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Pacific Ecologist

A question of survival

EDWARD GOLDSMITH explains why he believes the fight against climate change should be given precedence over all other priorities.

The problem of climate change is probably very much worse than the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it out to be. Many members of the IPCC are likely to agree. The IPCC admits that: "its models cannot yet simulate all aspects of climate." This is not surprising as mathematical models can only take into account factors that can be quantified, and unfortunately, many important aspects of climate are very difficult to quantify with any great credibility.

The IPCC is quite honest about this. It warns of projected climate changes during the 21st century as having "the potential to lead to future large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in Earth systems." Among these changes it specifies "accelerated warming" due to the release of carbon stored in the world's forests, soils, permafrost regions, oceans and hydrates in coastal sediments.

The amount of carbon that could be released from these natural reservoirs is enormous. The world's vegetation, including its forests, contains some 600 billion tons of carbon; tundra, permafrost and other soils contain about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon; methane hydrates as much as 10,000 billion tons; and the oceans nearly 40,000 billion tons. In comparison, the atmosphere currently contains just 750 billion tons of carbon. Moreover, between them, terrestrial and oceanic sinks absorb some 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. What happens to the biosphere as temperatures rise is thus of critical climatic importance, yet it has been largely left out of IPCC calculations.

More sophisticated models are beginning to give us an idea of what would happen to global climate if such factors are taken into account. The Hadley Centre has built a new model which projects that within the next 50 years, if emissions continue at the present rate, much of our forests and soil will be transformed into sources of, rather than sinks for, carbon-dioxide and methane. As a result, the Hadley Centre finds itself forced to project an extra 3°C increase in world temperatures by the end of the century. The IPCC's maximum of 5.8°C now becomes 8.8°C.

Still left out of this forecast, however, is the full impact of higher temperatures on the oceans and on methane hydrates, from which releases are already occurring. The question we must ask is how much will be released, and at what rate? Also, by how many degrees would the IPCC projections for temperature rise this century have to be increased if these and other such factors were to be properly included? Climatologists Jerry Mahlman and Alberto di Fazio foresee a 10 to 14°C change in temperature by the end of the century. Who knows if they are right?

Whoever is correct, when each of the recent temperature change predictions are presented as a percentage of the average world temperature, which is about 14°C, it is apparent that we are in a very grave situation. Viewed in this way, the IPCC's 5.8°C change implies a 41 percent increase in world temperature, which is enormous. The Hadley Centre's 8.8°C means a more than 60 percent rise, whereas Mahlman and di Fazio's 10 to 14°C change involves an incredible 71 to 100 percent increase in temperature. Can we survive such massive changes? Who knows?

However, it is well worth mentioning a well-known ecological principle called "the principle of tolerance." It states, in the words of ecologist Robert McIntosh that "for each feature of the environment there are limits beyond which organisms cannot grow, reproduce, or in the ultimate extreme survive." According to Eugene Odum of the University of Georgia, the eggs of the brook trout can only develop in water that is between 10o and 12°C.1 According to David Pimental potatoes do best when temperatures are between 15 and 20°C, but do badly when they are above 28°C.2 But I doubt if anyone has worked out under what temperature regime the key life processes on our planet can still occur. Is it all that certain that they can still occur in the conditions that such changes are likely to bring about?

What makes the whole problem even more worrying is that even if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow our planet will go on heating up for possibly another 150 years and the oceans for maybe a thousand or more years. With decisive and effective action, however, we could slow down this terrible process so that when climate eventually stabilizes our planet can still remain largely habitable. By taking the necessary action we can still avoid the worst, but this action must be taken very quickly.

This brings us to the key issue. What actually has to be done and how can it be done? To begin with, we must obviously phase out, and phase out rapidly, the burning of fossil fuel - coal, oil, and natural gas.

And at the same time phase in equally rapidly the use of energy derived from renewable sources such as wind, waves, and the sun, though this is unlikely to satisfy the full requirements of a growing world economy (assuming that it grows again after the present global economic collapse).

But much more than that has to be done. A massive campaign is required to protect our forests, our soil, and the oceans, more so, the whole world of living things, and to take whatever measures are required to increase rather than reduce its capacity to absorb emissions of greenhouse gases. All this means a dramatic transformation in a very short space of time in the way we conduct our economic activities and indeed the way in which we live. What is more, if we are to avoid all the possible positive feedbacks from becoming operative, this campaign must have precedence - total precedence - over everything else we do, including our economic activities to which we attach so much importance.

We must put ourselves on a veritable "war footing" if we are to achieve this in time. Everyone must be made to realise that economic development is no longer really an option. By its very nature it involves further increasing the impact of our activities on the world of living things and on its atmospheric environment. Even a two percent growth rate in gross natural product (GNP), which is considered by most economists as being totally insufficient to keep the world economy going, would lead to roughly an eightfold increase in the size and impact of our economic activities on the natural world and on its atmospheric environment. This is not even remotely tolerable.

The issue today is survival not development, and the strategies required to enable us to survive in the ever-less propitious climatic conditions are the exact opposite of those required to promote development, let alone global economic development.

Needless to say, to take this action is not easy in the aberrant conditions we have created today. How do we assure the phasing out of oil production when the oil industry in the US, no longer has to lobby the government, it is the government? How do we ensure the protection of the world's remaining tropical forests when the logging companies have become so massive and so powerful that three years ago they succeeded in persuading the then President Clinton to make it his priority at the World Trade Organisation Ministerial at Seattle to pass what became known as "the free logging agreement," which would have left the loggers free to log everything, everywhere to their heart's content.

Fortunately the global economy, from which the multinationals derive their power and influence, is a highly unstable structure, which the numerous financial crises of the last ten years have made only too clear. Today it is in the grips of a global crisis from which it may or may not recover. In the meantime, the world's biggest economies that have provided the main market for most of the developing countries' exports are increasingly less capable of doing so. Hence, indebted developing countries are having ever greater difficulty in exporting their way out of their financial difficulties and indeed of funding their imports. As a result, international trade is rapidly diminishing.

To deal with the resulting chaos and unemployment, developing countries will have no alternative but to reconstitute their seriously diminished domestic economies. This would mean putting globalization into reverse and correspondingly reducing the power of the transnational corporations that control it and that are the main obstacle to taking the measures required to assure our survival on this beleaguered planet.

In any case, civil society is beginning to realize the full horrors of economic globalization, and in particular the globalized poverty that it is giving rise to. More so, the anti-globalization movement is developing incredibly fast. What is urgent is that society be made to understand the even greater horrors of global warming so that an even more powerful movement develops to bring about the transformations required to slow down global warming to a minimum and to enable us to adapt to the climate changes that lie ahead. We are lucky that these are the same transformations that are required to achieve both these ends. But there is no time to lose - time is short.

Edward Goldsmith is the founding editor of The Ecologist


[1] Eugene Odum: Basic Ecology, Saunders College Publishing, Philadelphia 1983

[2] Robert McIntosh: Some problems of theoretical ecology in Esa Saarinen editor, Conceptual Issues in Ecology, D. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1982.

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