominoes. Pakistan saw 114°F, a high temperature never seen so early in the season. Other records included 110° in Iraq, 104° in Qatar, 104° in Turkmenistan, 99° in Uzbekistan and 96° in Tajikistan.
Denial and Reality
The active ACD denialists of the Trump administration have been busy these last few weeks.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led by fossil-fuel industry hack Scott Pruitt, prepares to roll back laws that required automobiles to be cleaner and more fuel efficient.
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s EPA directed staffers to use talking points designed to downplay the role humans play in ACD. The points literally mimic Pruitt’s own public statements, as he has consistently denied the human role in the crisis from day one.
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, another ACD denialist and pro-fossil fuel hack, recently had all National Park Service officials delete every single mention of humans’ role in ACD from a report on sea level rise and storm surge.
All of this is almost laughably contradicted by reality.
Four oil giants (Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell) recently acknowledged the global consensus about the reality of ACD (and humans’ role in it) to a federal judge.
The country of New Zealand recently announced the cessation of all future offshore oil and gas exploration permits, a move that took oil companies by surprise but underscored how serious the country is about shifting away from fossil fuels.
This is a good thing, given that a recent report showed the world to be on track to reach 1.5°C warming within a decade from now. Hitting that temperature increase marker means that the planet will have already exceeded one of the key goals in the 2015 Paris climate agreements.
Finally for this month, a recently released study showed that the Gulf Stream current is now the weakest it has been for 1,600 years. The current, known scientifically as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), carries warm water towards the North Pole, where it then cools and sinks, then flows back southwards. ACD is slowing down the cooling of the water as warmer temperatures melt the Greenland ice sheet, which floods the area with less dense freshwater, which further weakens the AMOC.
The report warns that the current could be less stable than previously understood. This is particularly worrisome, given that the AMOC has historically caused dramatic changes in the global climate system.
It was previously believed that a slowing down of the AMOC would take centuries to occur. A collapse of the AMOC could cause Western Europe to experience far more extreme winters, sea level rise along the US eastern seaboard to increase rapidly, and disrupted rainfall across the tropics.
“I think we’re close to a tipping point,” climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress. Mann called the slowing down of the AMOC as being “without precedent” in more than a millennium, and added, “It’s happening about a century ahead of schedule relative to what the models predict.”
Reacting to this study, senior scientists warned the Guardian that a disruption to the AMOC must be avoided “at all costs.”
Meanwhile, business as usual in harvesting and burning fossil fuels around the planet continues apace throughout the vast majority of countries, particularly within the US.