Arctic code red: uncharted territory

By Bryan Walker 16/09/2012


Nearly four years ago I reviewed Climate Code Red by Australians David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Even then the authors spoke of the recently released 2007 IPCC report as too conservative in its predictions. Here’s how I described their position:

The authors lament the limitations of the IPCC system, ascribing them partly to pressure from vested interests harboured by some countries, partly to the long process of gathering the information from published material and the early cut-off date for reports, and partly to scientists being uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms.  It adds up to a process so deficient as to be an unreliable and even misleading basis for policy-making.

They instanced particularly the diminishing Arctic sea ice and its amplifying consequences, the possibility of faster disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, the vulnerability of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the likelihood of much higher sea rise than anticipated, as well as widespread species and eco-system destruction.

That was four years ago. In a recent striking article David Spratt reacts to the increased loss of Arctic summer sea ice by re-emphasising and extending the message that the science frame has changed considerably since the 2007 IPCC report. Climate changes and impacts are happening more quickly and at lower temperatures than expected, and he details some of them. He quotes Kim Holmen, Norwegian Polar Institute international director, saying that the big sea-ice melt of 2012 is “a greater change than we could even imagine 20 years ago, even 10 years ago”. It “has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system and we must adjust our science and we must adjust our feelings for the nature around us”.

The surprise that Holmen voices is echoed by many other scientists. Leading glaciologist Lonnie Thompson is one, writing to Suzanne Goldenberg:

“These observations are concerning as they point to the continuing increase in the rate at which global climate change is impacting on ice on this planet in all its forms from sea ice to glaciers and ice sheets.”

“When I was beginning my career we used to use the phrase “at glacier speed” to mean something changing very slowly, but that is no longer the case. Glaciologists have had to come to terms with the fact that ice can respond much faster to climate change than we ever thought possible. Certainly, the loss of ice on our planet is one of the most convincing pieces of evidence for global climate change and it is impossible to argue that they have a political agenda.”

Another is James Overland, reported in the Guardian:

These changes are happening much earlier than scientists thought, said James Overland, an oceanographer and researcher at the University of Washington.

“We’ve only had a little bit of global warming so far,” Overland said.

As the sea ice continues to decline, the jet stream will likely continue to slow more, and shift further north “bringing wild temperature swings and greater numbers of extreme events” in the future he said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Guardian journalist Damien Carrington offers a thoughtful and sobering reflection:

Will this be the first great tipping point to tumble the world into a new and hostile climate regime, as the cooling, reflective ice vanishes? Will the new, warm Arctic radically alter the temperate weather enjoyed by Europeans, for whom global warming has seemed a distant concern?

We seem to be prepared to take that chance. The shrinking ice has not opened new leads for decisive global action to tackle climate change. Instead, in a vicious irony, the new channels are being exploited for oil and gas exploration, unearthing more of the very fuels driving the warming.

Decades from now, will today’s record sea ice low be seen as the moment when our Earthly paradise gave up the ghost and entered a hellish new era? I sincerely hope not, but with this global distress signal failing to attract attention, I fear the worst.

The failure of what is happening to attract attention or jolt policy makers is also David Spratt’s concern. He concludes his article:

…there is no indication that either of the major parties [in Australia] have a clue about this post-IPCC science frame. Nor are there many signs of the major environment and climate advocacy groups incorporating this understanding into their public communications.  Most of their campaigning is stuck in the IPCC 2007 frame.

Is this another form of climate science denial? Not the denial of the Murdoch press and the Moncktons and Plimers, but the denial of those who for the sake of political convenience live in a bubble of outmoded policy frames that have been superseded by the pace of events in the real, physical world.

I see no sign in New Zealand either that the major parties, or indeed any of the parties other than the Greens, are awake to the magnitude of what is unfolding in the Arctic and in many other impacts of climate change already being experienced around the globe. They are not pleasant to contemplate and they demand the kind of attention which politicians absorbed in immediate issues no doubt find it difficult to summon.

However it seems increasingly likely that the warming planet is approaching great disruptions. Some of them already look unavoidable. Mitigation can be undertaken, but until our policy makers take on board the full current reality of the science, the immensity of what is threatening, they’ll continue to justify exploiting the oil and gas of the Arctic or of the oceans surrounding New Zealand, or the coal of the Denniston plateau or the lignite of Southland. They’ll timorously delay the decarbonising of our economies. And we’ll continue on the road to climate disaster.