Part of the Series
Climate Disruption Dispatches
Planet or Profit
I’ve been writing these climate dispatches every month for over three years, and each successive dispatch becomes more difficult to write than the last, as the impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) become increasingly severe.
Species, ecosystems, glaciers, sea ice and humans themselves continue to absorb and pay for this human experiment of industrialization gone horribly awry. Many are paying with their very existence.
Two months ago, I spent some time researching and writing in Australia. I visited the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), where I reveled in the majesty of intact towering coral structures flourishing with marine life. Yet I was also devastated during this visit — again and again, I happened upon bleached out and silently dead areas of barren coral wasteland, which not long ago teemed with living beings. Roughly 20 percent of the coral on the outer reef were already bleached, and on their way towards death.
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While snorkeling on the reef during the last afternoon I was there, the signal from the boat to return was given. It was late afternoon, and time to head back to land. I took several long deep breaths, supersaturated my lungs with sea air, and dove down 30 feet to the coral. I swam alongside mostly intact coral structures in all their brilliant colors, teeming with fish. Having interviewed and snorkeled with GBR experts all day, I was preparing to break the story of this year’s GBR bleaching event. I knew the reef was likely on its way out of existence, stunning as that may seem, given that the GBR is the single largest coral ecosystem on the planet, spanning 1,400 miles and easily visible from space. Coral reefs can rebuild from bleaching events, but typically need 10-15 years between events in order to recover. This was the second mass bleaching event in the last two years, and there was no sign of a let up.
I swam with the coral, taking the scene into my soul, staying down until my lungs burned for air. I swam longer, holding my hands out towards the coral, feeling it, knowing this was most likely to be my farewell to the brilliant corals of the dying Great Barrier Reef.
Swimming up to the surface a deep gasp refilled my lungs. I peeled off my mask and wiped my tears, then began my swim back to the boat.
Several weeks later Eyewitness News in Australia reported on scientists giving the GBR a “terminal prognosis” unless ACD is slowed dramatically. By April, scientists were in shock, realizing that two-thirds of the entire reef was now bleached out. Some of them declared the GBR had reached a “terminal stage,” describing the situation as “unprecedented.”
Thanks to ACD, Earth has lost approximately half of all its coral reefs in just the last three decades. A quarter of all marine species depend on reefs. Reefs provide the sole source of protein for more than one billion people, and they are now vanishing before our eyes.
Scientists are now speculating that an era of terminal global coral bleaching might have already arrived, decades earlier than previously expected. The recent bleaching events are so severe, there is no analog in the thousands of years of ancient coral cores scientists use to study past bleaching events.
“This isn’t something that’s going to happen 100 years from now. We’re losing them right now,” marine biologist Julia Baum of Canada’s University of Victoria told the AP. “We’re losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined.”
Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization released its annual State of Global Climate report, stating that record-breaking ACD impacts have pushed the planet into “uncharted territory.”
“Earth is a planet in upheaval due to human-caused changes in the atmosphere,” glaciologist Jeffrey Kargel told The Guardian of the report. “In general, drastically changing conditions do not help civilisation, which thrives on stability.”
As the reefs are dying, ice is rapidly melting away in the globe’s northernmost regions. Arctic sea ice has set a low record for the third year in a row, and March data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that that month was the sixth in a row of near-record or record-low sea ice extents.
To add a startling layer of context for all of this, a report titled “Future climate forcing potentially without precedent in the last 420 million years” was published in the journal Nature Communications. The study found that if fossil-fuel use continues unchecked, the atmosphere could revert “to values of CO2 not seen since the early Eocene (50 million years ago)” by the middle of the 21st century.
Dana Royer, a paleoclimate researcher and coauthor of the study, told Climate Central, “The early Eocene was much warmer than today: global mean surface temperature was at least 10°C (18°F) warmer than today. There was little-to-no permanent ice. Palms and crocodiles inhabited the Canadian Arctic.”
The rapidly changing climate is already taking a palpable toll on human health. In February, scientists warned that increasingly severe droughts across the US over the next three decades may double the size of epidemics of the West Nile Virus. “We thought epidemics would coincide with the most ideal temperatures for (virus) transmission,” Marm Kilpatrick, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement released to the media.
“Instead, we found that the severity of drought was far more important nationally.”
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has warned that ACD will damage the US’s ability to maintain agricultural productivity, as rising temperatures and increasing droughts that plague areas where US food is grown are only going to increase. The study has warned that, without changes, US agricultural productivity will, by 2050, fall back to 1980 levels (for a population that was 114 million less than today’s).
Another recent study showed, distressingly, that as the planet warms, some mammals might actually shrink in size. The study provided evidence that the amount those mammals shrink is directly related to how warm the planet becomes.
In the Arctic, signs of major shifting are afoot. Botanists studying the area have warned that ACD has taken root within the plants on which many Indigenous communities depend. Botanists, along with Indigenous peoples in Nunavik, have noted that Labrador tea, which they rely upon to treat ailments like skin problems, coughs and colds, is far weaker now than it used to be, hence, far less medicinal.
Another man pointed out that, “Willows used to be stubby and sort of short, like knee high. They can now be eight feet tall, and are growing like wildfires for the last 10 to 15 years, maybe longer.” He also noted that ponds are drying up, along with the ducks who used to use them. Instead, he said, pelicans and snakes are appearing. “Before, they never existed here,” he said. Native people living in the Arctic are also noting that tree rings are wider, because the growing season is now longer.
Meanwhile, down in Australia, more than 1,000 kilometers of mangrove forests “died of thirst” during a single month from extreme conditions, including record high temperatures, driven largely by ACD.
Speaking of forests in trouble, scientists have warned that the Amazon jungle is facing a possible death spiral due to the deadly trifecta of industry, agriculture and ACD impacts.
A recent study, titled “Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: Impacts on ecosystems and human well-being,” has shown that ACD is literally reshuffling the areas and ranges of plants and animals around the planet, with profound consequences for humanity. “Human survival, for urban and rural communities, depends on other life on Earth,” the scientists wrote in their study that was published in the journal Science. “Climate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth.”
Positive feedback loops are one of the most important things to understand about abrupt ACD. The most well-known example of one of these is the melting Arctic sea ice. Intact sea ice reflects most solar heating back into space. As the ice melts, more of the ocean absorbs that heat, which melts more of the ice, which causes more heating, and on it goes.
In Canada, a recent scientific study has unearthed another climate feedback loop — this one coming in the form of vast expanses of farmland being exposed by melting snow and ice over longer amounts of time that then make a larger contribution to greenhouse gases and ACD. According to the study, the thawing of previously frozen cropland is burping nitrous oxide into the atmosphere at rates much greater than previously thought, which means that agriculture’s role in generating greenhouse gases has been greatly underestimated.
On a similar note, recent research has shown that ACD could thaw far more permafrost than was previously expected. The study showed that more than 40 percent of Earth’s frozen tundra could unfreeze if global temperatures continue trending upward.
This month, the signs of how rapidly ACD is progressing in the watery realms are glaring and painful.
A report published in March shows that, according to the UN, the world is facing the widest and deepest humanitarian crisis since the end of WWII, as 20 million people face starvation and famine in Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan, with no end in sight.
Underscoring this crisis, another report from this spring has provided evidence that the Middle East and North Africa risk becoming uninhabitable within a few decades, due to lack of accessible fresh water, which has already fallen by two-thirds over the last 40 years.
The 22 countries impacted by this growing water crisis are home to nearly 400 million people, who are also impacted by lack of adequate water for agriculture and food production for their populations that are continuing to grow rapidly.
According to the report, per capita availability of fresh water across this region is already 10 times less than that of the world average, and ACD-driven higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons across the region by 18 days. At current trends, this would reduce agricultural yields another 27 percent — meaning a decrease of 55 percent by 2100, despite rising populations.
Meanwhile, conditions in the ocean are looking increasingly grim.
An algae bloom the size of Mexico in the Arabian Sea reminded people there of a 2008 bloom that killed 50 tons of fish that were starved of oxygen. The fish that inhabit the Gulf of Arabia sustain 120 million people.
As mentioned in the beginning of the dispatch, the Great Barrier Reef is struggling to survive amidst yet another major coral bleaching event. “We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” Terry Hughes, director of an Australian government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University told the New York Times. “In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs — literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead.”
Even the once-pristine Maldives are seeing their coral succumbing to mass bleaching.
And there are no signs of this disturbing trend slowing down. A study published in March revealed that Earth’s oceans are now warming 13 percent faster than they were in 1990, and the rate is accelerating. Another report showed that the rate of oceanic warming has nearly doubled over two decades, and the heat being added to them is reaching into even deeper waters.
Earlier this month, a report revealed that approximately one-third of the Arctic Ocean is, in an astonishingly rapid transition, becoming more like the Atlantic Ocean as warm waters streaming into the Arctic are altering both its productivity and chemistry.
Yet another issue besetting the Arctic due to runaway ACD is ocean acidification, according to another recently published study on the subject. It’s quite simple actually: As increasing amounts of sea ice melt, an increasing amount of ocean is exposed to the CO2-loaded atmosphere. More CO2 is therefore absorbed into the once-pristine waters, thus increasing their acidification, with dire consequences to the biome.
NOAA reported in February that sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic had shrunk to record lows, and it became clear that ACD was on pace to wipe out an Ice Age remnant, Canada’s Laurentide Ice Sheet. It is worth noting that this has not happened in 2.6 million years.
In early April more than 400 icebergs drifted into North Atlantic shipping lanes, an unusually large swarm for that time of year. These kinds of numbers are usually not seen until late May, and the average number of icebergs for the time of year this occurred is around 80. The massive flotilla of icebergs was released thanks to the melting of the Jakobshavn, the largest glacier in Greenland. Scientists reported recently that Jakobshavn is now even more vulnerable to ice losses than previously believed.
Scientists also pointed out that the dramatic melting of the Arctic sea ice is already affecting weather patterns around the world by generating more extreme weather events.
In an astonishingly short period of time, Peru has gone from experiencing record wildfires to record flooding. “We’ve rarely seen this kind of rapid and quick change in climatic conditions,” Peru’s Civil Defense Institute member Juber Ruiz told The Guardian.
The wildfires burned furiously from September through November, as the Peruvian Amazon experienced its driest period in two decades, and more than 100,000 acres of rainforest and farm land burned. Then, in January, the droughts gave way to record-setting rains, which killed dozens and destroyed more than 12,000 homes as more than 175 districts around the country had to declare a state of emergency.
In March, in the US, a wildfire near Boulder, Colorado signaled an early kick-off to wildfire season when it forced the evacuation of 1,000 people.
At the time of this writing, wildfires across the US were already off to a furious start, with more than 2 million acres having burned. That number of acres burned is approximately 10 times the average for the time of year it was tabulated, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
A recently published study, led by climate scientist Michal Mann, has shown that the ACD-fueled jet stream is linked to extreme weather events like massive floods and intense heatwaves. Jet streams are fast-flowing major air currents in the atmosphere that have a major impact on climate and weather patterns. The study showed that greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere is slowing down planetary atmospheric waves, resulting in regional summer climate extremes, examples of which include the deadly 2003 European heat wave, extensive wildfires across Siberia in 2010, and record-breaking flooding in Pakistan in 2010.
Looking at the Canadian north, another recent study has revealed a massive thawing area of permafrost covering 52,000 square miles (an area the size of Alabama), where expansive areas of permafrost are literally disintegrating before the eyes of the scientists studying them. As they disintegrate, they are releasing massive amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere. The study, carried out by researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey found that the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can eventually lead to the choking off of life far downstream. Similarly expansive Arctic landscape changes are already evident across huge areas of Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, and scientists already estimate that there is twice as much carbon in the world’s permafrost as there is already in the atmosphere.
Another major study released recently has predicted that ACD will bring air temperatures to Vancouver, Canada similar to — and even exceeding — those in San Diego, California, “in the coming decades.” The study predicts that daytime temperatures in metro-Vancouver will increase 6C by the 2080s, and the city will have to transform itself with requisite air conditioning, melted ski slopes and infrastructure to deal with new sewage problems.
Melting permafrost has created a formation in the Siberian Arctic known as the “doorway to hell,” a giant half-mile-long and 282-foot-deep crater that continues to grow in area and depth. Scientists, worried about what this means for the future of permafrost across the Arctic, are studying the crater, which continues to grow with each successive year and release more and more stored carbon as it does.
Very early spring in the US saw heat spreading across Colorado and other locations, with that phenomenon contributing to increased wildfire risk. The untimely heat extended from the Central US to the Desert Southwest. There, cities like Phoenix experienced summer-like heat long before they used to reach those temperature levels.
Other temperature anomalies continued: The science news service Phys.org reported that even without an El Niño warming ocean waters this year, Earth warmed to its second hottest temperature ever during February, second only to — you guessed it — last year. Earth also experienced its second hottest winter in the history of record keeping. It is worth noting that in the past, Earth did not approach record warm temperatures without an active El Niño — but this year it did just that, and on every single continent.
Thus far, 2017 is in the running to be one of the hottest years on record — following three consecutive years of record-breaking temperatures — due to the highest volume of heat-trapping gases filling Earth’s atmosphere in all of the past 4 to 15 million years, coupled with a dramatic warming of Pacific Ocean surface waters. These forces, and this warming, are obviously continuing into 2017.
How will the US government respond to these clear and terrifying trends?
Denial and Reality
As usual in the Trump era of US politics, there is no shortage of news on the ACD-denial front.
In March, during this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), multiple seminars attempted to make the case that more CO2 in the atmosphere is actually a good thing. One of the presenters told a reporter from Breitbart, “The Earth is in a far better place today” because of increased CO2 levels.
Meanwhile, Trump has been active in reversing Obama’s ACD policy legacy, meager as that was to begin with. Trump called Obama’s ACD policies “stupid,” and has gone on to scrap funding for ACD research, slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, appoint an oil and gas man (Scott Pruitt) as the head of that embattled agency, promote coal, and reverse Obama’s plan to close heavily polluting power plants.
Trump’s anti-ACD-mitigation efforts are on track to ensure the US misses its (non-binding) Paris Climate Agreement target of emissions reductions, with one analyst pegging the target shortfall at more than one billion metric tons of CO2.
The corporate media has consistently maintained complicity in active ACD denial. According to a study by Media Matters, the major networks spent a grand total of 50 minutes on ACD coverage during the entirety of 2016. That pathetic amount was a 66 percent drop in coverage from 2015.
Meanwhile, geoengineering advocates are entering the Trump administration, and bringing with them their plans to spray sun-reflecting chemicals into the atmosphere. Advocates of geoengineering argue for planetary-scale manipulations of Earth systems in order to cool the Earth. Most scientists oppose the philosophy and practice of geoengineering, given the high likelihood of unintended consequences that will ultimately only intensify the impacts of ACD.
Back in the real world, in an example of how topsy-turvy things have become, 17 Republican lawmakers have backed a resolution urging action on ACD, and Trump’s Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis has cited ACD as a national security challenge.
To close out this month’s dispatch on a sobering note, consider the results of a recent study published in Nature Geoscience: For the second year in a row, CO2 in the atmosphere — the primary driver of ACD — is now rising at the fastest rate ever recorded.
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