Humanity, are you grieving, over global ice retreating?
This summer, the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean shrunk to just 1.3 million square miles, a record low. Worse, as ocean temperatures rise, the Arctic’s summer ice covering will continue to contract- more “record lows” can be expected to follow in quick succession. If this trend continues, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer before the end of the decade.
An Arctic Ocean devoid of summer sea ice would be a catastrophe for humanity. Ice reflects solar radiation back into space; open water absorbs it. As a result, without summer sea ice, the Arctic’s water temperature will rise, further fueling global warming in a vicious feedback cycle and playing havoc with existing weather patterns.
And it’s not just Arctic ice that’s melting. Glaciers are retreating across the planet- a phenomenon poignantly documented by the Glacier Research Imaging Project, the Extreme Ice Survey, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Repeat Photography Project at Glacier National Park in Montana. Indeed, scientists predict the latter will be glacierless by 2030.
But we don’t need to look to melting ice for evidence of climate change. In many cases, we simply have to glance out the window at our own yards and gardens. According to the USDA, planting zones in the United States have shifted northward dramatically since 1990. And there is evidence that the USDA’s plant hardiness guidelines may underestimate the extent of this change because they use 30-year average minimum temperatures that don’t capture the accelerated pace of recent warming.
So far, we’ve turned up the planetary heat by an average of .8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperature levels. Most experts believe that warming must be kept below 2 degrees in order to avoid major problems. Beyond 2 degrees, things start to get dicey for human civilization.
But that’s exactly where we’re headed. According to David Roberts at Grist, “[i]f current trends continue, we could hit up to 6 degrees by 2100. That would likely exceed our ability to adapt, which is a polite way of saying it would lead to massive human die-off.”
The dying, however, will commence in earnest long before we reach 6 degrees.
As severe droughts become more frequent, food prices will rise, and shortages will occur. Initially, these will be only minor irritants in wealthier nations. But in poorer parts of the world they will be deadly. The specter of famine will stalk these lands.
Death will come in other ways as well- through conflicts sparked by instability generated by desertification, starvation, and rising seas; through floods; and through diseases made more virulent by a warming world. Ironically, many will also die from air pollution caused by the very emissions fueling climate change. According to DARA International, by the time the last glacier disappears from Glacier National Park in 2030, up to 100 million people will have died from causes related to climate change.
And that’s just the human cost; climate change will be devastating for the global economy as well.
How did it come to this? In short - greed. A moneyed interest and a small band of ideologues have waged a successful campaign to sow doubt and confusion in order to delay action and protect their profits. But they do not bear sole responsibility. Doubts are easy to sell to listeners looking for any excuse not to be persuaded. Such is the case here. Rather than confronting frightening facts, we fly from them. We dig mental bunkers, and we hide. We persuade ourselves that we are marked with some special favor, and that the worst will never happen to us. This is our most dangerous conceit. If we are dupes, we have at least been willing ones.
Now, time is of the essence.
To halt global warming at 2 degrees Celsius we must take concerted international action to rapidly reduce emissions. This requires solidarity, leadership, and courage. Given present conditions, it is difficult to see how this can be achieved.
Conversely, to fail, we simply have to continue on our present course. Our inertia has its own momentum.
Watching the ice recede across the planet fills us with sorrow. When the ice disappears, our hopes for a decent common future vanish with it. We may survive as a species in a world without the ice and the glaciers, but we will not flourish.
In the end, it is humanity we mourn for.
Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party officer and the author of “An Upward Calling.” Michael can be reached at email@example.com