by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
January 2, 2014
CAN SMARTER JOURNALISM SAVE DEMOCRACY?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Another month, another weather record.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, global land and ocean temperatures in November 2013 were hotter than any other November as long as they've been keeping records - since the 1890s.
Nearly every corner of the globe saw temperatures warmer than average, with some places reporting temperatures that were 14 degrees F. higher than normal.
No relief is coming in the next year, as NOAA expects 2014 to be even hotter than 2013.
Throw on top of that a new study by the U.S. Department of Energy and led by a scientific team from the U.S. Navy that found that, by the summer of 2015, the Arctic Ocean will likely be completely ice-free in the summer. Humans have never lived on a planet without polar ice - something that hasn't happened in about 3 million years.
Add those two pieces of data to the growing mountain of evidence that global warming already here and having an impact on climates around the world, and It adds up to one inescapable conclusion.
Humans are totally screwed as a species.
That was the gist of a recent piece, "Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?" by Dahr Jamail for tomdispatch.org.
Jamail spoke with climate scientists who are looking at the long-term trends; they are not holding out much hope for humanity.
What would happen to weather patterns with an ice-free Arctic that absorbs, rather than reflects, the sun's radiation? That would heat up the temperatures of the oceans, which would alter the jet stream that push the masses of cold and warm air around the planet.
In other words, if you thought the weather of the past few years has been bizarre, you ain't see nothing yet.
But the scenarios may get even worse.
Jamail wrote that Arctic permafrost is melting and releasing massive amounts of methane, and melting at a rate faster than scientists first thought. Combined with methane released from oil exploration and agricultural operations (think cattle farts), it has the potential to swamp the atmosphere with a greenhouse gas that's is exponentially more powerful than carbon dioxide.
How serious would that be? The last mass extinction event on earth happened 250 million years ago, fueled by a massive methane release. It wiped out 95 percent of all species on the planet over an 80,000-year period.
Right now, scientists say up to 200 species of flora and fauna go extinct each day. That's a pace that 1,000 times greater than what's considered the "natural" rate of extinction, and might be comparable to what's known as the Permian mass extinction.
The difference is that what's happening now is a man-made event, and it may happen faster than anyone can imagine right now.
The amount of methane in the atmosphere has gone from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7 parts per million over the past two centuries, which might be enough to tip the scales so that a 4-to-6 degree Celsius increase in the planet's baseline temperature could happen by mid-century.
If that happens, the possibility that most of the humans on the planet will be wiped out by famine, disease, and war becomes almost inevitable.
Jamail's piece was unsettling, to say the least. Granted, he spoke with the most pessimistic forecasters, and while there is near total agreement among the scientific community that global warming is with us and that humans are causing it, not all climatologists agree that the worst is inevitable.
But these climate-science pessimists may be the outliers. The sad truth is that there is little chance that humanity will leave the path of global destruction and choose a path that will assure our mutual survival.
The fossil fuel industry wields immense power, and their political allies will make sure they continue to get what they want. We've been warned that nearly all the current reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas will have to stay in the ground if we are to have even a slim chance of avoiding the worst impacts of global warming. But even with the rapid growth of renewable energy, it may not be enough.
We're rapidly approaching the point where it is not a question of adaptability, or being able to deal with rising sea levels, bizarre weather shifts, and more frequent and more powerful storms. We may be at the point where we have to ask ourselves whether coming generations of humans can simply survive conditions on a radically changed planet.
And that's a question that is frightening to contemplate.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.