Fanning the flames of climate change

August 9, 2008

"As near as we can tell looking at the historical record, there's been ice in the Arctic in the summer for at least 16 million years", Don Perovich, a geophysicist with the US army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, told the August 4 Four Corners program. Arctic ice melt over this year's northern summer has been at record levels, leaving the amount of ice remaining alarmingly low.

"There's a group that makes a very strong case that in 2012 or 2013 we'll have an ice-free [summer] Arctic — as soon as that. It's astounding what's happened", said Dr Ted Scambos, a glaciologist from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), in the same report.

The ice melt has forced the US Interior Department to put polar bears on the endangered species list, as their only habitat could vanish very soon. Already migrations of polar bears have been observed as far south as Greenland — previously a very rare occurrence.

Scientists say that this is one of the clearest signs yet that human-caused climate change is accelerating and could reach one of the "tipping points" that makes it likely to reach levels that threaten all life on Earth. The Arctic ice cap acts as a cooling system for the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. The white ice of the cap reflects 85% of the light and heat that impacts upon it back into space, reducing potential temperatures.

Scientists believe that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have pushed global temperatures to the level at which the polar ice cap cannot refreeze after summer and can no longer play this reflective role. In addition, dark soot from human activity also has decreased the reflectivity of what little ice remains.

"We could think of the Arctic as the refrigerator of the Northern Hemisphere climate system", Dr Mark Serreze from the NSIDC told Four Corners. "What we're doing by getting rid of that sea ice is radically changing the nature of that refrigerator. We're making it much less efficient. But everything is connected together so what happens up there eventually influences what happens in other parts of the globe."

The melting white ice will be replaced by darker ocean, which absorbs 93% of the light and heat — rather than reflecting it — bringing the temperature up even further. Such temperature increases could spark other "tipping points" in the Northern Hemisphere.

For the first time in 120,000 years, the vast permafrost covering much of Greenland could melt, and beneath that lies millions of tonnes of methane and carbon dioxide — potent greenhouse gases that could do as much damage to the planet as the rest of humanity's emissions combined.

Dr Vladimir Romanovsky from the University of Alaska estimates there is as much greenhouse gas under the Greenland permafrost as is currently in the atmosphere today: releasing it would effectively double humanity's impact on climate change.

These signs are distressing and overwhelming, but not as distressing as the other "tipping point" in the mix. This is not, unlike the others, a physical reaction by the planet to our previous damage: this is a direct human "tipping point", a result of governments and corporations ignoring the dire warnings.

This "tipping point" is corporate greed. While most would see the melting of the northern polar ice cap as a warning that we must dramatically alter the way humanity relates to the planet, the corporate elites are thinking about the only thing they ever think about: is there some money that can be made out of this?

As the Arctic melts, the resources under the ice become accessible for the first time in human history. These resources are largely the very fossil fuels that have placed us in such danger in the first place. Vast reserves of oil, gas and coal, previously inaccessible, will be available.

According to the US Geological Survey, the area north of the Arctic Circle has an estimated 22% of the world's undiscovered energy resources, including 13% of its undiscovered oil — or 90 billion barrels — and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas.

If these resources are extracted, sold and used, they would add even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming even further. In light of this potential crisis, the world powers with possible access to these new resources are competing and arguing in the UN for pieces of the pie: literally throwing oil, gas and coal ont the flames of climate change.

Scott Borgerson from the US Council on Foreign Relations gave the reason for the conflict: "I think people see the contradiction, but I think in the globalised economics of oil and its consumption and demand and the fact that you see record prices for oil, that energy companies, until the rules of the game change, are going to follow the oil, even to previously hostile environments and terrains like the Arctic. ... you'll find energy companies and countries going to all kinds of the ends of the earth in search of these resources", he told Four Corners.

On August 2, 2007, Russian scientists planted a flag on the Arctic Ocean floor and were greeted as heroes by then-Russian president Vladimir Putin. In response, Canada has announced it will spend US$7.12 billion to build and operate eight patrol ships to help protect its sovereignty in the Arctic.

Canada and the US are involved in a diplomatic stoush over the Northwest Passage, which last Northern summer was open to sea travel for the first time since monitoring began in 1978, also as a result of global warning. Previously unnavigable, melting ice means the Northwest Passage could be a new Suez or Panama canal. Canada is claiming that it's in Canadian territorial waters while the US is pushing for it the be declared a global resource, primarily as a way to stop Canada from gaining an advantage over them. The Northwest Passage opens up new areas of sea trade and would be key to exploiting the Arctic. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that Canada must "use it or lose it" in this struggle for access. "And make no mistake", he said in July, 2007, "this government intends to use it."

Meanwhile, Britain has announced its intent to claim extra sea around Antarctica, where an unclaimed estimated 60 billion barrels of oil could be extracted. Australia has also expanded its sea territories this year in order to expand its oil and exploration projects. None of the countries or companies involved in these ventures seemed concerned with the impact that their avarice will have on the world — their concern remains: who will make the money?

That this is their concern in the face of such immanent disaster proves that allowing corporate interests, and the governments who represent them, to determine what resources are extracted and how they will be used will quickly destroy the planet. This "tipping point" is a human creation: greed and a system that rewards it. It should be a "tipping point" for us as well. If those who caused this crisis have the power to change but fail to use it, then their power must be taken away.

This is a daunting task but, around the world, it has already begun. New coal-fired power stations are protested in Britain. Coal exploration in Australian farmlands faces stiff opposition and in Bangladesh, 80,000 people protested the proposed Phulbari coalmine in August 2006. Each of these actions directly challenge those who would rather see the planet burn than lose profits. These actions combined in a global movement potentially have the power to do what is necessary: declare a moratorium on the fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic for as long as extracting and using them threaten our planet.

This movement is real, it is international, and it is urgently necessary. Australia can play a particular role. As the world's biggest coal exporter, if we chose to end our exports, it would impact across the world. If we chose to advance renewable energy, rather than subsidise fossil fuels, then the false opposition between jobs and combatting climate change would fade away. We could fund public transport over road and car subsidies and we could find new ways of living.

We have to do this, because the old ways are killing us.

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