Fourth-estate help to forget everything
By its very definition, global warming is a world issue.
Global warming is also, inescapably, the world issue—the only one on track to take and to shorten billion of lives, and the only with the potential to extinguish life worldwide.
Yet the New Zealand Herald’s new online format, like that it replaces, nests the topic not under ‘World’, but under ‘National’, and then under the environment heading. The Sydney Morning Herald manages slightly better with its environment section under World. The Guardian places environment where it belongs on the main menu bar, and still has tabs on ‘Life & Style’ and dating. It even has a section titled ‘Sixth extinction’, subtitled ‘How humans are driving animals and plants to extinction’—to which could be added, ‘at a rate not seen since the Chicxulub bolide did for the dinosaurs.’
The world’s largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India, has a section titled ‘Global warming’, but online readers appear to need either local knowledge or the site map to find it. Not only is the global warming elephant in a back room, the Times of India is totally devoid of a room for the population elephant, despite the subcontinent being set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2025.
While the Times of India’s global warming section has more, and more recent, articles than does the New Zealand Herald, the latter’s latest is a refreshingly unequivocal editorial on the risible, failed, attempt by climate denialists to have the High Court find the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research unscientific in respect to its published surface temperature data:
NIWA’s long-running ‘seven-station’ series shows NZ’s average annual temperature has increased by about 1°C over the past 100 years.
The only positive contribution to come from the denialists’ misuse of the High Court is that it provided Justice Venning the opportunity to offer the marvellously apposite word ‘prolix’ to describe the disingenuous ramblings that are the denialists’ stock-in-trade. Sadly, such folk will keep coming like the walking dead, with their asinine claims unconcerned that their efforts to scare the politicians from acting on climate are taking an increasingly terrible toll on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s latest global warming article is actually a report from the Guardian in which Professor Peter Wadhams predicts the final collapse of Arctic sea ice within four years. Professor Wadhams details just why the rapid warming of the Arctic is quite so terrifying:
As the sea ice retreats in summer the ocean warms up (to 7C in 2011) and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost, frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming.
With the methane genie out of the bottle, all the (coal-fired) photovoltaic panel production in China will not prevent runaway global warming. But rather than immediately choking off the flow of fossil fuel that is fuelling the warming, big oil is poised to unleash the reserves that were previously guarded by the Arctic’s ice. BP is busily assuring the world that it can access these reserves without undue risk of spill. But this is a blatant straw man—spills are the least of the planet’s problems. It is the greenhouse gases that the world’s atmosphere cannot safely take any more of. Carbon dioxide levels don’t just conveniently return to safe levels when emissions are reduced. What goes up, effectively stays up, for more than 1000 years.
In an extremely courageous editorial move on Tuesday, the Rodney Times front-paged an excellent report by Delwyn Dickey on the implications of accelerating sea-level rise. The melting of the little remaining Arctic sea-ice, of course, has very little direct effect on global sea level. But the loss of albedo and release of methane will greatly accelerate the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, particularly those of Greenland—given the disproportionate polar warming that is occurring, on cue. But, as Ms Dickey explains, councils are still working with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 guidelines that didn’t attempt to quantify dynamic ice sheet melt.
Before the facts of continental drift were accepted by mainstream geologists, one denier, Rollin T Chamberlin, famously stated:
If we are to believe in Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything which has been learned in the past 70 years and start all over again.
For good measure, Alfred Wegener’s detractor labelled him ‘footloose’, but he was unintentionally right about the need, from time to time, to forget earlier constructs and to start over. It is thus with global warming. Ms Dickey suggests as much in respect to the Rodney Local Board, which being faintly aware of sea-level rise, is contemplating building up the height of the Sandspit spit, with dredgings from a proposed marina. It would be difficult to devise a less sustainable response to sea-level rise, which will likely see multi-metre inundation this century on its (probably) unstoppable way to a height 80 metres above present day levels.
The complete melting of ice sheets is only other-than a certainty because of the possibility of large-scale geoengineering, which Professor Wadhams believes must now be urgently examined. Given how inherently diabolically risky geoengineering solutions generally are thought to be is presumably a measure of Professor Wadhams’ desperation. Having spent his working life studying sea ice—he served in the 1970 expedition that accomplished the first circumnavigation of the Americas via the Northwest Passage—particularly the thickness data obtained from Cold War Arctic submarine patrols, he seems to be suggesting that deliberate experimentation with the atmosphere is probably now unavoidable.
As wildly risky as large-scale geoengineering probably is, the accidental experiment that humanity is blindly pursuing to the holocaustic brink is arguably far riskier. The fear many have regarding geoengineering is that it will remove pressure to sharply curtail anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is that the fossil-fuel oligarchy must be regulated and taxed into submission. The notion the green growth will defeat fossil fuel business without the need for bans on mining, drilling and fracking is about as legitimate as legalising rape and trusting that the market would find perpetrators more fulfilling outlets for their urges.
The riskiest possible strategy is business-as-usual emissions plus geoengineering. It is akin having the accelerator stick to the floor and the ignition key breaking off, and being left to rely on the brakes to prevent the vehicle bolting. And the petrol tank is still mostly full, although of not particularly clean-burning fuel—that was used pushing atmospheric carbon dioxide from its pre-industrial level of about 280 to its present seasonally adjusted value of 397 parts per million. Rather than rely on the brakes not overheating and failing, the cool-headed response is to prise the accelerator free of the floorboards, by any means available.
With the unfolding catastrophe of more than biblical proportion, the fourth estate has been failing in its sacred duty to inform the citizenry. This is down, it part, to the likes of the people who unproductively tied up so much of the meteorology institute’s time, routinely targeting publications that dare to report on global warming. The Rodney Times, no doubt, will be receive a barrage of invective for having the temerity of, amongst other things, threatening the value of sea-level real estate. The mainstream media, frightened of losing bums on seats and hence advertisers, has for too long pandered to people with no relevant scientific credentials to provide phony ‘balance’ for the peer-reviewed science. Incredibly, the group that took the High Court action relied on two such supposed expert witnesses, who Justice Venning found to be anything but. Of one he said:
Section 25 could only apply if Mr Dunleavy was an expert in the particular area of the science of meteorology and/or climate. He is not. He has no applicable qualifications. His interest in the area does not sufficiently qualify him as an expert. I also accept Mr Smith’s further point that Mr Dunleavy’s views are not capable of offering substantial help to this Court on the issue that it has to determine. To that extent I agree that substantial passages of Mr Dunleavy’s evidence are inadmissible.
But only part of the blame for the failure of the mainstream media can be laid at the door of the fossil-fuel lobby and its willing legions of astroturfers. While global warming is the perfect storm in every respect, the media had the experience of the orchestrated denial of the cancer link with tobacco to alert it as to exactly the lengths and depths an industry is prepared to go to protect its lethal business. That Prime Minister John Key and presidential candidate Mitt Romney can enjoy mainstream support while championing the freedom of big business to frack the planet is a direct reflection of how comprehensively the mainstream media has failed to forget what it thought it knew about the environment and ‘start all over again’. The climate action urgently required is a quantum leap from the average green-leaning person’s thinking. Climate action is not simply something that can be tacked onto the slight greening that folk have become largely comfortable with. For example, the average New Zealander is antinuclear, anti-genetic-modification, and anti– radiata pine. Yet Aotearoa must embrace all those tools intelligently if it’s to not squander its unique opportunity to help navigate the world through the lethal canyon that it has entered. Because it has made a name for itself on the issue, Aotearoa would cause a global double-take if it began a serious exploration of how to quickly replace fossil-fueled shipping, which included nuclear power. With nearly a billion already undernourished and billions facing imminent starvation, food producers have solemn duty to continue to deploy genetic modification, and a solemn duty to put transparency ahead of profit—in fact the whole field must be nationalised, or rather, inter-nationalised.
As for radiata pine, every scrap of temporarily unused land should be considered for its planting. Converting a ten-year old pine tree to fuel is a direct contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast to combusting fossil fuel, including gas, fracked or conventionally extracted. This, of course, is not to diminish the need to establish indigenous species wherever land is not needed for food production. Further, radiata pine is proving useful as a nurse crop for indigenous species.
Shipping in the Arctic, until recently, was mostly nuclear powered. Professor Peter Wadhams’ knowledge of Arctic sea-ice mass decline would be minimal if it were not for the nuclear-powered submarines that prowled beneath it during the Cold War. Now that the Arctic is most of the way to being summer sea-ice-free, the way is clear for conventional shipping, with its grotesquely dirty bunker-fuel emissions, to add a final fossil-fuel insult—soot that darkens not just the scant remaining sea ice but also the ice sheets of Greenland, decreasing albedo and further accelerating melt and sea-level rise. This should serve Aotearoa a sharp reminder that its tourism, far from being ‘100% pure’, is 100% dependant on fossil fuel, and without nuclear power, it has no realistic prospect of meaningfully reducing that dependency.
But because humanity is so utterly energy-dependent, and because the vast bulk of the energy is fossil-fuel derived, the only means of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions that can be immediately deployed is a moratorium on breeding. While asking a generation to largely forgo breeding is a gigantic call, the gruesome alternative is the starvation of billions, as warming devastates agricultural productivity on a global scale. As witnessed by the Arab uprisings, many will risk a violent death, rather than compliantly starve. But for four decades of procrastination, one generation would now not find itself landed with the responsibility to make the ultimate sacrifice: Forgoing the natural expectation of having children.
When climate action makes it to the main menu of mainstream publications, the citizenry will finally be challenged to forget everything it thought it knew about global warming.