Global Warming: The Arctic is Melting

The debate over global warming and the consequences it may or may not have for planet Earth and humanity has been raging for several decades now. Global warming is an endless source of controversy, but one thing is clear – our climate is changing.

The debate over global warming and the consequences it may or may not have for planet Earth and humanity has been raging for several decades now. Global warming is an endless source of controversy, but one thing is clear – our climate is changing.

There is probably not one region in the world today that has not been witness to bizarre and strange changes to weather patterns. Earlier this year we saw the B-15A iceberg, roughly the size of Luxembourg (around 120 kilometres long with an area exceeding 2500 square kilometres) break free and get lodged in McMurdo Sound. Icebergs and icecaps are melting, and Arctic ice freezes later and thaws earlier than in the past. These changes in the Arctic have had a profound impact on wildlife and humans settled there. Ice that used to be safe for hunters to walk on is now thin and unsafe. The walrus population is in decline, the impact on seals has affected polar bears, and the migration patterns of the caribou have seriously affected the population, causing it to dwindle.

The coastlines of the Arctic are eroding and the ice is melting and breaking up. Inhabitants of Banks Island, 400 kilometres north of Tuktoyaktuk, have reported catching Pacific salmon (a rare occasion indeed) on a regular basis and have reported seeing thunder and lightning storms, which is extremely rare. There are now entire swathes of open ocean where for centuries there was only ice.

The residents of Sachs Harbour, a small village on the island also say they have seen mosquitoes and robins. The evidence that this is unprecedented comes from the language of the people itself. “Roger Kuptana, a bird enthusiast, spotted a red-breasted robin. He says: 'I don't know if there's a word in Sachs Harbour for robin. They're so rare here, we don't have names for them.'” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/010510_canadianarctic.shtml.)

As further evidence that this process is real, the U.S. Navy is preparing for an ice-free Arctic and is exploring ways to defend the previously ice-clogged Northwest Passage.

Permafrost melting

It was reported earlier this year that permafrost in Alaska is melting. Environmental scientists and global warming experts expected this to take place sometime around 2050. This is having a major impact on life in the North. Houses are sinking into the ground, and the thawing tundra causes landslides and erosion. But this is not only occurring in Alaska. The “permafrost zone” includes most Arctic land, including northern Canada, Siberia, as well as high mountains areas such as the Alps and Tibet. Every single one of these areas reports permafrost thaw.

This thaw has been attributed to climate warming. As the air temperature warms, so does the frozen earth below it. This has been attributed to “human activity”. Over the past decade ground temperature in Norway, for example, rose 0.4 °C – four times faster than in the previous century.

And now there is evidence that the world’s largest peat bog is melting. Earlier this month it was confirmed that a one million square kilometre area across the permafrost of Western Siberia is turning into a mass of shallow lakes and ponds as the ground thaws.

This will have a massive impact on the environment. Scientists are concerned that the sudden and rapid melting of the permafrost in this region, roughly the size of Germany and France combined, could unleash billions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. Sergei Kirpotin, a botanist at Tomsk State University who has studied the region, describes the situation as an “ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming.” He also explained that the melting of the sub-Arctic region has all happened within the last three to four years.

Kirpotin believes that a critical threshold has been crossed that has triggered the melting. It is clear that in terms of global warming and climate change, that quantity has transformed into quality. On August 11, The Guardian reported that “It is a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying ‘tipping points’ - delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures.” This is dialectics. The climate, the environment of our planet, has reached a critical state, where any small change can produce sharp and sudden changes, and have an effect far greater than what one would think it should have. Small quantitative changes, taking place over a number of years, have suddenly transformed into a qualitative change.

Massive changes in climate could also have a similar effect in politics and diplomacy, as the Pentagon acknowledged this year in a report on climate change (http://www.ems.org/climate/pentagon_climate_change.html). The Pentagon is ultimately not so concerned with the process itself, how to prevent further damage, or how to reverse it. They are concerned with what the pressure on resources and the human population will mean for the security of US interests.

Western Siberia has warmed faster than anywhere else on the planet. Over the last 40 years there has been an increase in average temperatures of 3 °C . The rate of the warming in Siberia is believed to be the result of human activity, Arctic oscillation (a cyclical change in atmospheric circulation), plus “feedbacks” caused by melting ice. The melted ice reveals bare earth and ocean, which absorb more solar heat that ice and snow (which reflect the heat of the sun).

While the permafrost melts in western Siberia, the process of warming has had the opposite effect in eastern Siberia. It was reported two months ago that thousands of lakes in this region have dried up and disappeared over the last 30 years. This apparent contradiction represents the opposite ends of the same process, and demonstrates how this process of climatic warming can have radically different consequences in different regions of the planet.

The real danger of the melt

One of the real concerns about the melting of permafrost in Siberia is the methane gas that could be released into the atmosphere. Siberia’s peat bogs formed at the end of the last ice age some 11,000 years ago. Since that time they have been generating methane, most of which is trapped in the permafrost. It is estimated that the bog in west Siberia alone holds some 70 billion tonnes of methane, 25% of all methane stored on the total land surface of the planet.

Scientists have come up with two scenarios. If the bogs dry out as they warm, the methane will oxidize and escape into the air as carbon dioxide. However, if the bogs stay wet, as is the case today in Siberia, then the methane will be released directly into the atmosphere. This is a serious problem because methane gas is about 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Researchers from Alaska this year reported that they had found methane hotspots in eastern Siberia this year. These are areas where methane gas was bubbling from thawing permafrost so quickly that it prevented the surface from freezing – and this in the middle of winter.

Melting permafrost has been identified as a major source of feedbacks that could accelerate climate change by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Climate scientists believe that the permafrost is likely to take decades to thaw, and “the methane locked within it will not be released into the atmosphere in one burst”. These same scientists have calculations showing that “even if methane seeped from the permafrost over the next 100 years, it would add around 700m tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year, roughly the same amount that is released annually from the world's wetlands and agriculture.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,12374,1546824,00.html). This would double the levels of methane in the atmosphere, and lead to a 10%-25% increase in global warming.

However, it seems unlikely that the gas will seep out slowly at an average rate for 100 years. This is not the nature of motion, or the motion of nature. Processes, whether they are political, social, economic or natural, never take place at a slow and steady rate in a straight line of gradual evolution. Processes develop dialectically. Over a period of time, slow and gradual changes to a system will create a critical state, in which any small changes or events can produce sharp and sudden, and very often radical changes. The melting of the permafrost itself, which scientists describe as a “tipping point”, is a perfect example of this sort of development. It did not start melting gradually (even the fact that it began to melt shows a qualitative leap), and is not melting gradually. When the temperature reached a certain level for a long enough period of time, the permafrost began to melt rapidly, and as it continues to melt, this will allow the sun to heat up the ground and cause the permafrost to melt even faster. The methane gas trapped in the permafrost will not seep out slowly over a long period of time, but will be released in relation to the rate of the melting of the permafrost. An example of a similar, but much simpler process, can be found in grade schools across the planet as children freeze and boil water.

This will have serious consequences for the environment. "If we don't take action very soon, we could unleash runaway global warming that will be beyond our control and it will lead to social, economic and environmental devastation worldwide. There's still time to take action, but not much.” (The Guardian, August 11)

Capitalism and Global Warming

There is still a lot we need to know about global warming and climate change. It is this process of climate change (along with many other things) that clearly demonstrates that capitalism has outlived its historic usefulness. Capitalism cannot deal with global warming, because to make the necessary changes to production, transport, and our way of life is a direct attack on the very heart of capitalism.

It is on the question of the environment that socialism proves itself an absolute necessity. It is the anarchy of the market, and the never-ending pursuit of profits that has put the environment under tremendous strain, and put the planet and humanity at risk. Some people get squeamish when Marxists speak about using science and technology to increase and extend “humanity’s mastery over nature”. This statement is not a negative statement, and should not be seen as meaning destruction. In fact it is positive and means the opposite.

The development of society and industry, under capitalism, is destroying the planet. Under socialism, if we wish to improve our lives and standard of living, if we wish to raise millions out of poverty, we must develop industry. But the point is to develop industry in harmony with the environment. This is possible, the scientific knowledge and capability is there. The world must develop a rational, harmoniously planned economy, using all the scientific knowledge and technology available to us. Only the public ownership of the land, the major industries, oil, mining and logging companies, along with sources of energy and transport, can form the basis of a genuine socialist approach to the environment. Environmental plans would be measured in generations, not fiscal quarters.

Planning the economy would mean involving climate scientists in the actual process of planning. Science and scientists would become an integral part of the economy. Not only that, but scientists must be given the resources to study the environment and the impact that industry has on it so that we can gain a full understanding of the processes at work. It would mean pooling resources and knowledge from across the entire planet to ensure clean production and distribution. It would mean massive funding to environmental science to study climate change and the evolution of the planet.

For example, there is a relatively unknown phenomenon called global dimming, which has direct consequences on global warming. Global dimming is the process whereby the amount of sunlight reaching the earth has diminished over the past 30 years (for a good basic introduction to global dimming see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1108853,00.html). In some areas of the globe sunlight reaching earth has fallen by as much as 10% in 30 years. It seems that this is the result of a complex process of air pollution and global warming which has affected cloud coverage. Falling levels of sunlight would have a massive impact on the planet – on everything from energy sources and health to the process of photosynthesis. It is believed that global dimming actually slowed the process of global warming until the 1990s. A major contradiction in all of this is that as the world began to act on global warming and cut the emission of greenhouse gasses in the 1990s, global dimming has reversed somewhat and actually fuelled rising global temperatures. This poses a problem: our attempts to solve global warming may actually be contributing to global warming and may even be speeding the process up! This needs to be studied, and we need to come up with a solution. Scientists must be given all available resources to investigate this phenomenon so that we can act.

Developing and extending “humanity’s mastery over nature” means investigating climate change and the evolution of the planet. It is not simply an economic question. Planet earth is a living, breathing system. It is a system that changes, develops and evolves like anything else. The Great Ice Age, which ended 10,000 – 11,000 years ago froze large sections of the planet and produced the permafrost and icecaps that are now melting. This is the normal course of evolution for the planet, and has happened before. There has even been an ice age during the past 1000 years. The Little Ice Age began approximately in the mid-14th century and lasted until the mid-19th century. This ice age itself ended a period known as the Medieval Warm Period or Medieval Climate Optimum, an unusually warm period that began in the 10th century. The planet has known great climate and geographic changes. The history of our planet is the history of climate change, from cold ice ages to warmer periods. The evolution of all life on Earth has been conditioned by this process.

However, there is now a major difference. Unknowingly and unintentionally, humanity, in the early period of its development through the development of industry and capitalism, may have played a role in speeding this process up. We have interacted with this process in a major way and are damaging the planet. The point is that we do not really know to what extent. Scientists must be given the necessary tools and resources to study the evolution of the planet’s climate, not only so that we can develop a harmonious economy and society to prevent further damage, but so that we can use our knowledge to bend the environment and reverse and repair some of the damage done.

It seems clear that capitalism is unable to deal with global warming. The Kyoto Accord is too little too late, and the world’s largest polluter, the United States has backed out of the agreement. This is because, as George W. Bush says, it is “not in the interests of the United States”. What he means is that it is not in the interests of the ruling class of the United States of America.

The process of climate change has reached a critical stage, and we may have crossed the point of no return, on the basis of capitalism. The captains of industry have no interest in environmentally friendly technology for production, because this would not be “cost effective”, i.e. it would cut into profits. The technology exists to create “green” industries. There are cars that run on hydrogen and we know that we can produce efficient, clean energy. But these will never be introduced so long as capitalism continues to exist. Does anyone really believe that the leaders of the oil and gas industry would ever willingly destroy their profits and their power and allow the mass introduction of “green” cars?

Whereas in the past we could say that humanity crudely developed industry at the expense of the environment, whereas we could say that we were not aware of the consequences, we no longer have that excuse. We know that our climate is changing. We know that the development of industry and “human activity” have played a role in this. We also know that we can change all of this. It is our duty to study this, to gain a scientific understanding of the processes at work and our role in them, and it is our duty to find a solution. Not only is it our duty, it is in our interests. Radical change to the climate will put extreme pressure on sources of food and water. The problem is that this damage was done not so much by humanity, but by the ruling class, by the owners of industry. And they are unwilling and unable to find a solution (not only that but they are unwilling to provide the resources and tools to find a solution) because any serious solution means an end to capitalism. The question of the environment and climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing mankind, and the solution to this problem lies in the socialist future of humanity.