Sunday, September 16, 2012

Melting the Freeze on the Arctic Melt

Because the political battles looming with the US election make such great news content we tend to be locked into a very short term horizon in thinking about the issues that matter. Add to this the candidates tendency to want to boil their campaigns down to simplistic sound bites focusing on the one issue that their minders estimate will gain them the most traction, and it can seem that democracy, especially one like ours where the cost of campaigns means political candidates are on message all the time for the sake of their fundraising machinery, does not make for an educated or enlightening public discussion of any issue with a long-term window for action or consequences.

That's why the issue of climate change, despite the worst drought in sixty years and the prospect of food price spikes ahead this winter around the world, is receiving a very muted reception on the campaign trail. Beyond the prospect of jobs or energy independence, there is little mention of what was a central issue in the last two elections, global warming and its attendant climate change, and no mention at all about the news that came out in the last week from the US government itself: the melting of ice in the Arctic has reached an unprecedented rate of speed. Have we reached the point of exhaustion on an issue where our very survival as a society might be at stake?

I remember in the 1990s when environmental; groups first warned that if nothing was done, the North Pole could be ice free by the middle of this century. But this summer the volume of sea ice  as measured by satellites has reached the smallest ever seen, and the remaining ice is so thin that US government scientists are predicting a blue North Pole by the end of the next decade. The implications for coastal regions, wildlife, and the planet's weather patterns are frightening, but the response to the scientific findings have been nothing but underwhelming. For Republicans, who have made it a mantra of their political culture that climate change is a hoax, to walk this particular piece of science denial back will be very difficult. But the Obama administration has also yet to come up with a forceful plan and policy statement beyond their already stated platform calls for a growing reliance on renewable energy to cut our carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2020.

My question is, if the Arctic ice is in a death spiral, do we need to be much more proactive, or just resign ourselves to living in a vastly different, almost uninhabitable planet? And in case you think I am scaremongering, here is the scenario painted by NASA's James Hansen in a recent NYT op-ed:

“Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Aside from commentary on the environmental blogosphere, you would think from observing the mainstream media that the melting Arctic was about on a par with stagnating SAT scores or inner city crime, something designed to elicit politically correct reflex statements and counter-statements on the Sunday talk shows. In fact, the fallout from an ice-free Arctic would be immensely unsettling, and in the worst case scenarios of the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet and a runaway warming, could spell the end to the conditions that have sustained human life on Earth.

But there are calls to action from a wide spectrum of organizations from the League of Women Voters to Greenpeace. It may be that simmering under the surface, there might just be a groundswell of support for a much tougher line on the human activities that are driving the pace of melting.
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