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News of Rapid Glacial Melting Raises a Big Question for Presidential Candidates

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By Dave Lindorff

Okay. Enough about race.

We've got a bigger problem here than how to get along with each other, as important as that may be, and that's how to make sure that any of us--or our children and grandchildren--are around in another hundred years.

Fast on the heels of reports about the increasingly, and unexpectedly rapid melting of giant ice sheet, come even more scary reports about accelerated glacial melting in Antarctica, where there is a whole lot more ice.

Taken together, if these trends, which are based upon extensive photographic and on-the-ice observations, continue, not only could we see the oceans rise not just a few feet, but perhaps 15 feet within most of our lifetimes, with devastating results for coastal cities and regions around the world, but we could see runaway global warming ignited that could put the earth on a one-way trip to a mass extinction event worse, perhaps, than what hit the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

In a remarkable book titled Six Degrees, author Mark Lynas, a science writer with National Geographic Magazine, documents in chilling detail what will happen to life on earth, and to the earth itself, with each degree celsius that the earth's average temperature rises.

Chapters 1-3, which document temperature rises of 1-3 degrees celsius (about 2-6 degrees fahrenheit) are pretty disturbing, but the later chapters documenting temperature rises of 4, 5 and 6 degrees celsius, are truly nightmarish. And the scariest part is that once you get to the 3 degree celsius level, the stage gets set for the higher temperatures, making it difficult if not impossible to avoid the increasingly worsening scenarios. This is because once the temperature gets a few degrees out of whack, crucial forests die off, whole swaths of temperate zone landmasses become desert, and worst of all, the permafrost in the Siberian and North American tundra disappears, freeing massive amounts of trapped methane gas from the rotting swamps and peat bogs that cover that region. And methane, remember, is 23 times as potent a global warming gas as is carbon dioxide.

Worse yet, as melting polar regions lead to a slowdown in the oceanic currents and as the stagnating seas begin to warm, an even greater danger--the release of even vaster quantities of methane trapped as icy hydrates under the sea floor--is posed. If these hydrates pop to the surface in massive "burps," they could, Lynas reports, mimic several such events in the Earth's past, causing global temperatures to soar, and the oceans to become stagnant, anoxic (devoid of oxygen), lifeless pools, which would then begin emitting vast amounts of toxic sulfur dioxide gas. On several occasions, Lynas notes, life itself was threatened on Earth when just such a thing happened, and if such a scenario played out again, life would be threatened again. The difference is that now the sun itself is hotter than it was 55 or 150 million years ago, making a return to "normal" that much more problematic.

Scientists can debate the risks of such a disaster's occurring, and certainly there is (thank goodness!) a minority view that we are not headed towards climate catastrophe.

Hope, as candidate Barak Obama is wont to say, is a fine thing, and I'm all for hope.

But here's the rub: If the majority scientific view is correct, and there is even a small chance that the Earth is headed towards a historically unprecedented rapid heating event that would bring temperatures into the range where methane will start to be the main threat, then doesn't prudence and sanity require that we embark ASAP on efforts to prevent that happening?

The cost of seriously combating climate change now--and I'm not talking about switching from cars that get 25 mpg to cars that get 60 mpg, and switching from coal-powered generating plants to LNG-powered plants; I'm talking about eliminating the internal combustion engine as a mode of transportation, and eliminating carbon-fueled generating plants altogether--would be enormous. That is clear. To actually cut global carbon emissions by 80 percent from current levels over the next decade, we would, economists say, have to forego a couple percentage points of global economic growth every year, cut consumption dramatically, embark on major campaigns to save rainforests, and halt and even reverse population growth. We would, ultimately, have to change our entire economic model from one of growth to one of sustainability.

But how do we compare that kind of hardship with extinction?

Let's say, hypothetically, that there is a 10-percent chance that we are headed down a road that leads to extinction of the human race in a scant 1-200 years, if we do nothing dramatic to change course. And let's say there's a 90 percent chance that nothing bad is going to happen. Should we take that gamble and carry on as we are?

If you say yes, let me change the odds. Suppose there's a 30-percent chance we're headed the way of the dinosaur if we don't change our ways dramatically? Still think we should just carry on?

Personally, I think the evidence before my eyes, in the earlier budding of the trees that I have witnessed just over the last five or six years, and the evidence of the melting away of the Arctic ice cap, not to mention the above-mentioned galloping melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, suggests that the odds of disaster are much, much greater than 50 percent (in fact, I think they're closer to 90 percent!).

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Dave Lindorff, winner of a 2019 "Izzy" Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism from the Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca, is a founding member of the collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper (more...)

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