‘The Planet Can’t Keep Doing Us A Favour’

By David Cromwell

Sometimes we get so sick of the phrase ‘history in the making’ that the brain tends to switch off. What is it this time?, we sigh. A new high-tech piece of military technology that will boost US killing power? A big jump in a newspaper’s online advertising revenue? The world’s best footballer, Lionel Messi, joining ‘an exclusive list of adidas athletes to have their own signature product’? Sometimes the ‘history’ in question only stretches back a few years, maybe a century or two. Only very occasionally, if the claim is truly deserved, does it stretch back to the earliest era of written records.

But now, with humanity’s huge impact on the planet’s climate becoming ever clearer, we need to go back several million years. Because climate-related news of history being made are about the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) reaching 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time CO2 was this high was probably 4.5 million years ago, before modern humans even existed.

Throughout recorded history, up till the Industrial Revolution, CO2 was much lower at around 280 ppm. But large-scale industrial and agricultural activity since then has seen humanity profoundly alter the make-up of the atmosphere and even the  stability of Earth’s climate.

‘We are creating a prehistoric climate in which human societies will face huge and potentially catastrophic risks,’ said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.

According to Bob Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former UK government chief scientific adviser:

‘the world is now most likely committed to an increase in surface temperature of 3C-5C compared to pre-industrial times.’

As Damian Carrington noted in the Guardian, even just 2C is regarded as ‘the level beyond which catastrophic warming is thought to become unstoppable.’ But social scientist Chris Shaw has warned that even the notion of a single ‘safe’ global temperature rise is dangerous. He observes that:

‘falsely ascribing a scientifically derived dangerous limit to climate change diverts attention away from questions about the political and social order that have given rise to the crisis.’ 

But for the corporate media, such questions are essentially taboo, and the global corporate and financial juggernaut, driven by the demands of capital, shows no sign of slowing down. Scientists calculate that humans pumped around 10.4 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in 2011, the most recent year analysed. A Nature news article reports:

‘About half of that is taken up each year by carbon “sinks” such as the ocean and vegetation on land; the rest remains in the atmosphere and raises the global concentration of CO2.’

‘The real question now’, says environmental scientist Gregg Marland from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina , ‘is how will the sinks behave in the future?’ And biogeochemist Jim White at the University of Colorado in Boulder warns:

‘At some point the planet can’t keep doing us a favour.’

In other words, the ability of the planet’s natural carbon ‘sinks’ to soak up humanity’s CO2 emissions will diminish, and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 will rise at an increasing rate. What is so dangerous about climate change is not just the high level of CO2 today, but the speed at which it is increasing. In other words, climate change is accelerating.

Brian Hoskins, a leading climate scientist based at Imperial College, London, says:

‘To me the striking fact is that human activity has already driven the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to a level more than 40 per cent above the maximum levels it had during the previous million years, and it is going to stay at least this high for thousands of years into the future.’

The very real risk of climate calamity will not be going away for some considerable time.


‘It Is Irresponsible Not To Mention Climate Change’

On 20 May, a devastating tornado hit Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, and killed at least 24 people, including nine children, injured around 240 people, and destroyed hundreds of homes and shops, two schools and a hospital. It is not yet clear what the impact of global warming might be on tornadoes. A warmer climate may mean there is more moisture in the atmosphere and therefore more thunderstorms and tornadoes, says Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the UK’s Met Office:

‘But on the other hand, you might get changes in high-level winds which could decrease tornadoes. So it literally could be either way. We don’t know.’ (Pilita Clark, Environment Correspondent, ‘Scientists inconclusive about climate change impact on tornadoes’, Financial Times, May 21, 2013; article behind paywall)

Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, agrees it’s ‘too early to tell’ the impact of global warming on tornadoes, although he added:

‘you’d probably go with a prediction of greater frequency and intensity of tornadoes as a result of human-caused climate change.’

For now, at least, it is not possible to directly attribute a particular tornado, even a large one like the Oklahoma event, to global warming. As Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the New York Times in 2010:

‘It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.’

Moreover, as science writer Joe Romm notes:

‘When discussing extreme weather and climate, tornadoes should not be conflated with the other extreme weather events for which the connection is considerably more straightforward and better documented, including deluges, droughts, and heat waves.’

However, he also adds:

‘Just because the tornado-warming link is more tenuous doesn’t mean that the subject of global warming should be avoided entirely when talking about tornadoes.’

In 2011, after a record series of tornadoes in the US, Trenberth had told Romm:

‘It is irresponsible not to mention climate change. … The environment in which all of these storms and the tornadoes are occurring has changed from human influences (global warming).’ 

In the wake of the deaths and devastation wreaked by the Oklahoma tornado, Romm has revisited the scientific evidence on global warming and tornadoes, and again highlights Trenberth’s remark above.

But on the main BBC News television programmes, science correspondent David Shukman brushed the topic away:

‘Tornadoes are nothing new. And so far there’s no evidence that over the past century that climate change is causing more of them.’

There was only the briefest mention of climate change, then, by the BBC, and nothing was heard on the main television news programmes from any of the climate scientists who, as noted above, believe there could be a link with global warming. This is standard treatment. The reluctance or inability of BBC News to discuss fully and responsibly the seriousness of global warming, even when reporting related issues such as energy and industry, is something we noted in an alert earlier this year.


‘Deniers Want The Public To Be Confused’

But sometimes luck simply runs out for high-profile, highly-paid journalists performing their clunking impressions of ‘balanced’ journalism. This was the fate that befell Sarah Montague of the much-vaunted BBC Radio 4 Today programme when she interviewed James Hansen on May 17. Hansen, the former senior Nasa climate scientist who first warned the world about catastrophic climate change in 1988, corrected the BBC interviewer when she said in her introduction that the global average temperature had not changed in two decades.

‘Well, I should correct what you just said. It’s not true that the temperature has not changed in two decades.’

The BBC interviewer blundered on:

‘But there was a suggestion that we should have been expecting 0.2 of a degree and it has …’

Hansen interjected:

‘No. If you look over a 30 or 40-year period then the expected warming is about two-tenths of a degree per decade. But that doesn’t mean that each decade is going to warm two-tenths of a degree. There’s too much natural variability.’

Hansen continued:

‘In addition, China and India have been pumping out aerosols by burning more and more coal. So you get from that, not only CO2, but also these particles that reflect sunlight and reduce the heating of the Earth. So […] it’s a complicated system, but there’s no change at all in our understanding of climate sensitivity [to rising levels of CO2] and where the climate is headed.’

He was clear that the suggestion that global warming has stalled is ‘a diversionary tactic’ by deniers of the science. Why are they doing this?

‘It’s because the deniers want the public to be confused. They raise these minor issues and then we forget about what the main story is. The main story is carbon dioxide is going up and it is going to produce a climate which is going to have dramatic changes if we don’t begin to reduce our emissions.’

The interview was an all-too-rare instance of a BBC journalist being confronted by someone who really knew what they were talking about on a vital issue for humanity, and able to put it across in a calm and articulate way that listeners could easily understand. It’s not the first time the BBC Today programme has been caught out of its depth on climate science.

The false ‘balance’ in climate journalism is heavily skewed by the supposed need to share time between climate science and climate science denial. This is irrational ‘journalism’ by media professionals who have been seduced by a stubborn minority of people who ‘refuse to accept that climate change is happening despite the overwhelming scientific evidence’, notes Ryan Koronowski. This minority, particularly in the United States, are fanatic about fanning the flames of doubt and are often in powerful positions in the political establishment. These climate science deniers are often also free-market ideologues. Koronowski, deputy editor of Climate Progess, cites a recent study by researchers in Australia which found that:

‘people who expressed faith in free-market ideology were also likely to reject [the] scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that burning fossil fuels helps to cause it.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also showed that irrational scepticism towards scientific evidence extended beyond climate change:

‘Endorsement of free markets also predicted the rejection of other established scientific findings, such as the facts that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking causes lung cancer.’

Indeed, there is a long and shameful history of corporate disinformation and rearguard campaigns of deception to deny science. (See, for example, Andrew Rowell, Green Backlash, Routledge, London, 1996; and Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, Totnes, 1997.)

For many years now, there has been an overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. A new survey of more than 4,000 peer-reviewed papers showed that 97.1% agreed that humans are causing climate change. Suzanne Goldenberg reported on the Guardian website that:

‘[The] finding of near unanimity provided a powerful rebuttal to climate contrarians who insist the science of climate change remains unsettled.’


‘The study blamed strenuous lobbying efforts by industry to undermine the science behind climate change for the gap in perception. The resulting confusion has blocked efforts to act on climate change.’

This corporate-led blocking strategy is particularly cruel, indeed criminal on a global scale, given the catastrophic consequences of continued carbon emissions.


The Pan-Tentacled, Wall-Eyed And Parrot-Beaked Global Kraken

Political, military, industry and financial elites who take science seriously are well aware of the pressing reality of climate change, and worry about what it means for their global grip on power. Nafeez Ahmed observes that the US military is becoming ‘increasingly concerned about the international and domestic security implications of climate change.’ A US Department of Defense (DoD) document, published in February this year, warns that climate change will have ‘significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.’ Climate change impacts will likely also act ‘as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world’ and ‘DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.’

The US military’s stance on climate change is, of course, not motivated out of a heartfelt wish to be a benefactor for humanity. As Ahmed points out:

‘The primary goal of adaptation is to ensure that the US armed forces are “better prepared to effectively respond to climate change” as it happens, and “to ensure continued mission success” in military operations – rather than to prevent or mitigate climate change.’

The elite response to impending climate chaos extends to capitalism’s endless drive to burn ever more dangerous quantities of fossil fuel, even to the extent of moving into the Arctic as the ice melts. Ahmed notes that the region likely holds a massive 25 per cent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Fossil fuel companies from the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark already have their eyes on this northern prize, ‘sparking concerted efforts by these countries to expand their Arctic military presence.’

Methane hydrates lying beneath the Arctic permafrost and the seafloor are tantalisingly now within reach. An attempt by the Tokyo-based state oil company Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation to extract methane from far below the ocean ‘shows promise’: an odd way to describe a reckless operation that will further tip the balance in favour of climate instability. A Nature news story, ‘Japanese test coaxes fire from ice’, blithely told readers:

‘Reservoirs of methane hydrates — icy deposits in which methane molecules are trapped in a lattice of water — are thought to hold more energy than all other fossil fuels combined. The problem is extracting the methane economically from the deposits, which lie beneath Arctic permafrost and seafloor sediments. But some scientists and policy makers in energy-poor, coast-rich Japan hope that the reservoirs will become a crucial part of the country’s energy profile.’

Methane is an even more potent global-warming gas than carbon dioxide. That a country’s ‘energy profile’ may be pumped up by exploiting methane, even as the planet burns, is surely a form of societal madness. It’s sad that the madness extends even to the most prestigious of scientific journals. A corporate-friendly Nature editorial this month exhorted, ‘Together we stand’. Those are nice-sounding words. But they are an unfortunate echo of the well-known farcical refrain from the UK’s discredited ‘coalition’ government: ‘We’re all in this together’. The propaganda phrase conveys a convenient myth of a shared society with shared aims: a real democracy, in other words.

The Nature editorial springs from a similarly deluded mindset:

‘Protecting the environment is an added cost that many politicians and business leaders would prefer to avoid. Not to bother makes things cheaper. And despite the rhetoric of environmental campaigners, that remains an uncomfortable truth, at least in terms of the climate problem. Carbon emissions are a hallmark of energy use — and it is cheap and available energy that has made the modern world.’

And perhaps destroyed it too. The blinkered editorial continues:

‘The economic currency of gross domestic product, for so long used as a benchmark of a country’s performance, could be tweaked to include social indicators and how well a country respects environmental criteria, such as the concept of planetary boundaries that should not be exceeded.’

The feeble call to ‘tweak’ social indicators, albeit to include ‘the concept of planetary boundaries that should not be exceeded’, is paltry indeed when Nature‘s editors cannot even acknowledge that powerful and destructive state-corporate forces are defending their ‘right’ to exploit the planet’s resources and keep billions in poverty and servitude. The editors of Nature give little sign that they comprehend the inherent unsustainability of global capitalism, and they seem oblivious to the scale of corporate obstructionism and decades-long disinformation campaigns to thwart substantive action on climate. (Again, for example, see the books by Rowell and Beder, as well as our own books.)

If the world’s leading scientific publication has failed us, perhaps we could turn instead to writers such as Edward Abbey. In his classic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey powerfully and poetically rails against the corporate ravaging of the environment. In one vivid scene, the four titular protaganists overlook the devastation wreaked by a huge strip mine in Arizona:

‘Their view from the knoll would be difficult to describe in any known terrestrial language. Bonnie thought of something like a Martian invasion, the War of the Worlds. Captain Smith was reminded of Kennecott’s open-pit mine (“world’s largest”) near Magna, Utah. Dr. Sarvis thought of the plain of fire and of the oligarchs and oligopoly beyond: Peabody Coal only one arm of Anaconda Copper; Anaconda only a limb of United States Steel; U.S. Steel intertwined in incestuous embrace with the Pentagon, TVA, Standard Oil, General Dynamics, Dutch Shell, I.G. Farben-industrie; the whole conglomerated cartel spread out upon half the planet Earth like a global kraken, pan-tentacled, wall-eyed and parrot-beaked, its brain a bank of computer data centers, its blood the flow of money, its heart a radioactive dynamo, its language the technotronic monologue of number imprinted on magnetic tape.’ (Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Avon Books, 1975/76, New York, p. 159)

Abbey memorably sums up the whole corporate-industrial-military system as ‘a megalomaniacal megamachine.’ The strong, image-laden language gives a hint of what humanity is up against. It is not a matter of ‘tweaking’ the system, or asking the megamachine to be nicer. It needs to be dismantled and replaced with a cooperative human society that is ecologically sustainable. A good start would be to challenge the corporate media that limits the possibility of even discussing alternatives to the madness of global capitalism.