Climate Change: Have We Reached the Point of No Return?

Yves here. This Real News Network segment provides a sobering assessment of the speed of climate change and species die-offs.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Examples of deadly extreme weather patterns are alarming. Droughts, killer heat waves, extended wildfires, drastically melting glaciers, typhoons, and extreme rainfalls leading to floods and landslides as well as sea level rises and mass die-off of animals all make it rather clear. For scientists, the debate has been long over. Climate change is here and these extreme weather events are the kinds of things we can expect more of in the future. But have we reached the point of no return? Is this extreme weather the new normal?

To discuss all of this I’m joined by a two-member panel, Dahr Jamail and Guy McPherson. Dahr Jamail is a staff reporter with TruthOut. He currently focuses on the environment and climate change. And Guy McPherson is Professor Emeritus of conservation biology at the University of Arizona. Thank you both for joining us today.


PERIES: Let me start with you. The recent James Hansen report surpasses all previous predictions related to sea level rises. Why is that happening?

JAMAIL: It’s because a phenomena is occurring called abrupt climate change, and it’s actually something I started to really become acutely aware of back in 2013, and became aware of Dr. McPherson and his work and conducted a long interview with him, and wrote a long article for called Are we already off the climate precipice?. And you read the article and the answer is clear, yes.

And the fact is, when we look at, connect all the dots, which Dr. McPherson has done and has been doing for quite a number of years now, that it shows when we look at the pattern of for example the IPCC worst case predictions of, whether it be temperature increases or sea level rise, or CO2 in the atmosphere, the reality continues to dramatically outpace the worst case scenarios. And so the worst case scenarios in the modeling keep being amended with more new data coming in, and the reality is that the reality keeps outpacing it to the extent that even the modeling can’t even keep up. And we’re seeing things happening on such a fast pace now regarding extreme weather events, 1,000-year floods turning into 100-year floods turning into 10-year floods. Same with fires and temperature increase records, and all of this is happening so quickly and dramatically that there’s no question that this has been going on for years now.

And I think, to cut to the chase, to kind of put this out there from the start, I think that any ideas of changing the situation are a pipe dream and don’t really show an extent of the knowledge of how far along we already are. And we’re in a position now where it’s kind of brace for impact.

PERIES: Guy, many experts in your field of evolutionary biology say we are entering a period of sixth great extinction. And you go as far as saying that humans could be among those species going extinct in the near term. What is the evidence, and why are the drivers that might bring this about, what are the drivers that might bring this about?

GUY MCPHERSON, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA: Well, one of the drivers is abrupt climate change. We have passed the history that we’ve all learned about, that of relatively slow, linear climate change, and we’ve entered an abrupt stage of climate change, which earth has experienced many times in the past.

With respect to the sixth great extinction, it’s pretty clear that the scientific community is conservative as usual, especially the academic science community. When a paper in Science Advances, just within the last couple of months, finally concludes we’re in the midst of the sixth great extinction, well, if you go back five years to a United Nations report five years ago this month the United Nations concludes in that report that we’re driving to extinction 150 to 200 species a day. Every day. So we’ve known based on conservative sources that we’re in the midst of a mass extinction event. And finally the scientific community and the academic community are beginning to catch up.

The rate of evolution via natural selection trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000 according to a paper in the [August 2013] issue of [inaud.]. And there’s been, there have been several papers that have come out since then pointing out that large-bodied organisms, large-bodied mammals such as ourselves are not going to escape. And even widely-distributed organisms, as reported last week in [inaud.] journal literature, are unlikely to evade just because they’re largely distributed.

So we’ve thought for a long time that we’ve had some things going for us. We’re really clever and we’re widely distributed. We’re capable of living in a variety of habitats. None of that seems to matter with respect to the data on conservation of species and abrupt climate change.

PERIES: And what do you think are the contributing factors?

MCPHERSON: Well, climate change is triggered by carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. And in the past there has been a wobble in the earth that has contributed slight warming. And then there’s been carbon dioxide released from the ocean. The ocean is a big battery. It stores heat and it stores carbon dioxide. Ninety percent of the warming in paleoecological events have come–90 percent of the warming has come after that carbon dioxide is released from the ocean. Well, in our case we started bringing fossil fuels, and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that carbon dioxide has served as a blanket to hold the incoming heat down close to the earth. And as a consequence we’ve triggered a bunch of self-reinforcing feedback loops, many of which are irreversible, including methane release from the arctic, for example, and also methane from the permafrost. As permafrost degrades it breaks down into methane.

So we’ve gone beyond carbon dioxide being a major contributor. There’s also water vapor in the atmosphere, especially in the [inaud.]sphere, and methane that are being released as well. So we’ve gone beyond the point of human consumption of fossil fuels triggering this event, and have now entered a stage of abrupt climate change the likes of which our species has never seen.

PERIES: And Dahr, give us a sense of what’s happening in the arctic that is crucial to what’s going on at the moment.

JAMAIL: Well, I think at this point the general public’s probably been provided with this information enough times. I’ll just gloss over it. The arctic sea ice, one of the important roles it plays is it’s a reflector of solar radiation. When the white literally causes the solar radiation to bounce off it and go back out into space, keeping a lot of that heat from being absorbed into the water up there. As it melts, as it loses both volume and reach, it does that less so. And so it opens up the Arctic Ocean to absorbing that much more solar radiation, and it’s one of the runaway feedback loops that Dr. McPherson talks about where the sea ice melts, it allows more radiation to be absorbed. The water warms up, the sea ice melts even faster, et cetera et cetera et cetera.

And so that’s happening. And that is basically one of the prime drivers, and there’s been scientific reports come out on this in the last year as well, showing that the weather impacts and the contribution that the sea ice loss is having on extreme weather events like the two dramatically frigid winters in the Northeast, and also factoring in with what’s happening across the Atlantic and even impacting Western Europe now and the UK, that’s all tied in with the loss of the sea ice. And it’s just speeding up the effects of climate disruption abruptly around the globe.

And as Dr. McPherson talked about earlier, we could literally by the end of, the latter end of this summer, experience the first time since humans have been on the planet where we have, even if it’s just a few days, but an ice-free arctic at the end of the summer. And if it doesn’t happen this summer the odds are even higher that it’s going to happen next summer. It’s imminent at this point. We’re going to see it some time in the next two, maximum three years. And once that starts happening, each year it’s going to increase in the time that it’s ice-free from maybe one week to two weeks to three weeks, and eventually get into the months, at which point we see what’s happening now.

We’re going to wish that things were this, happening at this level and this pace and this intensity. Things are going to really go off the charts as far as how much weather systems get completely destabilized. We’re going to see a dramatic increase in droughts, floods, just massive vacillations in the weather, hence why I tend to call it climate disruption instead of just climate change. Because literally the climate’s kind of going into a fibrillation trying to stabilize itself and it’s not going to be able to. Not to something that we’ve–not to the planet that we grew up on, so to speak, when we don’t have an arctic ice cap. Greenland is melting at record paces. Another report that I wrote about, that came out a couple of months ago, showed–estimated that by 2100 all glaciers on the North American continent could likely be gone by 2100. The estimate was between 70 and 99 percent, I believe. And they said realistically it’s probably going to be closer to 99 percent.

So think about that, considering that the single largest ice sheet on the planet up in the Yukon Territories, the single largest ice sheet outside of the poles, that means that entire ice sheet would be gone. So just think about it, for those of us living in states where there are glaciers, and try to imagine that landscape without any glaciers at all. And all of this is of course tied in with what’s happening in the arctic, just to give you an idea.

PERIES: Dahr, there seems to be a real disconnect in terms of the U.S. government policy and the urgency of the problem, and the contribution of the fossil fuels to all of this. Can you comment on President Obama’s most recent announcements and whether it’s going to have any effect on what you’re describing today?

JAMAIL: Well, it’s always follow the money in journalism. You know that, I know that. I think some of the more informed viewers, they’ve probably been aware of that for a long time. It’s always follow the money, and never could that be more true but in politics on the national level in this country, where you look at Obama’s backers and you look at the power of the fossil fuel lobby in this country, they are what created and has funded and is funding and will continue to fund the so-called denial movement. All of the links are there. It’s black and white, it’s not opinion. The Koch brothers money, Exxon money, setting up those think tanks back in the ’50s that developed into the climate denial movement. It’s all there in black and white.

Naomi Oreskes has written about this very, very accurately and at length in Merchants of Doubt and some of her more recent articles and books as well, as have numerous other people and journalists. And so when we look at Obama’s statements about well, I’m going to do this for climate disruption or whatever. I mean, it’s literally rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s propaganda. Because on the one hand he’s saying these things that a completely uninformed news consumer would hear and say oh yeah, it appears as though Obama is doing something, while he’s letting Shell start drilling in the arctic, while he’s opening up the entire Atlantic seaboard to offshore drilling. While he’s letting the fracking industry across the country just run rampant across everywhere in the U.S., literally where there’s anything to frack at this point. While he’s not being a leader in any sense.

And yet it’s amazing to me that even on the broader left there’s still this idea that somehow there can be reform, or somehow there can be political pressure generated to cause him to do the right thing. And that’s like, I don’t know what that is. It’s really hard to imagine that kind of behavior. I mean, we, the report that Dr. McPherson referred to of the sixth great extinction that we are officially in and the scientific report, even that report says clearly, it’s not just Dr. McPherson’s opinion, but that report says humans are expected to be in the first wave of species going extinct in this sixth great extinction event. It’s going to go on for hundreds of years.

And we are at the front end of it on a geological time scale which is, even on a geological time scale, is happening so fast that our science can barely even keep up with it. And yet you’ve got Obama talking about 30 percent cuts over X number of years, et cetera while the plane’s going nose down, straight towards the ground at mach speed.

PERIES: Guy, what are the immediate threats in terms of these disruptions and sudden climate change that we’re experiencing? What are the most immediate threats we will see?

MCPHERSON: Well, we’re already seeing methane going exponential in the atmosphere, and methane is many, many times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule. We’re going to see increased storms. Truly catastrophic events, like you started when we opened this interview, listing a few of those. Those are not behind us. Those have been going on for a while, at least since Katrina in 2005, ten years ago. So we haven’t fully felt the impact of carbon dioxide released in 2005. These massive storms are yet another one of these self-reinforcing feedback loops. Because these big storms kill a lot of plants, notably large trees, and that triggers more carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere. Which makes the situation worse, which contributes to big storms, and so on.

So I think we’re going to see more of the same. When the great science fiction writers, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley were asked at the end of their lives how they could see the future so clearly, they each responded with essentially the same answer: they’re just reporting what they’re seeing today. And so if you take today and extrapolate into the future, we’re going to see more. Just absolutely more. More abrupt heating, more storms, more and more rapid loss of arctic sea ice and the glaciers melting, and on and on.

And where that leads in the not too distant future is no habitat for humans. We tend to forget that we’re human animals. And like other animals, we need various attributes to survive. Like food. Food is really handy and I really like it, too.

PERIES: Guy–and this question is to both of you, but I’ll start with Guy first. Some medical experts have deemed climate change should be classified a medical emergency, and we should be prepared to take appropriate and immediate action. What is the opinion on this, and is there any way of curbing the temperatures right now?

MCPHERSON: Well, there’s really no politically viable approach to deal with climate change. Work by Tim Garrett, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah that was initially published in 2009, and he’s published a couple of followup papers since then, that work indicates that civilization itself is a heat engine. And the only way to turn off the heating of the earth is to terminate civilization. Well, I don’t think that’s really a politically viable approach. And any politician who ran on that campaign would not just lose, but would also be perhaps tarred and feathered. Nobody wants to hear the end of this setting of living arrangements for relatively privileged people living in the global North.

So in addition, it seems that Garrett’s initial paper, which was written more than eight years ago, which points out that only collapse of civilization prevents runaway climate change–well, as it turns out now we know that collapse of industrial civilization leads to abrupt climate change as well. So it’s a double bind. We either turn off the heat engine, which causes very abrupt rise in global average temperature in a matter of a few days, or we keep the heat engine going and it causes that same rise in temperature in a few years. Pick your poison, but at least recognize that it’s poison.

PERIES: And Dahr, final word to you in terms of can this be curbed?

JAMAIL: I would agree with what we just heard. I think at this point it cannot be curbed. I think best case scenario if all governments got on board and mandated immediate cessation of all fossil fuel use and switched to renewables, et cetera et cetera, all of this, it might mitigate it in the midterm a little bit, and that’s about the best thing that could possibly be hoped for realistically. And I think each of us needs to think about what does this mean, watch the science very closely, what’s happening, and get very clear about what’s important in life and how each of us needs to live.

And stay tuned because it’s a unique–the thought I would leave with is that we are at a unique period in history where this is only the sixth great mass extinction event ever. And the only one that humans have caused. And here we are right at the front end of it, and it’s an amazing time to be on the planet, and I think we all just need to pay very, very close attention to what’s happening around us at this point.

PERIES: Dahr Jamail and Guy McPherson, thank you so much for joining us today.

JAMAIL: Thank you.

MCPHERSON: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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