04. 12. 2016

Climate Fight Night: Donald Trump -v- Peter Wadhams

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This would, of course, be an odd and rather unevenly matched fight, Donald Trump being the President Elect of the United States of America, and Peter Wadhams being a very eminent but still relatively unknown polar scientist based in the UK. I’m putting them together in a metaphorical boxing ring simply because they were both competing for maximum share of my brain on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th November: by one of those unplanned conjunctions, I finished reading Peter Wadham’s utterly extraordinary book, ‘A Farewell to Ice’, on the very day that Donald Trump won enough votes in the weird US electoral system to become the next President of the United States.

The cause of the fight is obvious. Donald Trump still denies the reality of accelerating climate change, however much he may now seek to resile from some of his more fantastical denialist utterances during the election campaign; and Peter Wadhams, on the basis of a lifetime’s research, has described what’s going on in the Arctic as a consequence of accelerating climate change as ‘an unmitigated disaster for the Earth’.

You will have already noticed my emphasis on the language of denial. Part of the intense and still very painful post-mortem of the failure of the Democrats to defeat such an egregiously horrendous candidate as Donald Trump is the suggestion that US liberals (ie Democrats) had exacerbated the alienation of millions of disempowered, predominantly white working class voters in the USA by insulting their intelligence in denigrating them all as ‘climate change deniers’.

Well, bollocks to that, is all I can say – a summary assertion to which I shall return in the second half of this blog. First, let me share with you why I’ve described Peter Wadham’s book as ‘utterly extraordinary’, given that we’ve both got ‘skin in the game’ here.

During the 2015 UK General Election campaign, Peter Wadhams took the Green Party to task for failing to make a sufficiently powerful case for climate change taking precedence over every other election issue – including the economy, austerity, the NHS and so on. I felt that was unfair, knowing that this imbalance was at least as much to do with the ‘agenda fixing’ of the mass media as with any direct failure on the part of the Green Party. So I duly took him to task, personally, for such an unwarranted attack.
When meant that I took on Peter Wadhams’s ‘Report from the Arctic’ with a certain amount of residual pique and even a sense of déjà vu – after all, I’ve been following the debate about what’s going on in the Arctic for at least the last 15 years. But, as I now know, there’s a world of difference between ‘following’ and ‘being immersed’, and I am now duly immersed.

It’s the starkest book I’ve read on the impacts of accelerating climate change for a very long time. He starts with the precipitous decline in Arctic sea ice over the last 30 years, pointing out the critical difference between ‘multi-year ice’ and ‘first year ice’. If no first year ice survives long enough (because of the warming going on in the Arctic) to become multi-year ice, which is what has been happening for a number of years, then we don’t have far to go before we hit one of those dread ‘tipping points’, where the main bulk of ice cover between America and Eurasia will disappear in a remarkably short period of time.

He reveals this ‘Arctic Death Spiral’ with clinical detachment, before launching (rather splendidly!) into an excoriating attack not on the likes of Donald Trump (that comes later!) but on the highly respected (and, by some, revered) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He utterly shreds their continuing reliance on outdated climate models, and their utter refusal to incorporate any hard empirical data (from the front line, as it were) in its endless attempts to avoid ‘extreme views’ and thereby alienate not just more conservative climate scientists, but the whole army of denialists (there’s that word again!) waiting in the wings.

The disturbing data about the disappearing ice is just the start. That disappearance impacts directly on the albedo effect – the measure of incoming solar radiation that is reflected back into space. This goes from 0.1 (no ice at all to reflect back the radiation) to 0.9 (maximum reflectivity, with fresh snow fallen on smooth sea ice). Simply put, the lower the albedo level (less ice, more open water), the greater the radiation gain or warming effect.

This is no small beer. The change in the albedo effect over the last 25 years has been calculated to have contributed the equivalent of around 25% of all CO2 emissions during the same period! Then factor in the knock-on effect when all this radiation gain causes the terrestrial snowline to retreat in coastal areas, and you get another 25%! That’s the equivalent of half the warming caused by all our gas-guzzling, forest-trashing, CO2-spewing activities over the last 25 years.

At which point, you really want him to stop. Fat chance! He then takes us through a further six feedback effects: water vapour feedback; Arctic river feedback; black carbon feedback; ocean acidification feedback; wave ice feedback; and feedback caused by the melting of ice sheets – principally the Greenland ice sheet in the Arctic. This last one is truly depressing: it may still take a long time for the Greenland ice sheet to disappear (which would cause sea levels to rise by around seven metres!), but long before that there will come another of those dreaded tipping points where we won’t be able to stop it melting even if we wanted to.

But even those compounding horror stories are not enough. At that point, Peter Wadhams takes us down to the seabed surrounding these coastal areas (often no more than 150 metres deep) to show how the warming effect, plus the impact of the wind and waves, is warming the water not just on the surface but all the way down to the seabed – where the methane monsters lurk.

“On the seabed, the warmer water encounters frozen sediments. These are relics of the last Ice Age, and represent a seaward extension of the permafrost on land. Within them is embedded methane in a form of methane hydrates or clathrates. This extraordinary solid material looks like ice, but it burns. It is a compound of methane and water, with an open crystal structure which is stable only under conditions of high pressure and/or low temperature.”

Scientists reckon that there’s the equivalent of 400 billion tonnes of methane (a greenhouse gas 22 times more powerful than CO2) captured in these reservoirs – at least 50 billion tonnes of which could be released (with the freed methane bubbling to the surface and on up into the atmosphere) over the next ten years. Yes, that’s right, ten years! This one-off ‘methane pulse’ could add the equivalent of 0.6oC to projected temperature increases over the next few decades.

Ye gods! The sea ice Death Spiral, plus the diminution in the albedo effect, plus the melting Greenland ice cap, plus five further feedback loops, plus a mega-methane-pulse – when exactly did Apocalypse Tomorrow become Apocalypse Now?

“We are not far from the moment when the feedbacks will themselves be driving the change – that is, we will not need to add more CO2 to the atmosphere at all, but will get the warming anyway. This is a stage called runaway warming, which is possibly what led to the transformation of Venus into a hot, dry, dead world. When Jimi Hendrix played the guitar, he had the ability to play passages using feedback alone – his fingers didn’t pluck the strings but he manipulated electronic feedback to produce the sounds. We are fast approaching the stage when climate change will be playing the tune for us, while we stand by and watch helplessly, with our reductions in CO2 emissions having no effect.”

Manfully, Peter Wadhams does then try and cheer us up with a few ‘solutions’: a massive investment in new research in the Arctic; the usual nuclear fantasies (why, or why, do so many brilliant scientists go down this particular cul-de-sac?!), to fracking the leaking methane (crazy, but intriguing!), to the usual portfolio of geo-engineering ‘solutions’, some of which make a great deal more sense than others. But his principal concern is to raise the following question:

“Why then are we doing nothing about it? Why is this risk generally ignored by climate scientists, and scarcely mentioned in the latest IPCC assessment? I fear it is a collective failure of nerve by those whose responsibility is to speak out and advocate action. It seems to be not just climate change deniers who wish to conceal the Arctic methane threat, but also many Arctic scientists, including so-called ‘methane experts’.”

And he’s right. Which is why, despite previous hostile fire between myself and Peter Wadhams, I undertake here and now never to criticise him whoever he criticises, whenever, with whatever level of vituperative rhetoric. Because if we’re not listening to the likes of Peter Wadhams, then we too are in denial.

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