The Heat Death of American Dreams
By Ed Merta
Wednesday 12 October 2005
Overshadowed by last month's hurricanes was the news that global
warming is likely to accelerate much faster than feared, and it's already
A number of news reports and commentary on Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita have linked the disasters to global warming. Almost nobody noticed a
crucial scientific finding, two weeks earlier, that foreshadows disasters on
a far greater scale in the decades to come.
According to August 11 articles in the magazine New Scientist and
the British newspaper the Guardian, a pair of scientists, one Russian and
one British, report that global warming is melting the permafrost in the
West Siberian tundra. The news made a little blip in the international media
and the blogosphere, and then it disappeared.
Why should anyone care? Because melting of the Siberian permafrost
will, over the next few decades, release hundreds of millions of tons of
methane from formerly frozen peat bogs into the atmosphere. Methane from
those bogs is at least twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the
carbon dioxide that currently drives global warming. Dumping such a huge
quantity of methane on top of already soaring CO2 levels will drive global
temperatures to the upper range of increases forecast for the remainder of
According to the most recent forecast by the UN's
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compiled in 2001, human
industrial emissions are on course to raise global temperatures between 1.4
and 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. The IPCC models didn't account for
methane releases from the Arctic, nor did they consider other natural
sources of greenhouse gases that could be released by human activity. The
agency judged Arctic methane releases to be a real but remote possibility,
not likely to emerge for decades. Now we find that it could very well be
The news of melting Siberian permafrost means, in all likelihood,
that global warming is accelerating much faster than climatologists had
predicted. The finding from Siberia comes amidst evidence, presented at Tony
Blair's special climate change conference last February, that the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet could be in danger of disintegrating - another
warming-induced event once thought to be decades or centuries away.
Meanwhile, according to a September 29, 2005 report in the
Guardian, scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder's National Snow
and Ice Data Center have measured a drastic shrinking of ice floes in the
Arctic Ocean. Arctic waters are now expected to be ice-free well before the
end of this century.
How many more milestones will there be? The prospects of a worst
case scenario, with a temperature increase approaching or exceeding 5.8
degrees Celsius, are increasing dramatically, with all the attending
disasters that would entail - inundated coastlines, extreme storms and
drought, disease pandemics, collapsing agriculture, massive environmental
And how far will it go? Climate forecasts have long noted that
every increase in global temperature heightens the odds of runaway global
warming, beyond any human control. Continued overheating could unlock more
methane from Arctic regions beyond Siberia. It could cripple the vital
ability of plants and oceans to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, turning them
into gushing sources of new CO2 that accelerate the superheating even
further. The ice caps that help cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight into
space could vanish. In the end, the relentless rise in temperature could
induce a cataclysmic venting of billions of tons of methane from the oceans.
A paper by British scientists Michael J. Benton and Richard J.
Twitchett, published in the July 2003 issue of Trends in Ecology &
Evolution, shows how this could happen. 251 million years ago, at the end of
the Permian era, a release of carbon dioxide from volcanic eruptions
apparently heated the Earth's atmosphere by about 6 degrees Celsius.
This initial increase in temperature triggered, in turn, a massive
release of methane from Arctic tundra and the oceans. Research by Jeffrey
Kiehl and others at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at
University of Colorado, Boulder, tells us what happened next. According to
their paper in the September 2005 issue of the journal Geology, the Earth's
annual mean surface temperature rose by an additional 10 to 30 degrees
The result of this runaway global warming was the greatest mass
extinction since life emerged from the sea - 95 percent of all species in
existence died. That from an initial temperature rise only 0.2 degrees
Celsius more than what the IPCC says could occur by the end of this century.
We now know that human industry is causing in our lifetimes the same kind of
methane release that triggered the Permian extinction.
The news from Siberia means that putting a brake on climate change
in our lifetimes, or our children's, is impossible. If the entire human race
miraculously slashed industrial carbon dioxide emissions today by the most
drastic feasible amount, the temperature would continue to increase for
decades, maybe centuries, according to IPCC forecasts.
The Arctic methane driving the atmosphere toward runaway warming
would thus continue to spew from the permafrost. In any case, the reality of
human behavior is that we will almost certainly not cut our carbon emissions
to zero, so long as current politics and paradigms endure. Unless something
changes in the global zeitgeist, nations will debate and muddle along, and
maybe eventually adopt some further showpiece compromises like the Kyoto
protocol, and we'll tell ourselves it's enough.
By the time political and economic elites realize the ghastly
scope of what's happening, the truly catastrophic changes in our climate and
biosphere will probably be unfolding already.
It seems likely that we are staring down the barrel of the full
force, worst-case scenarios studied by the IPCC and other research
organizations. The future foreseen in those scenarios is hidden amidst a
mind numbing tedium of graphs and scientific jargon. The language is bland,
almost routine. Implicit in the abstract language, though, are real events
and consequences that will devastate the lives of real human beings, on a
scale no one has ever seen. Katrina was a harbinger. The future will be far
To imagine what it might be like is to invite charges of fear
mongering, because it violates the scientific ethos of caution, restraint,
and neutrality, the political and cultural norms of can-do optimism. But
we've reached the point now where we have to start envisioning what we will
face. We have to see the data and projections in human terms, if we hope to
be ready for what our children and their children will have to endure. We
have to start thinking clearly about what the numbers might mean.
For decades, the right derided environmentalists as doom-sayers.
Environmental organizations themselves often hesitated, for fear of losing
credibility, to put their case in stark, apocalyptic terms. It may not be
politic to say so, but growing evidence suggests that the worst-case
forecasts are coming true. The ability of our planet to sustain life is
beginning to disintegrate.
The collapse will accelerate and intensify with each passing year.
At some point, the cataclysm that ended Earth's Permian era, 251 million
years ago, will repeat itself. During the decades or centuries of its
recurrence, we will see the end of technological progress, the destruction
of our civilization, and quite possibly the extinction of our species.
Preventing that outcome will, and should, override any other
political and social issue. Quite literally, nothing else matters now. Every
policy, every issue, must be viewed in terms of how it contributes to human
survival. The impractical and the impossible are now imperative, whether we
know it or not. We will have to eliminate carbon emissions. All of them.
Post-carbon energy sources will be crucial to the eventual recovery of our
climate, centuries or millennia from now.
In the meantime, the environmental collapse will continue
regardless, over many human generations. Human societies face the task of
riding it out as best they can, minimizing the death and misery their
inhabitants must endure. In the end, they will have to redefine
It's time for progressives to face what's coming. Normal politics
isn't enough anymore. Once, the left sought justice and plenty for everyone
in the world of material abundance created by the Industrial Revolution. The
task now is to save something decent and humane as the former things pass
What do we need to do, here and now? How can we do it? What comes
next? Let the conversation begin here.
Ed Merta is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.