OSAKA – Does the death of a single polar bear, which starved on the Arctic tundra, carry a warning for all human beings? Some leading scientists are afraid that it does. They are even more worried that the human beings do not get the message. The dead polar bear was little more than a sad rug of skin and bones when it was found lying on the earth at Svalbard far into the northern Arctic. According to leading researcher Dr. Ian Sterling of Polar Bears International, the animal was a victim of the melting Arctic ice: It did not have the sea ice from which to hunt seals, so it had to wander far and wide in a vain search for food.
The bear’s plight should be a worry and a warning that precious life on Earth is being threatened by thoughtlessness and greed of powerful politicians and commercial interests. It is only going to get worse. The Arctic melt is happening so fast that some respected scientists warn that as early as 2015 the ocean will be ice-free in the summer. The devastating consequences will include uncomfortably rising temperatures, disruption to crop patterns and high seas that could threaten Guangzhou, London, Mumbai, New York, Osaka, Shanghai and Sydney, not to mention low-lying Pacific island states and much of Bangladesh.
One important scientific report that attempts to measure the damage to the Earth will come in late September from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nobel prize-winning United Nations panel of experts. Leaked reports of an unfinished work that will be further modified by argument say that the panel will report that it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, are the main cause of global warming.
This is up from the 90 percent certainty at the time of the last report in 2007, the 66 percent in 2001 and 50 percent in 1995. It is tempting to say, Big Deal, but what is being done about it?
Professor Reto Knutti of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich was quoted by Reuters that, “We have got quite a bit more certain that climate change is largely man-made.” However, he added, “We’re less certain than many would hope about the local impacts.” He also ducked questions about the effect on crops, fish stocks and other practical implications. “You can’t write an equation for a tree,” he said, poetically summing up the failure to take practical action to prevent us all baking.
Hopes of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times — the target of 200 governments — can be abandoned. Temperatures have already risen by 0.8 degrees, and the best guess is that the rise will be about 2.7 degrees, but it could be as much as 5 degrees. That is a wide range, and reflects an increasing nervousness about what is happening.
As for the rise in sea levels, the report will say that they could range between 29 and 82 cm by the late 21st century, which is higher than the previous report predicted. But if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, then the rise in sea levels might be almost a meter, which would be bad news for many of the world’s leading cities.
Earlier this month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank warned about the impact of flood damage of rising seas on some of the world’s biggest cities, with Guangzhou listed as at the biggest risk.
But there is a bigger dispute that has started. Pessimistic scientists accuse the U.N. panel of being too conservative and in particular of ignoring the true danger of melting Arctic ice. “They just don’t get it,” said Dr. John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Working Group, who warns that the real danger of the melting ice is that it will release huge amounts of methane gas hitherto frozen under the ice.
He warns that, “The massive quantity of methane locked up in a frozen state in the Arctic presents a climate change ‘time bomb’ with a fuse that is already burning.” Methane emissions are 23 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Vast amounts of greenhouse gases, especially methane, are hidden in the Arctic permafrost, amounting to more than 900 billion tons of carbon. Methane is released from frozen soils when organic matter thaws and decomposes. Nissen and others say that thawing of the permafrost has not been taken into account in the usual climate projections.
Nissen is not a lonely prophet. Gail Whiteman, professor of sustainability at Erasmus University, Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, and Peter Hope of Cambridge Judge Business School, warned recently that their economic models — which they had run 10,000 times — showed that methane emissions caused by shrinking sea ice from just one area of the Arctic could come with a global price tag of $60 trillion, the same size as the total global economy last year.
They have been attacked from all sides for scaremongering and for daring to put a price on the possible loss of a vital human habitat. Whiteman and Wadhams are sticking to their claims, and to the potential effect of a 0.6 degree Celsius increase in global warming by 2040.
What should be most worrying is that the scientific evidence is remorselessly being accumulated and we can see weather patterns changing, yet the politicians are working at the proverbial speed of glaciers (before climate change started) to take practical measures that might halt carbon dioxide or methane emissions. At the very least we — the world — should be doing more to limit carbon emissions. Yet the opposite is happening.
Powerful commercial interests who seek to make money out of the world’s misery have the ear and attention of politicians, not least by the power of their funding. Big Oil is looking forward to unlocking oil and gas reserves under the Arctic. Shipping companies say that Arctic journeys could cut up to 40 percent off the traditional times and routes using Panama and Suez. Rogue Russia especially is rejoicing, like some sorcerer’s apprentice, about uncovering the resources of its icy northern lands — at what cost to the world?
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.
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