Planet politics: time to get real

How to stop the glaciers melting? With three vital forces, it's possible.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 January 2019

Adelie penguins on an ice floe floating off the Mertz Glacier along the coast of Antarctic. Dean Lewins/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The earth's climate emergency is highlighted in several important new studies. But will this flurry become a genuine turning-point, or dissipate under pressure of denialism, cynicism – and disunity?

These studies leave no doubt about the dangers. Before the global summit at Katowice in December, an IPCC science report had warned that time is now very short to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. Even as the ten-day meeting was in session, a new Nasa study said  it had “detected the first signs of significant melting in a swathe of glaciers in Eastern Antarctica” (see "Climate action: the new frontier",  17 December 2018) .

It is the sheer pace of development that can still surprise. A measure of this comes in reading the admirable Carbon Brief, whose chronicle of longer-term trends and weekly summaries of latest news are essential reading. This week alone, for example, has stunning accounts of more rapid retreat in two of the world’s three major “ice reservoirs”. 

The first concludes that the rate of retreat in central Asia's glaciers will likely result in serious water shortages in Kazakhstan (see Stephan Harrison, "Glaciers and geopolitics", 27 May 2005). This research is usefully aided by a scientific station, built in 1957 during the Soviet era, now rather decrepit but still functioning. When opened it was close to the leading edge of the Tuyuksu glacier but now almost an hour's scramble over rocks is required even to get to the glacier's edge.

The second account, and very significant on a global scale, comes from United States researchers who find that the rate of loss of Greenland’s ice has increased nearly fourfold in barely a decade (see John Schwartz, “Greenland's Melting Ice Nears a 'Tipping Point', Scientists Say", New York Times, 23 January 2019). 

Worldwide, there are three major stores of ice: Antarctica, Greenland, and the so-called “third pole” of the central Asian glaciers (mainly in the Himalaya and the Karakoram mountain ranges). All are losing ice at a worrying rate, but the new data from Greenland could well cause the most alarm.

Until recently, most Greenland-centred studies have focused on the loss of ice from the south-east and north-east of the vast island, with research tending to show that the western ice sheets were more stable. This is now being called into question by research that implies the whole Greenland ice mass may be moving close to a tipping-point of rapid and irreversible change.

A climate coalescing

In face of this perilous challenge, the urgent need for change is beyond question. What needs to happen? Another report, Oxford Research Group's Blueprints for a Green Challenge , published on 23 January, sketches the practicalities of an integrated programme of rapid decarbonisation. It takes the United Kingdom as one model of the world's high-carbon-emitting states. The ORG's emphasis is on integration, as it argues that a change in culture and attitudes from the ground up is required. 

Its overall analysis has three core, and interrelated, elements. The first is defence and security. At present, the dominant security narrative and parallel defence stance prioritise national security, not common global security. This has rigorously to be challenged, not just in Britain but in the great majority of “high-carbon” states. For at the root of climate disruption is the necessity of preventing it, rather than protecting the state from its disastrous consequences (see "Climate disruption: time to speak up", 29 November 2018).  

In turn that means, for the UK and states like it, a second element: a big boost for climate-science research, in particular relating to polar, tropical and oceanic systems; and sustained international research collaboration, especially with states having more limited research capability. The third is major investment in generating renewable energy: from research, development, and innovation to transmission and conservation. The aim is a massive, rapid replacement of fossil-carbon sources with renewables, thus slashing the timetables for change proposed at Paris's COP21 in 2015 and largely agreed at Katowice's COP24.

But a blueprint is useless unless it is implemented, and here the ORG report focuses on a further three areas:

* Governments: they can, if they want, speed change through fiscal, legislative and investment measures – and rapid effects at remarkably low cost can be achieved by policy changes that build on existing possibilities

* Political leadership: a far higher level, from the local and regional to the national and intergovernmental, must come to the fore. A tall order? But the UK might at last find a new role for itself that gets beyond its continuing delusion of post-imperial grandeur – and leading the transition to a more sustainable world might even give it the status it has been seeking for decades

 * Civil society: for this kind of vision being implemented, in Britain or elsewhere, a determined and persistent civil society with agency, operating at multiple levels, is essential. Here, a hopeful aspect is that two processes are now interacting: every month, wholesale climate disruption becomes more likely, but the knowledge of how it can be prevented already exists. Thus, implementation is the issue, and seeing the whole challenge as an integrated process across most facets of society is an under-recognised but necessary step.

Blueprints for a Green Challenge says: “Since climate disruption, if not curbed, will have an appalling impact on future generations, then any significant political actor that does not recognise and act on this should be seen as deficient in a primary requirement of office”.

The dangers set out in the latest climate reports can induce pessimism, if not paralysis, among many citizens. But there are also grounds for political optimism. A recent column in this series noted that the Labour Party opposition in the UK is putting decarbonisation higher on its policy agenda than any equivalent mass membership party in western Europe, while there is great energy and resourcefulness among climate campaigners of all kinds.  

But there must also be a coalescing. This is the test of a generation, everyone is involved, and we have no choice but to rise to it.  

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