Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have passed the 400 parts-per-million mark for the first time in several million years, and are increasing rapidly. Concentrations of methane, even more dangerous, are also rising.
There are many indications of climate disruption and almost every week brings new examples. Common to many is a feature of the changing climate: that it is globally asymmetric. Some regions, in other words, are experiencing much more rapid changes than others.
In broad terms, the temperate and tropical oceanic regions are warming up more slowly than the polar and near-polar regions, especially the Arctic and near-Arctic. There are indications that most tropical and sub-tropical regions will warm up and dry out faster than the temperate regions.
Several recent markers of change are evident in the Himalayas, where the snow line in the Khumbu (Everest) region has receded by nearly 180 metres since the early 1960s and glaciers have shrunk by 30% (see Amantha Perera, “The Himalayas are Changing - For the Worse”, TerraViva/IPS, 5 June 2013). A rise in sea levels of 16.8 mm from 2005-11 is another indicator. This is partly due to thermal expansion of the oceans because of worldwide warming, but also to the melting of glaciers and icecaps, notably the Greenland icecap (see Gautam Naik, “Rising Sea Level Tied to Faster Melt”, Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2013).
These warnings, and the increased frequency of severe weather events, make current political action and ambition look abysmally slow and utterly inadequate. Even a relatively progressive target such as the aim of Britain's Labour Party, when in government, to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 is far too little; the target should be closer to 80% by 2030 at latest, with most of the decrease pre-2020.
A near-decade was lost while the George W Bush administration was in power, a period when a very powerful lobby of climate-change deniers - funded by energy companies, oil-exporting countries, and well-endowed free-market foundations - gathered extraordinary force and funds to resist climate action.
The energy companies and exporters see the issue in terms of profitability (which must always come first), but free-market ideologues view it in more basic terms. For them, the governmental (and intergovernmental) action and coordination needed to address climate change is inconceivable. Free-market responses can never be adequate, because they are simply not responsive enough to dangers that require planned action in much less than a decade to prevent disastrous consequences over several decades. Since this reality strikes at the very heart of free-market ideology, there cannot be a problem - climate change cannot be happening. Simple!
Julian Poulter highlights an interesting aspect of this with reference to major foundations which provide funding for health, food, poverty-reduction and related programmes (see “Worried about climate change? Fix the financial system first”, Alliance, 1 June 2013). These institutions support their philanthropy by making investments that are in principle long-term - but in practice short-term.
“Despite the fact that half of the stock market is owned by theoretically long-term investors such as pension funds", says Poulter, "in practice that money is given over to short-term money managers with a vested interest in the status quo.” He points to pension funds that “allow their fund managers to fuel the development of new fossil fuel extraction investments and high carbon assets without regard to their sustainability”.
So foundations may be supporting thoroughly worthwhile programmes that are undermined by the investment process; meaning they "spend money in one direction to solve problems", while "the capital flow in the opposite direction is many times larger). This puts them in the same position as pension funds.
Two sources of hope
This experience is just one aspect of a worldwide financial system that cannot cope with climate disruption. Since there is very little sign of that system evolving into something more relevant, the question must be asked: is there any hope of preventing catastrophic climate change? There are two sources of cautious optimism. The first is that a handful of think-tanks is doing valuable work to plot a way forward (among them, the New Economics Foundation's “The Great Transition” project); and they are being aided indirectly by valuable technological developments, not least greatly improved renewable-energy systems.
The second echoes the earlier mention of asymmetry - which may actually prove to be the most substantial cause of hope. If climate disruption was uniform across the world, then it might be well into the 2020s before the consequences were being seriously realised in practice. It now looks ever more probable that some regions are going to race a decade or more ahead of the global system in its entirety - and that there, in the later 2010s, it will become clear what the worldwide impact might look like.
Even with these effects, a new course will require intense work (which is an indication of just how powerful the climate-change deniers are). This makes it vital that, in the short time available, institutions and individuals clearly think through what has to be done. Together, these two factors - realistic yet prophetic visioning, combined with incontrovertible evidence of rapid change - might just be enough.