More than 2 million square kilometers of Arctic ice that should be there, isn’t. A few years ago, UN models predicted climate change would lead to ice-free Arctic summers within 100 years. Now, some scientists say it could melt away completely within the next few 100 weeks. And there is next to no chance it will recover.
The Arctic ice cap shrunk to its smallest recorded size on August 21, three weeks before the end of the normal melt season. Data from several teams of scientists said the ice cap melted past the minimum records for ice extent and area that were set in 2007 — a year Realclimate.org called “apocalyptic for Arctic sea ice”.
The 2007 melt record was a big surprise to Arctic-watchers and made headlines around the world. That year, unseasonably warm, sunny weather helped drive the ice cover to a record low. But this year, even though the extra-warm conditions were absent, even more ice has disappeared.
Earlier this month, a huge Arctic cyclone — or “Arcticane” — hammered the fragile ice pack for days and the sea ice extent fell dramatically. Such storms are very unusual. Scientists think warming Arctic sea temperatures and falling land snow cover will make them happen more often.
But the US National Snow and Ice Data Center director Mark Serreze told Climatecentral.org that the Arcticane probably had a minor impact on this year’s big melt. He said a much more important factor is that the Arctic sea ice is so much thinner than before.
Last year, the US Polar Science centre said half the ice cap’s volume vanished in the five years from 2006. Serreze said the ice “has gotten so thin now that large areas completely melt out in summer. We no longer need a ‘boost’ from weather patterns favoring summer ice melt like we saw in 2007.”
The region has warmed much faster than elsewhere on the planet. In March, three scientists wrote that the “Arctic is warming two to four times faster than the global average”.
Less ice in the Arctic means the planet gets warmer still — as the ice retreats, the darker open water will absorb more heat from the sun, which will melt more ice. But the even bigger problem is that an ice-free Arctic could trigger events that spin global warming into overdrive.
NASA climate scientist James Hansen told Bloomberg on August 17: “Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points — the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates. These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.”
By methane hydrates, Hansen was referring to the huge store of greenhouse gases frozen into ice-like crystals on the Arctic sea floor. Scientists think there is so much global warming potential in the methane stored there that, if released, it would cause a planetary mass extinction event. Huge amounts of methane are also locked in frozen Arctic soils and would be released if the soils were to thaw.
It is not known with much certainly what level of warming might set off the frozen methane time bomb, but the new melt records set in Greenland show its ice sheet is already becoming unstable.
Four weeks before Greenland’s normal melt season ended, scientists reported the melt had already smashed the full season record. The City College of New York’s Marco Tedesco said on August 15: “This year’s overall melting will fall way above the old records. That’s a goliath year — the greatest melt since satellite recording began in 1979.”
The news backed up satellite readings in July, which said the Greenland ice sheet was undergoing an unprecedented melt. NASA said the satellites showed “97% of the ice sheet surface had thawed at some point in July”. The UN estimates that the melting of the entire Greenland ice sheet would cause a 7-metre sea level rise.
Until recently, most scientists thought an average world temperature rise of about 3°C was the tipping point for Greenland’s ice sheet. But new research says the ice sheet’s point of no return is much closer — about 1.6°C.
That’s a wicked problem, because world temperatures are on track to shoot right past the 1.6°C danger zone. Australian author David Spratt said in a recent article: “At the current temperature rise of 0.8ºC we may have already reached Greenland’s tipping point, and with temperature rises in the pipeline (global emissions still rising and no agreement to reduce them significantly), we are very likely to hit 1.6ºC in two, or three, decades.”
Two years ago Mark Serreze told the Inter Press Agency that “the Arctic summer sea ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover”. His warnings, and the warnings countless other scientists have made about the Arctic melt, have been proved right.
Far from being “alarmist”, it turns out climate scientists have been too cautious. Hansen, famous for his ominous warnings about climate impacts, said in an August 3 Washington Post article that he “had a confession to make: I was too optimistic”. He said he “failed to explore how quickly that average [temperature] rise would drive an increase in extreme weather … This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it.”
If we are to live in this warmer world, then we must do so without illusions. The battle to save the Arctic ice has passed — the next challenge is to stop the loss of Greenland ice sheet, which means planning to leave remaining fossil fuels in the ground and quickly bring emissions down to zero.
In the end, it also means a break with the profits-first market economy, which is the root driver of the climate problem. Capitalism thrives on waste, growth, disaster and pollution — to put the needs of this system before the needs of the planet means to willfully court disaster.
To survive on a warmer planet, we’ll need robust, sustainable economic systems that can secure human needs instead of denying them, and that can respect natural limits instead of breaking them.
In the space of a decade, Australia’s mining sector has come to dominate the country’s economic life. In June, Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens said mining investment is tipped to “be about as large as business investment in the rest of the private economy combined” by mid 2014.
The boom has concentrated huge wealth and power in some hands, helping to shape a consensus among politicians and the corporate media that digging stuff out of the ground is now the backbone of Australia’s economy and other sectors must simply make way.
The writer Guy Pearse says Australia suffers from “quarry vision”, a phrase he coined to describe “the rose-coloured glasses through which we view the importance of the resources sector — particularly the coal industry”.
Apart from the mineowners themselves, few groups of people are as blinded by this “quarry vision” as mainstream economists.
Last month, CommSec economist Craig James drew on census figures to produce a report that said mining is generating great wealth in remote and regional Australia. The report said Australia’s 13 richest postcodes are in regional Western Australia, the heart of the iron ore mining boom.
James told the London Telegraph: “It is quite remarkable what is happening in some of these remote areas … It is the modern day equivalent of the gold rush but it has the potential to last a whole lot longer.”
But author Sharyn Munro says there is another story to the mining boom. Most of the new Western Australian mines are in arid regions, such as the Pilbara. In the eastern states and in Australia’s south-west, coalmining is pushing aside established towns and spoiling prime farmland. In her new book Rich Land Wasteland she says big coal and big gas are not leading a gold rush, but a literal “invasion of our country, a taking over of land and a clearing out of people”.
Her book describes the resistance, and too often the defeat, of rural communities battling to save their properties, health and livelihoods from the coalmining and coal seam gas (CSG) juggernaut.
Munro travelled around Australia for a year, interviewing people affected by nearby mines. She found historic villages wiped off the map, polluted rivers and disappearing creeks, towns choking on mining dust, adults and children struggling with sudden health complaints and productive farmland changed into huge open cut mines.
Every place she visited she heard the same story: the coalmines are killing rural communities and destroying the natural environment. And in every place she found growing anger at the mining companies and the politicians who help them get away with it.
Munro told Green Left Weekly that “a quiet revolution of civil disobedience [against coal and CSG] is taking place” throughout the bush.
She said researching her book “took a year on a variety of road trips to various states” to meet with battling individuals and groups in regional areas. “I have kept in touch with most of these people. Nobody’s story got any better. The number of tears I shed while transcribing the [interview] tapes … There is no way you cannot have your heart break.”
One of the most moving stories Munro tells in Rich Land Wasteland is about the small Queensland town of Acland and its single remaining resident, Glenn Beutel. Acland’s other residents are gone, their houses bought by coal company New Hope to make way for its New Acland mine. Beutel had refused to sell up, telling Munro “this place is part of my soul”.
Rich Land Wasteland also tells the story of a young mother from Bulga, a small town in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley. The valley has been completely transformed in the past decade by open cut coalmining. The companies insist the dust from their mines is under control and poses no health risks.
But one day the mother was shocked to find black coal sludge at the bottom of her baby’s milk bottle. It ended up in the bottle via the kitchen kettle, which had the black sludge caked around the heating element, doubtlessly blown in as dust from nearby coal operations.
Munro told GLW that she first decided to write her book because three of her grandchildren were living in Singleton in the Hunter Valley. Singleton is now surrounded by giant, open cut coalmines.
She said: “Since the late 90s, I’ve watched the pollution growing [in the Hunter]. You get assured that rigorous environmental guidelines are adhered to.” But she said things could change only “if people know what is going on, not only the health damage, but also the environmental damage”.
Another issue is that so few people outside coal-affected communities know about the crisis. Munro said: “There is a big knowledge gap even in the country … Even if you live in the country and you don’t live near one of these coalmining areas, you just have no idea. In the cities, it’s only people who are socially and environmentally concerned who know. But people don’t know about the mental and emotional damage. And very few people know the scale of it: it’s just enormous.”
Munro said that the economic argument that coalmining is needed for Australia’s prosperity makes sense only for those who refuse to count all the real human and environmental costs.
“The health costs [of coal] alone have been shown to outweigh to mining income,” she said. “It’s not even good for the economy, it’s only good for those who are on the right side of the mining boom. It’s really unhealthy for an economy to be dependent on one thing.”
Munro said the solution is to “put mining back into its box as another business. I do not see why one business should be allowed to override the wishes of other businesses and landowners, but why that one business should be able to trump other rights and environmental rights.
“The federal government needs to have more powers on water and environmental controls. Things need to be more transparent. The whole assessment process needs to be changed and carried out by independent experts. People don’t trust the government or the companies any more. There is total disillusionment. People [in the bush] who voted Liberal and National all their lives are at a loss.
“Meanwhile, these companies are out to get all they can. That Australia can be contemplating signing international agreements on reducing climate change [while allowing coal to expand] is two-faced for a start.”
The Brumby’s Bakery chain has apologised after its managing director was caught out telling franchisees to jack up prices and “let the carbon tax take the blame”. Brumby’s parent company distanced itself from the scandal, telling the stock exchange it was just an “isolated incident”.
Yet no one should think Brumby’s is the only one. It takes no special foresight to work out that Australia’s big businesses will game the carbon price.
They exist to make profit. They have an obligation to shareholders to raise the company bank balance. If they can find a way to make money out of the carbon price by passing on more costs to consumers, they’ll do it.
But don’t expect too many more companies to make Brumby’s mistake and actually put their incriminating design to scam the system in writing. In other cases, the corporate scams will be more sophisticated and difficult to prove.
The companies to keep close watch on for carbon price gouging are not the bread shops, but the energy and finance companies. Because they play special roles in the economy, they have the power to shape the market to suit themselves.
For example, Western Australian energy company Synergy has decided to make its green power customers pay the carbon price, even though the carbon price does not affect renewable energy.
Similar problems have plagued Europe’s scheme. In its first phase, Europe’s big polluting companies made consumers pay the “costs” for carbon permits they received for free, gouging about €19 billion in windfall profits from customers.
Another big issue with Europe’s carbon price scheme has been the price itself, which has gone up and down like a yo-yo. Twice, the price of carbon permits have dropped to zero.
The price volatility is due to periodic droughts and gluts in the market. At times, the companies that control the most carbon credits — energy, industrial and finance companies — flood the market with extra permits and the price falls. Other times, permits dry up and the price goes up again.
Every time there is a big price shift, someone makes lots of money. But the yo-yo effect does not give economic certainty for zero or low emissions technologies. Some European energy companies have made fortunes selling carbon permits when they are high and buying them up again when they are low.
These carbon-trading problems have led to some perverse outcomes. Czech energy giant CEZ made so much money off a shrewd carbon trading deal that it built itself a new coal-fired power station.
In a 2009 paper, then-CSIRO economist Clive Spash said CEZ did it by being “allocated a third of the country’s allowances, selling them in 2005 when the price was high, being able to buy them back after the price collapsed and then using the trading profit to invest in coal energy production”.
The CSIRO refused to publish the paper, which was titled “The Brave New World of Carbon Trading”. Spash’s argument — “the focus on such markets is creating a distraction from the need for changing human behaviour, institutions and infrastructure” — made no impression on the mainstream debates about Australia’s carbon price.
Another carbon price swindle to watch out for are CO2 accounting tricks. The 500 Australian companies that pay the carbon price are allowed to measure and provide their own emissions statistics to the government. The government uses the company figures to add up the tax.
“Rentseeking” is a term for firms that manipulate the economy to extract value from others, rather than help add value to the economy itself. Carbon trading researcher Larry Lohmann has said: “Carbon-trading programmes such as the EU emissions trading scheme, in which pollution rights are given to private companies depending on how much they say they have been polluting in the past, are fertile grounds for rentseeking.”
That’s a warning to us. Australia’s new carbon price scheme awards pollution rights to companies based on how much they say they have polluted in the past.
Australia’s carbon price has included one partial safeguard — a floor price of $15. This limit means the price can fall only so far, stopping the worst of the yo-yo effect. But now Labor and the Greens are negotiating to lower or even do away with the floor price, which was due to last until 2018.
If that happens, it will be one more juicy invitation to powerful firms that are not at all bothered about how carbon pricing is supposed to work in theory.
“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck told AP on July 3. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”
By late June, about 72% of the US landmass was in drought or was classified as dry. US meteorologist Jeff Masters said on July 3: “The ongoing heat wave is one of the most intense and widespread in U.S. history.”
Fellow meteorologist Christopher C. Burt said so many temperature records were being broken that, “there is no point in listing or even attempting to summarise all of the June monthly records set in the region from Missouri to Maryland and south to Georgia during the June 28-30 period.”
The US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compiled the nationwide records anyway. It said on July 2 that 2440 daily heat records were broken in the past week and 3917 in the past month. The 190 all-time heat records broken almost doubled the total for the past decade, said Climatecentral.org
AP said that since the start of the year, about 40,000 daily heat records have been broken compared with just 6000 daily cold records.
Burt said the heatwave was “especially extraordinary” because 95% of past heat records in the area were set in the typically warmers months of July and August.
Masters said July will bring no respite from the heatwave. By mid-July, weather models predict “the potential for crazy-hot conditions capable of toppling all-time heat records in many western states”. Drawing on US Department of Agriculture reports, he also said “it is likely that a multi-billion dollar drought disaster is underway in the [US] Midwest”.
Perhaps worst affected by the heatwave are the 1.8 million Americans that were still without power on July 3. A huge “derecho” thunderstorm pummelled parts of the US east coast on June 29, cutting power to 1 million homes from North Carolina in the south to New Jersey in the north.
On July 3, ABC news said more than half a million people in the Washington DC area were without power. It said: “officials fear the death toll, already at 22, could rise because of the sweltering heat”.
The US’s western states are “headed into a hot, dry summer of potentially ferocious blazes,” the Los Angeles Times said on July 2. A huge firestorm engulfed parts of Colorado in June, destroying about 700 homes.
The US Forest Service’s Tom Harbour told the LA Times the drought conditions meant: “This year, fires are going big … We’ve had some really extraordinary runs … fires that are running 10 miles in lighter fuels. Fires that are running miles in forested areas.”
US agriculture department undersecretary Harris Sherman, who is in charge of the US Forest Service, told the July 2 Washington Post: “The climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”
At the April 27 launch of Australia’s Climate Action Summit, I spoke for the Socialist Alliance on a panel with Greens leader Christine Milne, former Liberal leader John Hewson, ALP President Jenny McAllister and Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Ged Kearney.
If Australia were a democracy and governments had no choice but to carry out the will of the majority, we’d be well on our way to a 100% renewable power grid.
Recent polling organised by climate action groups around the country found that 94% of 12,000 people polled said they wanted big solar power stations built in Australia. And 93% of those polled said the government should invest public money to make that happen.
Big solar power stations use a field of mirrors to capture heat from sunlight. As they can store excess heat, big solar plants can run at night or in cloudy weather.
Australia has some of the best conditions in the world for solar power. About 60% of Australia’s energy needs could be met with it.
In the long run, big solar is also a big money-saver. Initial set up costs are high. But because the energy source is free, big solar will save many billions of dollars worth of coal and gas bills in coming decades.
The 100% renewables survey reported many of those polled said they supported big solar power because it would help boost employment. Unlike fossil fuels, solar power is a job-rich option.
Compared with big solar, gas-fired power is a job killer. Beyond Zero Emissions says that building big solar and wind power in Port Augusta would create about 20 times more permanent jobs than a gas-fired power plant.
Fossil fuel industries are already killing jobs elsewhere in Australia. The Australia Institute says a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Gladstone will cause such huge economic dislocation that it will destroy 1600 more jobs than it will create. And, taking advantage of a tight rental market, landlords will hike up rents once the plant opens. Many small businesses, or unemployed and pensioner Gladstone residents on fixed incomes, will be priced out of town.
Do you think the owners of the Arrow LNG plant — Royal Dutch Shell and Petrochina — give a damn about these consequences? Of course not. Once that plant gets built the owners will rake in the cash. If they rake in a lot, that will free up capital to invest in the next profitable project, and the next after that. That is what matters to them.
Gladstone’s two-speed economy of big winners and big losers captures on a small scale what the mining and resources industry is doing to the whole Australian economy.
Australia’s mining boom, which is really still an investment boom, is hoovering up foreign and domestic private capital as profits soar. But the boom has pushed the rest of the economy to the brink of recession.
The mining boom is helping push workers out of manufacturing jobs. Huge coal seam gas and coal developments threaten to ruin entire rural economies and wreck irreplaceable farmlands.
Alongside hurting farmers, mining companies are trampling over the long-term needs of Australia’s tourism, wine and other industries.
Taking into account its overall impact on the economy and employment, Australia’s so-called mining boom is a curse, not a blessing. And above the wreckage rise the mining barons — richer, more powerful and with more reasons to not change course than ever before.
Alongside the economic dislocation, the mining and resources juggernaut creates environmental havoc. Once again, the ecological tragedy inflicted on the town of Gladstone captures on a small scale what is taking place on a big scale.
Dredging in Gladstone Harbour — on behalf of coal and gas interests — has transformed a picturesque, world-heritage listed waterway into a toxic, polluted nightmare.
On a global level, the fossil fuel and mining companies have expanded their operations, ignoring the climate change danger. Last week, the International Energy Association said global greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year.
The IEA said emissions have never been measured so high. It said unless we turn around and cut emissions quickly in the next few years, the Earth’s average temperature rise will cross the 2°C threshold. Above that point, scientists say we can expect much stronger climate change impacts: longer droughts, fiercer storms, extreme weather patterns and biodiversity loss.
What’s most shocking about the IEA measurements is how carbon emissions are worsening. In the early 1990s, global emissions rose by about 1% a year. Twenty years later, and despite all the scientific evidence and the green technologies available, investment decisions based on profit have made greenhouse gas emissions three times worse.
To keep profits up, the fossil fuel economy has to treat our atmosphere the same as it treats Gladstone Harbour: a dumping ground for waste.
This disastrous record of the past two decades should cause more observers to doubt the official wisdom about the climate crisis, which says market forces must play the main role in the transformation to a safe climate. In practice, the capitalist market has hugely rewarded the companies that are taking us down the road of disaster.
The argument for market based solutions to the climate crisis is based on faith, not experience. There is no body of evidence that suggests corporate greed, self-interest and the profit motive can help us in this cause.
But once politicians translate their faith in the market into political policy, it means that science-based policies that conflict with big capital’s need to expand in destructive ways are cast aside.
The science says we cannot afford this barren faith: we have no time to lose. We’re well into the climate change danger zone already. But big solar power is a hopeful option. Renewable energy is job-rich, clean, modern, healthy, affordable and necessary.
Only public money can get big solar power built in Australia in time to make a difference. That kind of public investment makes the most economic sense and the most environmental sense.
The private sector is not going to do it — indeed, the mining and resources sector, and the rest of the 1%, will fight it every step of the way. And so the fight for a sunny, windy job-rich future will also be a fight for real democracy, a society where the wishes of 94% of people actually means something.
The gas industry is fond of saying that burning gas for energy will help tackle climate change. Australian energy company AGL says burning coal seam gas (CSG) results in 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal. Industry advertising campaigns bump up that figure to 70%.
But a new peer-reviewed study has found that replacing coal-fired power stations with gas won’t help stop climate change at all. The study said a worldwide move from coal to gas would not cut greenhouse gases in the next 100 years, and maybe not for 250 years.
The study, by Nathan Myhrvold from technology company Intellectual Ventures and Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, was published on February 16 in the US Institute of Physics’ Environment Research Letters.
The authors carried out a “life cycle analysis” of the emissions from various technologies and compared them with coal. For natural gas, the study accounted for the emissions created by building new gas-fired power plants and the methane — a greenhouse gas with a warming impact about 100 times worse than carbon dioxide over 20 years — that leaks from drilling and transporting gas.
The study also took into account the long time that greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere and the very slow pace that the world’s oceans will cool down. Greenhouse gases emitted today will still be warming the planet decades from now.
Myhrvold and Caldeira’s results wipe out the gas industry’s claim that gas is a “transition fuel” that can buy us time to avoid runaway climate change. Even if all coal-fired power plants in the world were replaced with gas over the next 40 years it would hardly make a difference.
They said: “Natural gas plants emit about half the greenhouse gases emitted by coal plants of the same capacity, yet a transition to natural gas would require a century or longer to attain even a 25% reduction in [high greenhouse gas emission] warming.
“Natural gas substitution thus may not be as beneficial in the near or medium term as extrapolation from ‘raw’ annual greenhouse gas emissions might suggest.”
The report concluded that burning gas for energy “cannot yield substantial temperature reductions this century”.
Myhrvold told Climatecentral.org’s Mike Lemonick on February 28: “The most surprising thing we found is that unless you switch to a form of energy that cuts emissions really drastically, you basically don’t get any real effect …
“If you take 40 years to switch over entirely to natural gas, you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”
Myhrvold told Climatecentral.org that several people had challenged some of the study’s assumptions about the life cycle emissions from gas. But he insisted that it did not affect the study’s key conclusions.
He said: “The main idea is that if you’re transitioning to something that’s only twice as good as coal, it’s not really worth your time. If you’re doing something that’s better by a factor of 10, it’s reasonable.”
Myhrvold also told Climateprogress.org’s Joseph Romm that the study did not model the climate impact of “unconventional” gas sources, such as shale and coal seam gas.
He said estimates of the emissions caused by unconventional gas are “still controversial” because relatively few studies have been made. But he said “people are coming in with higher emissions from shale than conventional gas. That would tend to make any shale gas scenarios worse than the natural gas scenarios we cover”.
Myhrvold and Caldeira’s findings are similar to other recent studies of the climate impact of gas.
In September last year, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Tom Wrigley published a peer-reviewed study that said: “In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades — out to the mid 22nd century [if gas leakage rates reach 10%.]”
Myhrvold and Caldeira’s report warned that even if zero carbon energy is built to replace coal “there is no quick fix”. Even a fast rollout of wind and solar power may not lead to any cut in greenhouse gases until after 2050.
However, they said: “Despite the lengthy time lags involved, delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond. This underscores the urgency in developing realistic plans for the rapid deployment of the lowest greenhouse gas emission electricity generation technologies.”
Myhrvold and Caldeira do say that nuclear power should be part of this future zero carbon energy mix, alongside wind and solar energy.
Nuclear power has low greenhouse gas emissions, but it is still a highly dangerous technology that causes other big environmental and social problems. Last year’s Fukushima disaster and the Chernobyl meltdown before are painful reminders of this.
In any case, the climate benefits of nuclear power are far from conclusive. A 2008 study by the University of Singapore’s Benjamin K Sovacool said nuclear emits two times more greenhouse gases than solar panels and six times more than onshore wind farms.
Sovacool said: “So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with [energy] efficiency, or wind farms.”