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Background: Climate & Evolution

Global Choices, Global Consequences

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In 1950, a sevenfold expansion of the world economy began. It has been accompanied by a quadrupling of the frequency of extreme weather events. Economic growth has been driven by rapidly increasing fossil fuel combustion, consumerism and, of course, transnational corporate power. Within half a century, the Earth's atmosphere has been radically altered, due to the mass transfer of fossil carbon from deep below the planet’s surface into its atmosphere.

Humanity's carbon waste stream exceeds 70 million tons a day. Of all the carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere, only half of it stays there. The other half goes into carbon sinks-- the oceans and land biosphere. New data show that carbon dioxide absorption in the North Atlantic Ocean halved in the decade up to 2005. These findings show the oceans are becoming saturated by our emissions. And just as the  peak of cheap oil is coming to dominate the global economy, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is reaching 400ppm. This is at least 50 ppm beyond the upper limit that defined the climate of the last 12,000 years.

Scientific predictions of environmental change are difficult for ordinary human beings to comprehend fully. We hear about hot temperatures and rising sea levels, vast population growth, depletion of resources, and extinction of species. Human activity everywhere is hastening to destroy elements of the natural eco-systems all living beings depend on. These threatening developments are individually drastic and together amazing. [1]

The 20i3 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents the exhaustive collaborative work of thousands of expert scientists from 100 countries. It is a conservative, consensus document, describing the (minimal) consequences if carbon gas emissions are not systematically reduced, starting as early as possible. The frequency of major storms and floods will increase dramatically. Sea levels will rise a metre or more by 2100, inundating coastlines and coastal cities. Oceans will become acidic, leading to destruction of coral reefs and the marine food chain. Deadly heat waves will become prevalent. Snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains. Agriculture will collapse. Deserts will expand. Hundreds of millions of people will suffer water shortage and famine. These careful scientific predictions are reminiscent of certain visionary documents such as the Buddhist Legend of the Great Stupa:

The celestial order, disrupted, loosens plague, famine and war to terrorize terrestrial life...No rain falls in season, but out of season; the valleys are flooded. Famine and hail govern many unproductive years. Diseases, horrible epidemics and plagues spread like wildfire, striking men and cattle… fire, storms and tornadoes destroy temples, stupas and cities in an instant [2].

The IPCC process has significantly underestimated the speed of climate change. In 2007, scientists were shocked by the rapid melting of Arctic sea-ice melting, and this phenomenon has worsened every year since then. Antarctica and Greenland are covered by enormous land-based ice sheets. On the other hand, the northern polar pack-ice cap (formerly as large as the continental USA) floats on the sea surface. Since it already displaces seawater, it would not increase sea levels if it melted. But its melting is removing the reflective cooling (‘albedo’) effect of white sea-ice at the North Pole. The resulting rise in Arctic Ocean water temperature will further destabilize subsea and Siberian permafrost as well as  terrestrial ice sheets.

Should GHG emissions follow anything close to a ‘business as usual’ rise, substantive parts of Greenland and Antarctica will melt—raising sea levels around the world no less than 1-3 metres this century. That would swallow thousands of square miles of productive farmland from the Mekong Delta to East Anglia. As well as the already evident danger to places like Louisiana and Bangladesh (below), major port cities could be lost to the sea. New York, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, Calcutta, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore are among those at risk [3]. The time-line for corrective action continues to shorten.


1. Dalai Lama XIV [2007], Collected Statements on Environment   
2. Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa
3. OECD, Ranking of world’s cities most exposed to coastal flooding. [2007]




 

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