By Eric Vandenbroeck
Above Săo Paulo which on 19 and 20 August was darkened by burning Amazon fires with black rain coming from the sky.
The Amazon is on fire, literally: leaping blazes are eating trees, sending up thick plumes of smoke, covering the rivers with soot, making animals run for cover, and pushing hundreds of tribes deep inside the forests. In just three weeks, more than 74,000 hectares of forest land has been lost to raging blazes, which are burning in seven of the nine states that share the Brazilian part of the world’s biggest rainforest. As of today, a pall of haze sits over 3.2 million square kilometers (sq. km), equal to the area of India, across South America.
But even in such a catastrophic scenario, the response of Brazilian government, led by its President Jair Bolsonaro, has been largely erratic with even tactics like trying to insult the wife of the French President and when that didn't come on to well Bolsonaro announced that he now will stop using disposable pens made by France's Bic to sign official documents...
The first fires of this year started on 10 August. Despite enough evidence that the fires were set on purpose, the Bolsonaro regime neither acknowledged nor acted on it. The government blamed it on nature, calling it an “annual occurrence". Even after the smoke from some 26,000 scattered fires darkened the sky over Sao Paulo, which is more than 3,000 km from the Amazon region, on 19 August, the government stayed in a denial mode.
From climate change denialism to the Brazilian rainforest fires.
To explain all this it is no secret that as reported on 31 July of this year the Brazilian government sent diplomatic representatives to a meeting of climate deniers in the United States.
In early August, as forest fires began to dominate headlines, Bolsonaro responded by attacking the media and calls satellite data pointing out a spike of 278% in deforestation in July as ‘lies’ and also snubbed meeting the French foreign minister because of a haircut, which Bolsonaro then streamed live.
Neither is the amazon the only or at least not the very worst problem in fact the Earth currently is also witnessing a dramatic decline in fish stocks, a 100-fold increase in the damage caused by superstorms and millions of people displaced by rising seas, if humanity does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 900-page draft report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) obtained by the AFP news agency.
What was remarkable in this context was that while starting with the end of the 1980's the existence and causation of global warming became generally uncontroversial. It was a question of nailing down the accuracy of what was already known and projected, not the basics of understanding whether climate change was happening and what was causing it. Also suddenly in the late 1980s, material questioning the reality of climate change began leaking out of industry groups and think tanks funded by conservatives and the fossil fuel lobby. This is proven beyond all doubt by documents from oil giant ExxonMobil that leaked in 2015. After Exxon’s own in-house scientists thoroughly studied climate change in the 1970s and concluded that it was a major threat to the fossil fuel industry, quite suddenly in the 1990s, about the time the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, documents show that Exxon deliberately sought to mislead the public on the reality of climate change. And it’s not just ExxonMobil; similar documents have been uncovered implicating Shell in the same scandal. In an infamous 1997 memo, the American Petroleum Institute (henceforth API), heavily funded by Exxon and other oil giants stated bluntly, “Victory will be achieved when…those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”
API’s strategic deception campaign was a success, which is why we now stand at the brink of the highest global temperature considered safe. Just what it will mean to cross that line remains an ongoing question for atmospheric scientists, but we’ve already started to get a glimpse and it doesn’t look good.
The damage is all around us, from hurricanes on steroids, scientists attribute 15-40% (8in-24in) of the epic rain of Hurricane Harvey to climate change, to California’s deadly wildfires which were set up by five years of drought, followed by record snowfall, then record heat that turned huge areas of the state into tinderboxes. In 2017 there were 16 separate billion-dollar disasters in the US, resulting in a total of $306bn of damages, nearly $100bn more than the second highest year 2005 (Katrina). While technically climate change did not “cause” these disasters, most of the carnage was aggravated in some way by climate change and the fossil fuel emissions that cause it in the first place.
Other impacts are more long-term and irreparable. Anyone born after 1985 has never experienced a month with average temperatures that fall below the historical norm and, without action, probably never will. Mass coral bleaching events due to warming waters and ocean acidification have rendered large swaths of some of the ocean’s most diverse ecosystems lifeless. The vanishing Arctic ice cap appears already to be affecting global weather patterns, and the loss of ice in Antarctica may have reached a tipping point that many now view as irreversible, a development that will require tough and costly decisions for coastal cities.
As for the available literature about related subjects, a disquieting history of professional climate change denial is Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Another prominent book, written from largely a first-person perspective, is climate scientist Michael E. Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Dr. Mann next has been subject to an orchestrated campaign of harassment from climate change deniers and their corporate backers. This was among others exemplified by the Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers in his analysis, A Crack in the Shell: New Documents Expose a Hidden Climate History.
Then there is The Uninhabitable Earth, a current best seller that taps into the underlying emotion of the day: fear. This book is meant to scare the hell out of us, because the alarm sounded by NASA’s Jim Hansen in his electrifying 1988 congressional testimony on how we’ve trashed the atmosphere still hasn’t sufficiently registered. “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades,” writes Wallace-Wells, “since Al Gore published his first book on climate.”
Although Wallace-Wells protests that he’s not an environmentalist, or even drawn to nature (“I’ve never gone camping, not willingly anyway”), the environment definitely has his attention now. With mournful hindsight, he explains how we were convinced that we could survive with a 2 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures over preindustrial levels, a figure first introduced in 1975 by William Nordhaus, a Nobel prize-winning economist at Yale, as a safe upper limit. As 2 degrees was a conveniently easy number to grasp, it became repeated so often that policy negotiators affirmed it as a target at the UN’s 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. We now know that 2 degrees would be calamitous: “Major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable.” In the Paris Agreement of 2015, 1.5 degrees was deemed a safer limit. At 2 degrees of warming, one study estimates, 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone than they would after 1.5 degrees. (If we include other climate-driven causes, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that extra half-degree would lead to hundreds of millions more deaths.) But after watching Houston drown, California burn, and chunks of Antarctica and Louisiana dissolve, it appears that “safe” is a relative statement, currently we are only at 1 degree above preindustrial temperatures.
The preindustrial level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million. We are now at 410 ppm. The last time that was the case, three million years ago, seas were about 80 feet higher. A rise of 2 degrees Celsius would be around 450 ppm, but, says Wallace-Wells, we’re currently headed beyond 500 ppm. The last time that happened on Earth, seas were 130 feet higher, he writes, envisioning an eastern seaboard moved miles inland, to Interstate 95. Forget Long Island, New York City, and nearly half of New Jersey. It’s unclear how long it takes for oceans to rise in accordance with CO2 concentrations, but you wouldn’t want to find out the hard way.
Unfortunately, we’re set to sail through 1.5 and 2 degree increases in the next few decades and keep going. We’re presently on course for a rise of somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius, possibly more, our current trajectory, the UN warns, could even reach an 8 degree increase by this century’s end. At that level, anyone still in the tropics “would not be able to move around outside without dying,” Wallace-Wells writes.
The other side of the coin and solutions going forward.
Starting with the 2017 Pacific Islands and Vanuatu case today there are people who believe that climate change will ultimately cause the extinction of the human race yet that by no means is a certainty. Rather the extinction argument can be an excuse for sitting back and doing nothing, the easy way out. We needn’t bother figuring out how to change our lifestyle, because, quite conveniently, we’ll all die soon and we won’t have to worry about it. Believing in human extinction is also a sort of ethical absolution: if there will be no succeeding generations, no one will be around to blame us for doing nothing about climate change.
And even if it was a certainty that global warming means the end of the human race, no society has ever voluntarily decided to submit to its own termination because it’s too enamored with the status quo to think of changing. Even if individual members of society come to that conclusion, there will always be a majority who favors doing whatever it takes to try to survive.
A good example, is what the German author Klaus Gietinger recently described in his book why the car has no future and we still get ahead (Warum das Auto keine Zukunft hat und wir trotzdem weiterkommen).
He argues that even a marginal improvement, say, spending our commutes in self-driving cars powered by renewable energy, where we can get some work done or relax while the cars drive us, will yield significant tangible benefits. And that "the car for private use will no longer be allowed" instead suggesting a book loaded with examples how we could get rid of cars. And that as lower-moving, less hectic future means that our attention spans will grow longer, which means we’ll become deeper thinkers, more contemplative and less nakedly reactive. Another proposal is to change our eating habits and pointing to a new report on land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And while global warming scenario's all involve a rise in Malaria, promising here is RTS,S the world’s first malaria vaccine. Beginning as of next month it will be provided to young children through national immunization programs in parts of three sub-Saharan African countries.
Thus the societal responses to climate change will be transformative. It’s not just a transition from the era of dirty fossil fuels to a more sustainable basis of renewable energy, though that transition, which is already underway, is certainly part of it. Our global economy and lifestyles, especially in the developed West, are so based upon the possibilities of cheap fuel and unlimited resources that we must develop new ways to live as cheap fuel becomes infeasible and we butt up against the limits of resources we’ve previously taken for granted. We don’t have a choice in this matter. Our future world will use less energy and generate less waste, one way or another.
Although in the abstract our global society has a choice as to whether or not to kick the fossil fuel habit and embrace more sustainable ways of living, in historical terms, there is simply no precedent for the entire human race electing to remain passive in the face of such deep challenges. Thus, for all intents and purposes, we really don’t have a choice. We must adapt to and do the best we can to beat climate change. Even if a minority of humans for whatever reason choose the path of cowardice by electing to do nothing, many, many others will not accept that decision. Nor should they. Historical precedents, most recently the decision by a small group of political leaders not to annihilate the human race in a nuclear war between superpowers, favors the conclusion that we will ultimately elect to do the right thing.
The pace of change is increasing rapidly due to climate change. In periods of chaotic transition between major eras of history, events often seem to occur “faster” than they do at other times, and broad, systemic change is sometimes extremely rapid. For this reason, the phase-out of fossil fuels and the transition to more sustainable means of living may occur faster than many people expect. And as we are seeing during the current crisis in the Amazon, challenging times often bring out the worst but also the best in individual people.