Monday, November 5, 2018

Environmental Disaster: Humankind Faces the End

Geoff Maslen -
M e l b o u r n e ,   A u s t r a l i a - 

Pumping excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
By the year 2050, the situation in Australia had deteriorated even further as the deserts of the arid interior spread ever outwards, slowly devouring the once fertile coastal regions.

Most areas of the coasts had already been lost to the rapidly rising seas while the increasing intensity of storms continued to wreak havoc along the nation’s 36,000-kilometre shoreline. The Great Barrier Reef had long disappeared and now the few people still alive faced the same end.

With global temperatures continuing to rise, the effects of an ever-warming climate had already driven the 800 species of Australian birds to extinction, joining all the iconic marsupials.

Although the world’s temperature had long passed the two degrees Celsius mark, set as the global safety point in 2015, it had yet to hit 3.5 degrees. This was the terminal stage when all human beings would die out as the plankton in the oceans was destroyed and temperature swings killed off most land plants.

Humans have never lived on a planet at 3.5 degrees above the twentieth century baseline so, by 2050, the world population had suffered massive falls and was dropping ever more sharply every year. In Australia, the number of people had plummeted from the peak of 60 million it had reached in the late 2030s after waves of refugees arrived in their millions during the mass migrations of the 2020s.

The number of arrivals skyrocketed as tens of thousands of over-crowded boats landed on almost every beach around the continent, swamping government efforts to control the influx. The declaration: “We will determine who comes into this country” had been made so long before that no-one alive could recall who the fool was who had uttered it.

But, just as Australia’s political leaders had been totally unprepared for the cataclysms that climate change was to wreak, so they failed to cope with the huge increase in human numbers.

In the late 2030s and early 2040s, the nation’s capital cities had become disaster zones with police and the military unable to handle the riots caused by tens of thousands of starving citizens. Food supplies had run out as the drought killed off crops in every state, leaving the once-fertile land barren and deserted.

Schools and universities had been shut down long before and their buildings taken over by armed gangs while the sick were left to die in the street when hospitals could no longer provide the beds, doctors, nurses or medical supples.

In remote areas of the country, well-armed groups set up encampments with food and weapons they had seized. Meantime, the towns and cities had become dark urban jungles where only the fittest survived.

Yet the calamities caused by the warming Earth could have been prevented: The first evidence of the massive changes that would transform planet Earth had occurred as early as the northern summer of 2016.

Melting Antarctic Ice Caps
That was when the top of the world began turning from white to blue as the ice that had long covered the north polar seas began to melt away. This monumental event triggered a cascade of effects that was to amplify global warming, destabilising the Earth’s entire climate system.

With the rapid disappearance of the polar ice cover, Earth lost its vast air conditioning system that had helped regulate and stabilise the planet’s climate for thousands of years.

In 2013, scientists had believed the world faced sea level rises of less than a metre by 2100. Within two years, climate experts were predicting at least a doubling and possibly even higher levels.

Before it began shedding its own heavy blankets of ice, the Antarctic continent held ninety per cent of the world’s fresh water and Greenland ten per cent. By the 2020s, Greenland was losing 500 billion tonnes of its ice a year, a rate that had more than doubled in the century after 1900.

Even at that stage, experts predicted that Greenland could raise global sea levels by seven metres if all its ice melted, although the biggest contribution was to come from Antarctica shedding billions of tonnes from its vast western ice sheet.

Before the great melt began in the 2020s, scientists had estimated there was enough ice to raise sea levels by 60 metres if it ever all turned to water.

With the melting of the Arctic ice cap, followed by masssive collapses of the Greenland and West Antarctic icesheets, the low-lying Pacific islands were the first to disappear beneath the waves. Inundation of large areas of Asia forced billions more people to flee –100 million from a flooded Bangladesh alone. The arrival in the 2020s of tens of thousands of New Zealanders in Australia was the forerunner of a vast human tide sweeping across the surrounding oceans.

Of the millions who tried to escape by boat from coastal communities in Pakistan, China, India and other Asian nations further north, a majority never survived the journey over the storm-tossed waters.

But enough arrived in Australia to swell human numbers to record heights at a time when the country itself was experiencing its worst period of droughts, deadly bushfires and destructive cyclones.

The refugees had hoped to find a Promised Land but instead discovered a nation whose own people were desperately struggling to survive.

A koala had to be rescued from deforestation
For too long had Australians cleared the land of its original forests and grasslands, drained the soil of its nutrients, emptied the lakes and the rivers, dug up the minerals and turned much of the country into lunar landscapes.

As far back as 2015, a nationwide study by senior ecologists revealed the scale of destruction with almost a million square kilometres cleared of its original bushlands – about a seventh of the entire Australian continent.

Likewise, the temperate eucalypt woodlands of south-eastern Australia that had previously covered more than a million square kilometres, now occupied less than half that after being cleared for agriculture and urban development.

By this time, the planet had lost more than 3 million square kilometres of wilderness in little more than 20 years. Africa and South America had been most affected yet these continents were essential for sustaining complex ecosystem processes at a regional and planetary scale.

There was also another important service the wilderness areas provided: They stored vast amounts of carbon in their forests. Their disappearance was another sign of the global crisis that had become obvious even before the twentieth century faded into history.

As early as 1975, some scientists were warning that if global temperatures rose by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Earth’s climate would then be `outside the range of observations that had been made over the last 7,000 years...’

In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen told the US Congress how greenhouse gas emissions were directly related to rising temperatures and the dangers of climate change.

Hansen warned that the Earth was warmer in 1988 than it had ever been, that human-caused emissions were responsible and that temperatures were likely to continue to rise, increasing the prospects of extreme weather events. This was decades before any government considered taking preventative action.

In 1990 Swedish scientists suggested curbing sea level rises by restricting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But all the warnings were made thirty years before any significant steps were taken by governments around the globe to tackle climate change.

By which time it was already too late. A global agreement, adopted in Paris on 12 December 2015 did call for sharp cuts to greenhouse gases emissions. It offered the prospect of prompt action, although even then it was not set to start until 2020.

The Paris Agreement, however, was so weak that nations were bound only to submit increasingly stringent pledges every five years but were not obliged to actually implement them.

That was why the Australian government had readily joined the crowd ratifying the agreement – not because it had shown any inclination to change its desultory approach to curbing greenhouse gases, but because not signing might unnecessarily risk Australia’s already tattered reputation on climate change.

Yet Australia had been among world leaders in 2013 when it adopted a carbon pricing scheme that had proved effective elsewhere in forcing industries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions or face higher costs.

After his election that year, Coalition Prime Minister Tony Abbott abolished the scheme and replaced it with a laughable 'Direct Action Abatement' project that had precisely no impact on rising emission levels.

While Australia had not been a massive contributor to the warming of Earth, its citizens were to suffer, like every other human on the planet, the ultimate consequence of extinction. And all because successive governments had failed to collaborate with those that were taking climate change seriously.

Oblivious to the dangers, Australians blindly plunged on. Into the abyss...

Geoff Maslen’s latest book is Too Late: How we lost the battle against climate change.


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