New Internationalist

Global Warming: How To Turn Down The Heat

April 1990

Wayne Ellwood searches for a way out of the greenhouse.

When the Americans decided to send a man to the moon they searched tirelessly for a location that could duplicate the barren, lifeless topography they imagined made up the lunar surface. In the end they decided on Sudbury, Ontario: a small, friendly city anchored in the uncompromising granite of the Canadian Shield, a few hundred miles north of the US border.

Sudbury is a 'hardrock town', a mining community perched atop a honeycomb of shafts from which the International Nickel Company (INCO) has dragged thousands of tons of nickel ore over the past 50 years. INCO built the town, but it also destroyed the local environment. The hills all around are stripped of the original coniferous forest; the land is blasted and forlorn, pockmarked with settling pools and scarred by slag heaps, the result of decades of deadly chemicals being pumped into the air from company smokestacks.

When outrage over acid rain - not to mention the effect of Inco's pollution on the health of local residents - began to hit home more than a decade ago, the company reacted by building a 'superstack', a monumental chimney which towers over the town. The superstack was offered as a solution. But it was a typically self-interested and short-sighted one. It did help clear the local air, but only at the expense of the thick forest and isolated communities several hundred miles to the north-east. Out of sight, Out of mind.

Sudbury is an extreme but not unusual example of industrial society's disregard for the natural environment. The reality is that you can find dozens of Sudburys around the world. From Teplice in eastern Czechoslovakia to Palembang in south Sumatra, scores of other INCOs have used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for toxic discharges.

Over the past 200 years we have operated under the assumption that the environment is infinitely forgiving: the seas are deep enough, the sky big enough and the soil resilient enough to absorb whatever toxic garbage we produce.

No longer. The last half of the 1980s changed all that; suddenly people were frightened that damage to the global environment was spinning out of control. A number of startling revelations set that fear in motion. The most shocking was scientific confirmation that human-made chemicals (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) had torn a hole the size of the US in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. When the ozone layer is damaged more ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth's surface, boosting skin cancers and potentially disrupting the food chain.

There were other signals. Coincidentally, one of the clearest took place in the summer of 1988 just a three-hour drive south of Sudbury. What started as a routine international meeting of 300 scientists, government officials, climatologists and activists in Toronto turned into an urgent call for action on the threat of global warming and climate change.

'Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war,' said the conference summary statement. 'Far-reaching impacts will be caused by global warming... as a result of the continued growth in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations, which will worsen international tensions and increase risk of conflicts between and within nations. It is imperative to act now.'1

Living in North America that summer it was difficult not to be convinced. The heat was unremitting from early June to late September; the centre of the continent baked, crops shrivelled, forest fires raged, fresh-water supplies dwindled and both Canadian and US grain harvests were well below average. A portent of the future, said climatologists: the 'greenhouse effect' was no longer science fiction.

Despite the Toronto conference's sobering message few people yet understood the full implications of global warming. And fewer still were asking the tough questions about how to stop it. Those who did were often dismissed as wailing Cassandras or gloomy pessimists. That's because global warming is caused by nothing less than our whole way of life; as such it is a radical challenge to three centuries of conventional wisdom about the necessity for economic growth.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's backtrack for a moment and try to get a grip on some of the basic concepts. (If this is familiar territory jump down a few paragraphs.) The greenhouse effect is not a new phenomenon. Scientists have known for centuries that a layer of gases naturally surrounds the earth like an insulating blanket, trapping the reflected energy of the sun and preventing it from escaping into space. That is what makes the earth warm enough for people, plants and animals. However, recent human activity has boosted concentrations of greenhouse gases and enhanced their heat-trapping ability. The main culprit is carbon dioxide (C02), which scientists estimate accounts for nearly half of global warming. CO2 is released from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and from clearing and burning forests.

There are other important greenhouse gases too and they cannot be ignored - CFCs for example may account for 25 per cent of global warming in the next century if their production is not scaled back. But carbon dioxide is the pivotal one. The UN International Panel on Climatic Change now says that CO2 levels could double within 40 years if present rates of fossil-fuel burning and deforestation continue. That could mean an average temperature increase of between two and four degrees centigrade and a sea-level rise of perhaps a foot by 2050.

No-one knows for certain how local weather will change as a result of this warming. But one thing is clear - it will be no picnic. Indications are that the earth will be warmer than at any time since the start of the last ice age nearly 100,000 years ago. But there's one major difference. This temperature increase will take place not over thousands of years, but over decades. And it is the speed of the change which makes the precise impact so difficult to predict.

The most sophisticated computerized climate models, in the US and Britain, agree that weather around the world will become more erratic and more extreme. In general, temperatures will rise more towards the poles than at the equator. Overall rainfall will also increase as higher temperatures boost evaporation from the seas. But the distribution of precipitation will shift. Some areas will become wetter, others will be drier. In middle latitudes, climate zones will march pole-wards. Saskatchewan may become like Kansas, southern England like southern France. In tropical and sub-tropical parts of the Third World warming will be less but the impact on a relatively stable climate will be greater. Tropical storms and droughts could both increase. The pattern of the monsoons may shift.

Global warming will also cause ocean levels to rise - though not, as popular wisdom has it, due to the Antarctic ice cap melting. If this catastrophe occurs it will not be for at least another century. Instead sea levels will rise simply because water expands as it warms. People living in low-lying coastal regions from New York and London to Jakarta and Dacca will be in danger. The world's great river deltas, home to millions in Asia and Latin America and containing some of the Third World's richest food-growing land, could become brackish graveyards.2

But there are also hidden factors which scientists call 'feedback mechanisms'. No-one knows quite how they will interact with the changing climate. Here's one example: plants and animals adapt to climate change over centuries. At the current estimate of half a degree centigrade of warming per decade, vegetation may not keep up. Climatologist James Hansen of the US space agency NASA predicts climate zones will shift toward the poles by 50 to 75 kilometres a year - faster than trees can naturally migrate. Species that find themselves in an unfamiliar environment will die. The 1,000-kilometre-wide strip of coniferous forest running through Canada, the USSR and Scandinavia could be cut by half, setting in motion a chain reaction. Millions of dying and diseased trees would soon lead to massive forest fires, releasing tons of CO2 and further boosting global warming.3

There are dozens of other possible 'feedback mechanisms'. Higher temperatures will fuel condensation and increase cloudiness, which may actually damp down global warming. Others, like the 'albedo' effect, will do the opposite. The 'albedo effect' is the amount of solar energy reflected by surface. As northern ice and snow melts and the darker sea and land pokes through, more heat will be absorbed, adding inexorably to the global temperature increase.

Scientists continue to tinker away with their computer models, but the bare-bones facts are clear. Even if we were to magically stop all greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow the impact on global climate would continue for decades.

Delay, any delay, will simply make the problem worse. Yet delay, like denial, is an all-too-human trait. The fact is that some of us are doing quite well the way things are. We in the developed world have built our prosperity on 150 years of cheap fossil fuels. Oil fires our cars and powers our industry, coal generates our electricity and indirectly runs our TVs, dishwashers and VCRs. Gas heats our water and warms our homes and factories. Our material progress has been linked to energy consumption. Today 75 per cent of all the world's energy is consumed by a quarter of the world's population.4 The average rich-world resident adds about 3.2 tons of CO2 yearly to the atmosphere, more than four times the level added by each Third World citizen.

Vicious circle: Third World consumers are set to follow in the footsteps of the West.
Photo: Diego Goldberg / CAMERA PRESS

There is a large dollop of self-interest involved in maintaining the status quo. That is almost certainly the reason why powerful nations (and big carbon-dioxide emitters) like the US and Britain have been dragging their heels at international negotiations to set CO2 reduction levels. Yet there is no question the ball is in our court. India, China and Brazil, which make up nearly half the world's population, accounted for barely 15 per cent of global warming during the 1980s, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The US, with just seven per cent of the global population, is responsible for 22 per cent.

If we hope to tackle climate change seriously the first thing we need to accept is that most of the problem results from our energy-dependent and resource-wasteful lifestyle. And since much of the blame is ours, so should much of the obligation for finding solutions. Across-the-board cuts in CO2 emissions will not make much headway with Third World countries who currently consume 15 or 20 times less energy than we do. Unless we show some willingness to change now Third World nations may simply follow in our wake. And if current growth and consumption trends continue, developing nations will pump out 16.5 billion tons of carbon yearly by 2025 - nearly four times as much as rich countries today.

Yet the Third World has no choice but to boost the living standards of its population. In the short term that may mean increasing per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide. And it may mean that countries like China, who are stuck with obsolete technology, will increase rather than cut CFC production over the next few decades so as to make household refrigeration widely available.

There is also a growing realization that mounting debt is strangling the capacity of Third World nations to halt environmental catastrophe. Money that could be used to develop renewable energy sources or clamp down on local polluters is being siphoned into the pockets of Western bankers. According to the International Development Research Centre there was a net flow of $50 billion from the Third World to the industrialized North in l989.5

But writing off Third World debt will not on its own be enough to assure that the life-threatening costs of environmental damage are included in future development decisions. Dazzled by Northern lifestyles, the corrupt politicians and local elites who control most developing countries could just as easily start the whole process over again. Slashing Third World debt will help. But tropical rainforests won't be saved, for example, until local grassroots movements create the political space to fight for democratic change, for land and improved living standards for the poor. Without that giant step towards economic justice it is hard to see how the accelerating destruction of the developing world's environment can be halted.

But there is another step which is equally important: breaking the link between increased energy consumption and improved standards of living. In theory this should be easy since there is already a precedent. Following the OPEC oil-price hikes of the early 1970s most Western countries both lowered energy consumption and increased economic growth. This does not have to be an aberration. Energy analysts like Jose Goldemberg have shown that we don't need to burn more fossil fuels to be better off. Goldemberg and his colleagues found that energy use in developed countries could be cut by at least half with no penalty to living standards.

This is a signal that we can stop the avalanche of mindless consumption that is disfiguring the earth. However, first we need to redefine our conventional notions of economic growth. The greenhouse effect is the tragic outcome of opting for growth at all costs, treating the natural environment as both inexhaustible and expendable. Efforts to turn down the heat will mean redefining growth, not freezing it. 'Zero growth' is a utopian cry which would leave current economic inequalities - especially between the West and the Third World - untouched. Instead we should be aiming for 'green growth': growth grounded in social justice which takes account of both the environmental and human costs of development.

Inevitably that will mean forging new relationships with the natural world - and with each other.

1 The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security Conference Statement, 27-30 June 1988.
2
World Climate Programme Impact Studies, Developing Policies for Responding to climatic Change (United Nations Environmental Programme and World Meteorological Organization, April 1988);
3
Turning Up the Heat, Fred Pearce (The Bodley Head, London 1989):
4
Winds of Change, John Gribbin and Mick Kelly (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989);
5
Globe and Mail. 30 December 1989.

Worth reading on. GLOBAL WARMING

This is definitely a literary growth area. There has already been a small library published on global warming and many more books are in the pipeline. An excellent starting point is Winds of Change by John Gribbin and Mick Kelly (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), a well-written, attractively-illustrated book (lots of colour pictures) written to accompany a TV programme. For a concise (though very American) overview have a look at the Worldwatch Institute's briefing paper In Defence of The Atmosphere (Washington, Autumn 1989). US climatologist Stephen Schneider is one of the scientific bright lights in this area. His Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century? (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco 1989) is both articulate and thoughtful with some refreshing first-person anecdotes. For a more journalistic treatment try Fred Pearce's lively and engaging Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse (The Bodley Head, London 1989).

HOW TO COMBAT THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT

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TAKE all recent articles, pamphlets, books etc. on the Greenhouse Effect and put them in your attic. This is the most effective use of many of these pieces as they will cut down your fuel by making your house warmer. This will reduce your house's emissions of CO2, the main cause of the Greenhouse Effect.

 

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ENCOURAGE more nuclear power. As well as decreasing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere from traditional power stations, the inevitable nuclear accidents will lead to loss of life which will, consequently, lead to a decrease in the number of houses - and thus less fuel and thus less CO2.

 

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A TWO-IN-ONE offer. Have nothing to do with people who use ozone-unfriendly products. As well as being an environmentally sound move, this decrease in social intercourse will eventually lead to a decrease in the population, a decrease in the number of homes and thus a decrease in CO2 emissions. Simple, eh?

 

Illustrations by
Cartoon by Martyn Purner

 


This special report appeared in the global warming - how to turn down the heat issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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