Authors: Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust
If humans have been lucky, basking in the comforting warmth of an inter-glacial period for the last 10,000 years, that luck may be about to turn. Rest assured we are not entering a glacial period. No, our quest for greater comfort has us pumping fossil fuel residues in the air—particularly CO2—warming the earth beyond its natural trajectory. One consequence is melting Arctic (especially Greenland) ice and coastal flooding.
Problematic as that might be, new research holds worse in store… much worse, for the Antarctic has not been a passive bystander. It melted when the north was taking a rest allowing no let up.
The previous glacial age lasted from 125,000 to 118,000 years ago. A paper published November 6, 2019 in Nature Communications (Vol. 10, Article # 5040) has found the Greenland ice sheet melt insufficient to explain the highs of the rise then. In fact, it was the Antarctic ice sheet, previously thought to be inconsequential, that was key. It turns out the Southern Ocean warmed first at the start of the inter-glacial, leading to a change in the circulation pattern of the oceans and to a warming of the northern polar areas to start the ice melt in Greenland.
Temperatures then were up to 1°C higher than now but the same has been estimated for us in the future. However, this time climate changes on earth have been accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions over the industrial period, resulting in more extreme climate changes than in the last inter-glacial.
The research has also revealed that ice melt caused a 10 meter sea level rise above the present level at a rate of 3 meters (about 10 feet) per century, a rate that is 10 times higher than the rise observed in the last 150 years. If 10 ft. per century has a remote feel, try a foot every 10 years!
This is far greater than current projections of sea level rise that anticipate an increase at the most to about 3 feet above 2000 levels by 2100. The predictions, however, do not account for an important natural outcome of ice sheet melt, that of ice cliff instability. The ice cliffs form as the warm water melts their ice under the water, eating away until the cliff shears off and collapses into the sea.
The collapse is a sudden and unpredictable addition to the gradual melt in the ocean. It also means that polar ice sheet melt can affect sea levels far more intensely than has been projected so far, and it could account at least in part for the much higher rise found by the researchers in the prior inter-glacial. Are we in for a surprise!
If incoming solar radiation was greater in the last inter-glacial because of the earth’s position relative to the sun, the CO2 levels were lower, at 280 parts per million as opposed to 410 plus today. Worse, in the former inter-glacial the two polar areas did not warm up simultaneously. Today’s intensive climate change is propelled by greenhouse gases, and the warming is bipolar with the ice melting in both polar regions at the same time.
Another paper also published in Nature Communications a week earlier (Vol. 10, Article # 4844 October 29, 2019) examines global vulnerability to coastal flooding from rising sea levels given new metrics for measuring land elevation. The model currently in use for this measurement, developed by NASA, has a 2 meter vertical bias. Using a new Coastal DEM (Digital Elevation Model) and a mean estimate of sea level rise this century, the authors estimate 190 million people live below projected high tide lines at present. This rises to 630 million by century’s end in the extreme case of high emissions. Increase the sea level rise to 3 meters (10 feet) projected in the other paper above and a billion people could be in jeopardy.
What can one expect? Well, the first signs of trouble will be when coastal flooding that used to happen once a decade becomes an annual event, or when unprecedented events occur. Venice is a current example. In a rare historic flood its iconic St. Mark’s Square is hip-deep in water. The church itself and its priceless frescoes could be in danger if the water rises further.
The increased coastal flooding will be gradual of course. Our children, their children, and so on down the line will be the real innocent victims of our legacy/profligacy.
Note: This article appeared originally on CommonDreams.org
A World in Distress
World mean temperature is up 1.1C since the industrial revolution. Climate experts believe we have 12 years before it rises enough to set up a self-reinforcing cycle, meaning trouble. All the same, Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro remain in denial when climate scientists have already shown human agency and the facts are measurable.
Australia’s mean temperature is up 1.5C since 1910. It has had prolonged severe drought causing vegetation to lose moisture and become fuel for a fire lit accidentally by lightning or careless human activity. The bush fires raging in New South Wales are one result. Thousands of homes have been lost despite the valiant efforts of overstretched firefighters, and some have even made the ultimate sacrifice.
The air is difficult to breathe even in the neighboring state of Victoria where the Australian Tennis Open is being held in Melbourne. Players affected have been forced to withdraw.
Human agency and the effects of key gas emissions have been proven by scientists and the longer nothing is done, the more difficult, even drastic, the solution. The UN Panel on Climate Change offered a prescription in 2018 to keep temperature rise in the future below danger levels. But implementation is another problem altogether stymied by the rich and powerful nations.
The Panel’s COP25 talks in Madrid last month ended more or less in failure though that word is seldom used. Major fossil fuel producers, principally Saudi Arabia and the US, managed to thwart the rest of the world. In the final agreement, all countries are required merely to decide their pledges for COP25 in Glasgow this November. They do actually nothing to abate climate change.
Ironically, Australia with its right-wing government was a key supporter of the US, and Scott Morrison the prime minister is possibly the least welcome man in New South Wales, one community telling him point blank he was not wanted when he tried to visit. And the uncontrollable bush fires keep burning, continually exhausting firefighters in their efforts to abate them.
So where do we stand before the Glasgow COP26 meeting in November? Current policies will lead to an estimated 3C rise above preindustrial levels. As a point of reference, we are currently at 1.1C above and 1.5C begins troublesome coastal flooding. Current pledges will give us a 2.5 – 2.8C rise, still far from necessary for a comfortable livable planet.
Firm action is required, and thus the push for more ambitious pledges before COP26. World leaders have also been invited to Kunming in China for a major conference on safeguarding nature as more and more species become extinct. A month before COP26 it should reinforce the importance of reducing global warming.
The task ahead is clear. The earth needs a halving of emissions from vehicles, power stations, industry and agriculture; instead, CO2 levels are still rising. We can only hope the working groups meeting in preparation can push through what is necessary for success at the Fall conference.
Larry Fink’s letter to CEOs: Climate change finance goes mainstream, finally
My jaw dropped when on Tuesday I saw BlackRock’s Chairman and CEO Larry Fink’s letter to CEOs, which he issues every year ahead of Davos to chart the finance and investment trends ahead.
BlackRock is now placing climate change at the center of its strategy. This could as well be the climate change news of the decade. With its close to USD 7 trillion in assets under management, BlackRock is the largest asset manager in the world.
The tide is turning. For the past 10-15 years, all of us in the UN and sustainability field were trying to move climate change finance mainstream. Ten years ago, when I was at the UN environmental agency, the efforts by me and hundreds of others were significant, but change was incremental. Yes, there were joint investor statements on climate change but they were mostly calling on governments to create the incentives for the finance industry to do the switch rather than pledging investors’ own commitments. Building the “business case for sustainable finance” had its financial arguments but few followers.
Things have changed. Greta Thunberg did what hundreds of us couldn’t do for a decade. Climate change is the number one issue now and you hear about it everywhere.
We will be looking forward to Greta’s call at Davos to end the coal industry, as unrealistic as the proposition might sound to many. Greta should be pitted against Donald Trump in a Davos duel to corner publicly the US President. That would be the debate of the year — and the US presidential election debates have not even started. It is in the DNA of the World Economic Forum to keep top VIPs as comfortable as possible, so that premier league match on climate change will not happen. But we have BlackRock’s news.
Change has come. We now see the day in which the largest global asset manager sounds like an environmental activist. I will open a beer and cheer to Larry Fink.
Connecting the Poles: The importance of collaboration between regions
The Arctic and Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), separated by thousands of miles, share many of the same wonders and challenges, and yet they hardly work together in overcoming them. In a globalized world, there is no reason for any country, society or individual to face common challenges alone. Creative solutions to complex problems can be generated through unusual collaborations. Today, there is no greater challenge than the complex issue of climate change, and it requires collaboration across borders and continents.
Known as the “third pole”, the HKH spans over 4.3 million square kilometers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. It has earned this moniker because it has more snow and ice than anywhere else in the world outside of the two polar regions. Yet, like the Arctic, the HKH is more than just an icy world. It is home to over 240 million people and over a 1000 living languages. Rich in natural resources, its various ecosystems support more than just the local populations.
Living downstream from its 10 major rivers more than 1.9 billion people directly rely on the mountains, the glaciers, and the snow for food, water, and energy. If we factor in trade and the global economy, the number who depend on this region indirectly would be closer to 3 billion.
The Arctic region in comparison extends more than 20 million square kilometers and encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland. As a result of its vastness, the Arctic is as equally diverse as the HKH. The resources that the Arctic contains are much sought after and are vital to the economies of many countries within and outside the region.
Both the Arctic and the HKH regions, which are shared by eight countries respectively, are facing problems associated with climate change and a rapidly warming world. Temperatures are increasing at rates greater than the global average, leading to the release of carbon that has been stored in permafrost and the Arctic Ocean. Warming temperatures are also reducing glaciers in the HKH and leading to potential ice-free summers in the Arctic.At current emissions trends, two-thirds of the HKH glaciers will be gone and ice-free Arctic summers will occur once every three years by 2100. So far 15% of the ice in the HKH region has disappeared since the 1970s, and the September minimum ice extent in the Arctic is 36.5% less than it was in the 1980s. The changes in both regions are dramatic.
The loss of glaciers and Arctic sea ice is worrying as the massive stores of snow and ice in the regions play a major role in regulating the Earth’s climate. With less snow and ice in the regions, less solar radiation is reflected back into the atmosphere. Instead solar radiation is absorbed at the surface, leading to more warming. The impact on the world cannot be overstated.
Farmers, fishers, hunters, herders, and indigenous communities depend intimately on the glaciers for their economic, social, and cultural wellbeing. The loss of glacial ice at faster than normal rates has a direct impact on livelihoods. As river flows are predicted to increase by 2050–2060 due to melting, it is estimated that people will see more flooding, landslides, crop failure, and soil erosion. Later, as water flows decline, the risks of drought will increase. Reduced inflows will also result in increased water stress and reduced energy output from hydropower dams. This will have serious consequences for overall food and energy production in the region. In the Arctic, the melting of sea ice will continue to lead to sea level rise, increasing the chances of flooding, erosion and habitat destruction.
The changes brought about by increasing temperatures will likely become the single biggest driver of migration and displacement on an unprecedented scale across the Indian subcontinent, potentially destabilizing regional and global effects. This is no different in the Arctic region, where the scale of forced migration might be less, but risk still exists for indigenous peoples who are more dependent on the land than other groups. At the same time that Arctic indigenous groups continue to migrate out of traditional areas, there is an increased inflow of people traveling and working in the region. While there might be short-term economic gains from this demographic change and inflow of people to the north, growing populations place additional pressure on delicate ecosystems. Both regions can learn from one another about the positive and negative effects of climate change and migration and perhaps share best practices.
Collaboration across regions
The challenges presented by an increasing warming climate don’t have to be fought alone. Both the Arctic and the HKH regions can collaborate to learn from each other. It all begins with increased communication. By starting to directly engage with each other, the HKH and the Arctic regions can better develop the spaces and tools necessary for collaboration, and regional dialogues and conferences can be a starting point for building these relationships.
Events like Arctic Frontiers 2020 that provide a forum for dialogue and communication between scientists, government, civil society and industry in the Arctic can be a good opportunity for such engagement. Cross-regional dialogue between the two regions is not a far-fetched idea given the common challenges that these unique but vitally important regions both face: increasing tourism and its effects, degradation of natural habitats, and the effects of a warming climate on the livelihoods of native peoples. Outside of just reacting to a changing climate and learning to adapt, the HKH and the Arctic region can truly come together and be proactive in helping to reduce the causes of climate change by sharing knowledge and expertise.
While the Arctic and Himalaya cooperation is still in its early stages, the hope is that the “Arctic-Himalaya Futures” side event, organized by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, and GRID-Arendal, will start the process of creating the much-needed long-term cooperation mechanisms between the regions.
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