January 2019, Week 3


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 		 [We have a finite amount of time left to coexist with much of the
biosphere, glaciers, coral, and thousands of species of plants,
animals, and insects. But, saying good-bye to them must also involve
doing everything we can to save whatever is left. ]



 Dahr Jamail 
 January 15, 2019

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 _ We have a finite amount of time left to coexist with much of the
biosphere, glaciers, coral, and thousands of species of plants,
animals, and insects. But, saying good-bye to them must also involve
doing everything we can to save whatever is left. _ 

 The Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range, like most glaciers globally,
is losing mass rapidly. Some experts predict that every alpine glacier
in the world will be gone by 2100. , Dahr Jamail 


I’m standing atop Rush Hill on Alaska's remote St. Paul Island.
While only 665 feet high, it provides a 360-degree view of this
tundra-covered, 13-mile-long, seven-mile-wide part of the Pribilof
Islands. While the hood of my rain jacket flaps in the cold wind, I
gaze in wonder at the silvery waters of the Bering Sea. The
ever-present wind whips the surface into a chaos of whitecaps,
scudding mist, and foam.

The ancient cinder cone I’m perched on reminds me that St. Paul,
was, oh so long ago, one of the last places woolly mammoths could be
found in North America. I’m here doing research for my book _The
End of Ice_
And that, in turn, brings me back to the new reality in these far
northern waters: as cold as they still are, human-caused climate
disruption is warming them enough to threaten a possible collapse of
the food web that sustains this island’s Unangan, its Aleut
inhabitants, also known as “the people of the seal.” Given how
deeply their culture is tied to a subsistence lifestyle coupled with
the new reality that the numbers of fur seals, seabirds, and other
marine life they hunt or fish are dwindling, how could this crisis not
be affecting them?

While on St. Paul, I spoke with many tribal elders who told me stories
about fewer fish and sea birds, harsher storms and warming
temperatures, but what struck me most deeply were their accounts of
plummeting fur seal populations. Seal mothers, they said, had to swim
so much farther to find food for their pups that the babies were
starving to death before they could make it back.

And the plight of those dramatically declining fur seals could well
become the plight of the Unangan themselves, which in the decades to
come, as climate turbulence increases, could very well become the
plight of all of us.

Just before flying to St. Paul, I met with Bruce Wright in Anchorage,
Alaska. He’s a senior scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands
Association, has worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service, and
was a section chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration for 11 years. "We're not going to stop this train
wreck," he assures me grimly. "We are not even trying to slow down the
production of CO2 [carbon dioxide], and there is already enough CO2 in
the atmosphere.” 

While describing the warming, ever more acidic waters around Alaska
and the harm being caused to the marine food web, he recalled a moment
approximately 250 million years ago when the oceans underwent similar
changes and the planet experienced mass extinction events “driven by
ocean acidity. The Permian mass extinction where 90% of the species
were wiped out, that is what we are looking at now."

I wrap up the interview with a heavy heart, place my laptop in my
satchel, put on my jacket, and shake his hand. Knowing I’m about to
fly to St. Paul, Wright has one final thing to tell me as he walks me
out: "The Pribilofs were the last place mammoths survived because
there weren’t any people out there to hunt them. We’ve never
experienced this, where we are headed. Maybe the islands will become a
refuge for a population of humans."


For at least two decades, I've found my solace in the mountains. I
lived in Alaska from 1996 to 2006 and more than a year of my life has
been spent climbing on the glaciers of Denali and other peaks in the
Alaska Range. Yet that was a bittersweet time for me as the dramatic
impacts of climate change were quickly becoming apparent, including
quickly receding glaciers and warmer winter temperatures.

After years of war and then climate-change reporting, I regularly
withdrew to the mountains to catch my breath. As I filled my lungs
with alpine air, my heart would settle down and I could feel myself
root back into the Earth.

Later, my book research would take me back onto Denali's
fast-shrinking glaciers and also to Glacier National Park in Montana.
There I met Dr. Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist
and director of the Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Project.
"This is an explosion," he assured me, "a nuclear explosion of
geologic change. This... exceeds the ability for normal adaptation.
We've shoved it into overdrive and taken our hands off the wheel."
Despite its name, the park he studies is essentially guaranteed not to
have any active glaciers by 2030, only 11 years from now.

My research also took me to the University of Miami, Coral Gables,
where I met the chair of the Department of Geological Science, Harold
Wanless, an expert in sea-level rise.

I asked him what he would say to people who think we still have time
to mitigate the impacts of runaway climate change. "We can't undo
this," he replied. "How are you going to cool down the ocean? We're
already there."

As if to underscore the point, Wanless told me that, in the past,
carbon dioxide had varied from roughly 180 to 280 parts per million
(ppm) in the atmosphere as the Earth shifted from glacial to
interglacial periods. Linked to this 100-ppm fluctuation was about a
100-foot change in sea level. "Every 100-ppm CO2 increase in the
atmosphere gives us 100 feet of sea level rise," he told me. "This
happened when we went in and out of the Ice Age."

As I knew, since the industrial revolution began, atmospheric CO2 has
already increased from 280 to 410 ppm. "That’s 130 ppm in just the
last 200 years," I pointed out to him. "That’s 130 feet of sea level
rise that’s already baked into Earth's climate system."

He looked at me and nodded grimly. I couldn’t help thinking of that
as a nod goodbye to coastal cities from Miami to Shanghai

In July 2017, I traveled to Camp 41 in the heart of the Brazilian
Amazon rainforest, part of a project founded four decades ago by
Thomas Lovejoy, known to many as the "godfather of biodiversity."
While visiting him, I also met Vitek Jirinec, an ornithologist from
the Czech Republic who had held 11 different wildlife positions from
Alaska to Jamaica. In the process, he became all too well acquainted
with the signs of biological collapse among the birds he was studying.
He'd watched as some Amazon populations like that of the black-tailed
leaftosser declined by 95%; he'd observed how mosquitoes in Hawaii
were killing off native bird populations; he'd explored how saltwater
intrusion into Alaska's permafrost was changing bird habitats there.

His tone turned somber as we discussed his research and a note of
anger slowly crept into his voice. "The problem of animal and plant
populations left marooned within various fragments [of their habitat]
under circumstances that are untenable for the long term has begun
showing up all over the land surface of the planet. The familiar
questions recur: How many mountain gorillas inhabit the forested
slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, along the shared borders of the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda? How many tigers
live in the Sariska Tiger Reserve of northwestern India? How many are
left? How long can they survive?"

As he continued, the anger in his voice became palpable, especially
when he began discussing how “island biogeography” had come to the
mainland and what was happening to animal populations marooned by
human development on fragments of land in places like the Amazon. "How
many grizzly bears occupy the North Cascades ecosystem, a discrete
patch of mountain forest along the northern border of the state of
Washington? Not enough. How many European brown bears are there in
Italy's Abruzzo National Park? Not enough. How many Florida panthers
in Big Cypress Swamp? Not enough. How many Asiatic lions in the Forest
of Gir? Not enough... The world is broken in pieces now.”


In October 2018, 15 months after Jirinec's words brought me to tears
in the Amazon, the world's leading climate scientists authored
a report
[https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report] for
the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning us
that we have just a dozen years left to limit the catastrophic impacts
of climate change. The gist of it is this: we’ve already warmed the
planet one degree Celsius. If we fail to limit that warming process to
1.5 degrees, even a half-degree more than that will significantly
worsen extreme heat, flooding, widespread droughts, and sea level
increases, among other grim phenomena. The report has become a key
talking point of political progressives in the U.S., who, like
[https://www.truthdig.com/articles/naomi-klein-on-the-urgency-of-a-green-new-deal-for-everyone/] journalist
and activist Naomi Klein, are now speaking of "a terrifying 12 years"
left in which to cut fossil fuel emissions.

There is, however, a problem with even this approach. It assumes that
the scientific conclusions in the IPCC report are completely sound.
It’s well known, however, that there’s been a political element
built into the IPCC’s scientific process, based on the urge to get
as many countries as possible on board the Paris climate agreement
[https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/16/un-climate-accord-inadequate-and-lacks-urgency-experts-warn] and
other attempts to rein in climate change. To do that, such reports
tend to use the lowest common denominator
[https://www.scribd.com/document/353944809/Disaster-Alley-Climate-Change-Conflict-Risk-Dunlop-Spratt-June-2017] in
their projections, which makes their science overly conservative (that
is, overly optimistic).

In addition, new data suggest that the possibility of political will
coalescing across the planet to shift the global economy completely
off fossil fuels in the reasonably near future is essentially a
fantasy. And that’s even if we could remove enough of the hundreds
of billions of tons of CO2 already in our overburdened atmosphere to
make a difference (not to speak of the heat similarly already lodged
in the oceans).

"It's extraordinarily challenging to get to the 1.5 degree Celsius
target and we are nowhere near on track to doing that," Drew Shindell,
a Duke University climate scientist and a co-author of the IPCC
report, told
[https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/26/global-warming-climate-change-targets-un-report] the _Guardian_ just
weeks before it was released. "While it's technically possible, it’s
extremely improbable, absent a real sea change in the way we evaluate
risk. We are nowhere near that."

In fact, even best-case scenarios show us heading for at least a
three-degree warming and, realistically speaking, we are undoubtedly
on track for far worse than that by 2100, if not much sooner. Perhaps
that’s why Shindell was so pessimistic.

For example, a study published in _Nature_
[https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181031141515.htm] magazine,
also released in October, showed that over the last quarter-century,
the oceans have absorbed 60% more heat annually than estimated in the
2014 IPCC report. The study underscored that the globe’s oceans
have, in fact, already absorbed 93%
[https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-heat-does-the-ocean-trap-robots-find-out/] of
all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere, that the climate
system's sensitivity to greenhouse gases is far higher than thought
and that planetary warming is far more advanced than had previously
been grasped.

To give you an idea of how much heat the oceans have absorbed: if that
heat had instead gone into the atmosphere, the global temperature
would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit
[https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-heat-does-the-ocean-trap-robots-find-out/] hotter
than it is today. For those who think that there are still 12 years
left to change things, the question posed by Wanless seems painfully
apt: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by
the oceans?

Two weeks after that _Nature_ article came out, a study
in _Scientific Reports
[https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-35068-1] _warned that the
extinction of animal and plant species thanks to climate change could
lead to a "domino effect" that might, in the end, annihilate life on
the planet. It suggested that organisms will die out at increasingly
rapid rates because they depend on other species that are also on
their way out. It’s a process the study calls "co-extinction."
According to its authors, a five to six degree Celsius rise in average
global temperatures might be enough to annihilate most of Earth’s
living creatures.

To put this in perspective: just a two degree rise will leave dozens
of the world's coastal mega-cities flooded, thanks primarily to
melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the thermal
expansion of the oceans as they warm. There will be 32 times as many
heat waves in India and nearly half a billion more people will suffer
water scarcity. At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent
drought and the area burned annually by wildfires in the U.S. will
sextuple. These impacts, it’s worth noting, may already be baked
into the system, even if every country that signed the Paris climate
accord were to fully honor its commitments, which most of them are
[http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/03/the-paris-climate-accords-are-starting-to-look-like-fantasy.html] not
currently doing.

At four degrees, global grain yields could drop by half, most likely
resulting in annual worldwide food crises (along with far more war,
general conflict, and migration
[https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176360/tomgram%3A_todd_miller%2C_the_market_in_walls_is_growing_in_a_warming_world] than
at present).

The International Energy Agency has already shown that maintaining our
current fossil-fueled economic system would virtually guarantee
a six-degree
[http://www.iea-ebc.org/Data/Sites/1/media/docs/EBC/EBC_Strategic_Plan_2014_19.pdf] rise
in the Earth’s temperature before 2050. To add insult to injury, a
2017 analysis from oil giants BP and Shell indicated that they
expected the planet to be five degrees
[https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/bp-shell-oil-global-warming-5-degree-paris-climate-agreement-fossil-fuels-temperature-rise-a8022511.html] warmer
by mid-century.

In late 2013, I wrote
[http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175785/tomgram:_dahr_jamail,_the_climate_change_scorecard/] a
piece for _TomDispatch_ titled "Are We Falling Off the Climate
Precipice?" Even then, it was already clear enough that we were indeed
heading off that cliff. More than five years later, a sober reading of
the latest climate change science indicates that we are now genuinely
in free fall.

The question is no longer whether or not we are going to fail, but how
are we going to comport ourselves in the era of failure?


It’s been estimated that between 150 and 200
[https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/aug/16/nature-economic-security] plant,
insect, bird, and mammal species are already going extinct every day.
In other words, during the two and a half years I worked on my book
136,800 species may have gone extinct.

We have a finite amount of time left to coexist with significant parts
of the biosphere, including glaciers, coral, and thousands of species
of plants, animals, and insects. We’re going to have to learn how to
say goodbye to them, part of which should involve doing everything we
humanly can to save whatever is left, even knowing that the odds are
stacked against us.

For me, my goodbyes will involve spending as much time as I can on the
glaciers in Washington State’s Olympic National Park and North
Cascades National Park near where I live, or far more modestly taking
in the trees around my home on a daily basis. It’s unclear, after
all, how much longer such forest areas are likely to remain fully
intact. I often visit a small natural altar I’ve created amid a
circle of cedar trees growing around a decomposing mother tree. In
this magical spot, I grieve and express my gratitude for the life that
is still here. I also go to listen.

Where do you go to listen? And what are you hearing?

For me, these days, it all begins and ends with doing my best to
listen to the Earth, with trying my hardest to understand how best to
serve, how to devote myself to doing everything possible for the
planet, no matter the increasingly bleak prognosis for this time in
human history.

Perhaps if we listen deeply enough and regularly enough, we ourselves
will become the song this planet needs to hear.

_[Dahr Jamail, a __TomDispatch regular
is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Martha Gellhorn Award
for Journalism for his work in Iraq and the Izzy Award for
Outstanding Achievement in Independent Media in 2018. His newest
book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path
of Climate Disruption
[https://www.amazon.com/dp/1620972344/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20] (The
New Press), has just been published. He is also the author of Beyond
the Green Zone and The Will to Resist. He is a staff reporter
for Truthout._

_[Note: This piece was co-published with Truthout.org

_Follow TomDispatch__ on Twitter
[https://twitter.com/TomDispatch] and join us on Facebook

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