Global Warming and Humanism: Part 2

A Cautionary Tale

As I undertook my three-month tour of the mountainous areas of Scotland, Norway, Iceland, Canada and Alaska I realised that I could not escape the issue of global warming.  The scenery was spectacular; lots of fiords, lakes and waterfalls.  The mountains became more and more stupendous as we went along.  The temperatures were very high and the skies were blue.  The weather was perfect - in fact too perfect but this didn’t seem to alarm anyone.

The Scotsmen in Edinburgh were lying on the lawns near the Castle Rock stripped to their singlets sunning themselves in the heat and turning the colour of boiled lobsters.  It was 33 degrees Celsius and rising.  In England, the temperatures soared into the high 30s.  Even for summertime it was very hot for an unusually long time.  My uncle and aunt’s tiny front lawn was a shrivelled up yellow patch of dead grass, it never recovered.  Crops were dying from a  lack of water. The Yorkshire moors and those near Manchester were on fire.

Fortunately, it was cool in Iceland and appropriately bleak at times.  In Norway, it was back to brilliant sunshine and high temperatures.  The Norwegians farm tiny strips of productive land between their fiords and steep, high mountains.  In summer they let their sheep wander freely over the hills and use their meadows to produce hay to feed their sheep over winter. They keep their sheep indoors over winter and their winters are very long.  They have four seasons, winter, winter, summer, winter.

This year, it was so hot and dry that the grass didn’t grow as much as normal. The hay harvest was much reduced.  They are now faced with the prospect of having to slaughter many of their animals as they can’t support them over the winter.  This threatens the viability of a system of agriculture that has been carried on for centuries. 

When we visited the capital of British Columbia, Victoria, it had its hottest day on record.  Alberta also recorded its hottest day on record.  The days continued hot, brilliant and clear; that is until a huge smoke haze from the Californian wildfires and the British Columbia forest fires blanketed the landscape so that the mighty Rockies were obscured.

Our trip up the mountain in Whistler did not involve snow cats as promised because there was no snow to be had and just the tiny remnants of a small glacier.  Our helicopter flight to the ice fields near Skagway, Alaska to see real dog sledding, was cancelled due to lack of ice.

Around Jasper, in the coniferous forests, vast numbers of trees were a rusty colour as a result of infestations of the pine beetle.  They will slowly die, altering the ecology of the forests.  The cause?   Two consecutive weeks of extremely cold temperatures will kill off the beetles despite their natural antifreeze properties, but the region is simply not experiencing these extremely cold temperatures any more.

In Ketchikan they get an average of 13 feet of rain per year.  It rains most days, but when we arrived there was bright sunshine.  According to our guides it has been an amazing summer, great weather.  The temperature of the lake where locals swim has reached 65 F degrees.  “Might be cold for you southerners but that is exceptional hot for us and we have had to worry about our water supply for the first time ever.”  

In Montreal our guide told us that they experienced their hottest day on record. The locals, when they heard that record temperatures were forecasted, apparently looked forward to barbeques outdoors and lots of fun.  Unfortunately, high humidity as well as the high temperatures produced intolerable conditions which forced many people underground into the cool, extensive subterranean city under Montreal normally used to escape from the cold of winter.

On this trip it seemed that most people couldn’t believe their luck that the weather was so fine. Who could blame people who live in cold and temperate areas basking in Mediterranean sunshine as if there were no tomorrow?  

Global warming did get a mention in the news stories of soaring temperatures all over Europe.  In Spain and Greece there were reports of unbelievable temperatures of 47C and 48C degrees.  Quite a few people died due this extreme heat.

It was also mentioned by our driver guide taking us through the pristine and breathtaking Denali National Park, Alaska.  Scornfully, he told us how people assumed that the crash of snowshoe hare populations were caused by global warming. Heck, everything is caused by global warming according to some people when the rise and fall of snowshoe hare populations was cyclical according to scientists. He was neither a gainsayer or a naysayer, he was sitting on the fence. He forgot to mention that just about all experts were on one side of the fence.  And as for global warming being caused by humans – well! Anyway, there is good science and bad science, good scientists and bad scientists. They don’t always get it right. Now butter and eggs are good for you after they told us they were bad for us (this is a complete misrepresentation of the science and as a former physics teacher he should have been able to research the true facts about these stories).

Anyway, not to worry about global warming he says whilst driving through the tundra, one of the most fragile and susceptible ecosystems in the world.  Next breath, he says we have wolves in the park. They were going to cull them but a scientist did some research on them and showed they were beneficial and now I am pleased to say they are an integral part of the park. It did not seem to worry him that he was cherry-picking the science that he approved of and denouncing the science which told him things he didn’t like.  We came across a lot of this in Alaska.

But not in Juneau where we went out on a whale watching cruise with a cetacean researcher.  We helped do a little bit of data collection on this trip and the researcher gave us a very good summation on how science works in practice – tedious, painstaking, collective and open to new evidence.  On our trip we saw lots of glaciers in the clear, sunny, mountain air.  Many humpback whales come to the area. The researcher was worried. The glaciers grind up the rocks to a rock flour which ends up in the waters along the coast.  The nutrients from the rock flour allow phytoplankton to flourish.  This provides food for krill and the small fish that eat the krill and the whales that eat them.  The only problem is that the glaciers are retreating at an increasing rate and are reduced in height.  This means less rock flour and ultimately less food for the whales.

So from my observations on this trip, most people seemed to carry on business as normal and enjoyed the good weather, some people had a sense of uneasiness, some were so threatened by what might happen if we acted concertedly on global warming that they denied it and tried to persuade others to deny it. Some news stories tried to raise the alarm.  And one scientist quietly and methodically collected evidence about its impact.

What about Humanists and their societies?  We are supposed to be logical, reasonable, rational people who come to opinions based on the evidence.  How deeply do we understand climate change? How well have we come to grips with the consequences of global warming however unpalatable?  How can we continue to do so little on this issue when the evidence shows we need a mass movement of concerned citizens now to bring about the change necessary to slow down the disaster we are facing and to prevent the destruction of life on Earth.  

We don’t just need politicians to act, we don’t just need activists to campaign on this issue, we don’t just need interest groups to work on this on our behalf, we don’t need more papers, research, talk and discussion, we need every individual in our organisation to make a commitment to act on this issue and to do so.  We need to make it our priority even if there are other important issues worthy of our support. If not, what is the point of having as one of our values that we are champions of reason when we ignore what the science is telling us – that we need to act urgently, collectively, globally. Again, if you think I am alarmist read the evidence and just remember the truth does not have to be nice.  Everyone of us, needs to be conversant with the scientific evidence for global warming and its impact on the Earth.

A Little Bit of Evidence

Many climate deniers, and those who don’t see the need for drastic and urgent concerted action to address climate change, point to the fact that scientists and expert bodies can’t agree on the extent of climate change.  NASA, not a body to take an alarmist’s view on issues, gives the following information about the scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is warming:

First NASA shows how closely five different estimates of global warming match up:

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 4.52.46 pm.png

NASA states:

multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

Nathaniel Rich, after much research wrote an article called Losing the Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change which was published by the New York Times in 2018.  It sheds a great deal of light onto why we did not act to prevent further climate change when we first realised it devastating consequences.  From the prologue:

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20.

 If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario.

 Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum.

 Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable.

The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

 It gets worse, as one news agency reports on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was recently released:

A special report on global warming has been released today that provides a grim view on the world’s future.  It states that the world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding climate change to moderate levels and that there is only a decade to try and cut emissions.  All scenarios for keeping global warming to 1.5C would involve cutting the use of coal-powered electricity to practically nothing by 2050.

Ninety-one authors and review editors from 40 countries prepared the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and their verdict is that every extra bit of warming makes a difference.

The world has already warmed by about 1C above pre-industrial levels and is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. The report is groundbreaking in that it looks at the impacts of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 2C.  It shows that 1.5C is enough to unleash climate mayhem, and the pathways to avoiding an even hotter world require a swift and complete transformation not just of the global economy, but of society too.  Already there has been deadly heatwaves, wildfires and floods, along with superstorms swollen by rising seas.

Here are some of the Costs of Inaction highlighted by the IPCC’s report:

  • More intense and frequent heatwaves in the northern hemisphere

  • Some tropical fisheries are likely to collapse

  • Staple food crops will decline in yield and nutritional value by an extra 10 to 15%

  • Coral reefs will mostly perish

  • Rate of species loss will accelerate substantially

  • Melting of Arctic sea ice, methane-laden permafrost, and polar ice sheets could lift oceans by a dozen metres, past the point of no return

  • Earth’s average temperature has already gone up 1C and is on track to rise another two or three degrees

  • We could pass the 1.5C marker as early as 2030, and no later than 2052

To address this:

  • Capping global warming at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’

  • The world must become carbon neutral by 2050

  • capping global warming under 1.5C “can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030”.

  • CO2 emissions must peak no later than 2020

 Yes you read that correctly – 2 years from now!!!

The only reason that I am writing this essay is that the IPCC has said that we have one decade that if we act in a concerted manner, even though it may demand sacrifices on our part, we might just be able to hold global warming to 1.5C. If we do that we may prevent a terrible, global disaster and perhaps annihilation and that if we can do that we may have time to develop ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere although this is a very challenging task.

And unfortunately, global warming builds on itself and its effects can last a long time.

The Geological Society of America reported in 2015 that:

  • because the oceans take decades to centuries to respond fully to climatic forcing, the climate system has yet to register the full effect of recent greenhouse gas increases.

  • the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is now ~40% higher than peak levels measured in ice cores spanning 800,000 years of age, and the methane concentration is 1.5 times higher.

  • carbon-climate model simulations indicate that 15%–40% of the anthropogenic CO2 “pulse” could stay in the atmosphere for longer than a thousand years, extending the duration of fossil-fuel warming and its effects on humans and other species.

  • The acidification of the global ocean and its effects on ocean life are projected to last for tens of thousands of years and, on the basis of documented climate changes in the past, lead to extinction of species.

A 97% consensus of experts in a scientific field is amazingly high for any scientific endeavour but it seems that there are still people who are waiting for the other 3% to come on board before they will accept global warming is happening now, is caused by humans, that our response is totally inadequate, that it is going to get worse and may destroy life as we know it.

The Australian Conservation Foundation Executive Officer, Ms O’Shanassy said this scientific reality was being denied and ignored by many of Australia’s elected representatives and irresponsible parts of industry.  “Despite overwhelming evidence, they have delayed, wrecked and dismissed action to cut climate pollution for several decades,” she said.

Humanists, with their secular beliefs, their commitment to rational thought and evidence based decision making, are in an ideal position to proactively support scientists, advisory bodies and organisations that are trying to get the message across that climate change is real, global warming is happening and is going to get worse and that we need to act now, globally, nationally and locally if we are to have any chance of mitigating its effects.  We need to put our words into action.

Elizabeth Dangerfield

In Part 3 I would like to explore why most of us seem to be unable to do what it takes to prevent global warming destroying our world and what we can do about it.

 And in Part 4, I would like to talk about some practical things that we could do, both individually, and as an organisation, to address this urgent issue

Photo by Wolf Schram on Unsplash