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The Climate Emergency

John Scales Avery

Quick change is needed to save the long-term future. The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilisation and the biosphere from the most catastrophic effects of climate change it is now more than urgent to act immediately. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground. Forests must be saved from destruction by beef or palm oil production.

These vitally necessary actions are opposed by powerful economic interests, by powerful fossil fuel corporations desperate to monetise their underground "assets", and by corrupt politicians receiving money from the beef or palm oil industries.

However, although some disastrous effects of climate change are already visible, the worst of these calamities lie in the distant future. Therefore, it is difficult to mobilise the political will for quick action. The danger of passing tipping points beyond which climate change will become irreversible despite human efforts to control it is very much real.

Tipping points are associated with feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop. The albedo effect is important in connection with whether the sunlight falling on polar seas is reflected or absorbed. While ice remains, most of the sunlight is reflected, but as areas of sea surface become ice-free, more sunlight is absorbed, leading to rising temperatures and further melting of sea ice, and so on, in a loop.

The methane hydrate feedback loop involves vast quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, frozen in a crystalline form surrounded by water molecules. 10,000 gigatons of methane hydrates are at present locked in Arctic tundra or the continental shelves of the world's oceans. Although oceans warm very slowly because of thermal interia, the long-term dangers from the initiation of a methane-hydrate feedback loop are very great. There is a danger that a very large-scale anthropogenic extinction event could be initiated unless immediate steps are taken to drastically reduce the release of greenhouse gases.

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin says, "Science consists in arranging facts in such a way that general conclusions may be drawn from them".

The transition to 100% renewable must take place in about a century because by that time fossil fuels will become too rare and expensive to burn.

The thermal inertia of the oceans contributes to the contrasting timescales. One of the reasons why the worst effects of climate change lie in the long-term future is that the oceans warm very slowly. As the oceans slowly warm there will be sea level rise due to thermal expansion of water, and to this will be added the effects of melting ice at the poles. Rising ocean levels have already affected island nations such as the Maldives, and coral reefs are already dying.

Deforestation is one of the main causes of climate change. It is second only to the emission of CO2. In Indonesia, rainforests are deliberately burned, with the cooperation of corrupt politicians, to clear land for palm oil plantations. Rainforests of South America are also illegally burned, in this case for the sake of Soya Bean plantations and cattle ranches. In both cases, loss of habitat accelerates the extinction of threatened species.

One can predict that these factors related to climate change will combine to produce an extremely large-scale famine by the middle of the 21st century if steps are not taken to prevent it.

Unchanged life-styles are not an option. Business as usual is not an option. Inaction is not an option. Public education is needed. Votes for environment-friendly politicians are needed. A carbon tax is needed. Subsidies to fossil fuel giants must stop. Extraction of fossil fuels must stop. Renewable energy infrastructure must quickly be constructed. Renewable energy infrastructure represents an unprecedented investment opportunity.

There is reason for optimism because of the economic tipping point. Renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels. With the help of renewable-friendly governmental policies, the transition that the world so urgently needs can be driven by economic forces alone.

People give loving care to their children and grandchildren, but it makes no sense to do so unless they also give them a future world in which they can survive.


[John Scales Avery ([email protected] gmail.com) who is now working on a book with title "The Climate Emergency: Two Time Scales", has urged the concerned people to do something to save the future generation before it is too already late. The political right doesn’t bother about climate change. They have found a new commander in Donald Trump. As for the political left they are yet to realise the gravity of the problem.]

Frontier
Vol. 50, No.30, Jan 28 - Feb 03, 2017