Last month, climate scientists announced that Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its smallest surface area since satellite observations began in 1979. An ice-free summer in the Arctic, once projected to be more than a century away, now looks possible just a few decades from now. Some scientists say it may happen within the next few years.
The loss is hugely significant because Arctic sea ice reflects most solar energy into space, helping to keep the Earth at a moderate temperature. But when the ice melts it reveals dark waters below, which absorb more than 90 percent of the solar energy that hits them, leading to faster warming both locally and globally.
Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, warns that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer as soon as 2015. Such a massive loss would have a warming effect roughly equivalent to all human activity to date. In other words, a summer ice-free Arctic could double the rate of warming of the planet as a whole. No wonder that leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen says bluntly: "We are in a planetary emergency."
In a comprehensive blog piece on the Scientific American website, Ramez Naam points out that:
The reality of changes to the Arctic has far outstripped most predictions. Only a few years ago, in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the bulk of models showed the Arctic ice cap surviving in summer until well past 2100. Now it's not clear that the ice will survive in summer past 2020. The level of sea ice we saw this September, in 2012, wasn't expected by the mean of IPCC models until 2065. The melting Arctic has outpaced the predictions of almost everyone – everyone except the few who were called alarmists.
As well as global warming from carbon dioxide (CO2), there is the additional risk of warming from methane (CH4) being released into the atmosphere. Huge quantities of methane are locked up in land permafrost. But even vaster quantities exist as methane hydrates frozen below the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean's continental shelves. Naam warns:
If even 10% of the northern permafrost's buried carbon were released as methane, it would have a heating effect over the next decade equivalent to ten times all human greenhouse emissions to date, and over the next century equivalent to roughly four times all human greenhouse emissions to date.
That's just the methane on land, trapped in the permafrost. If the methane hydrates buried on the Arctic continental shelves were to be released, that would have a warming effect equivalent to hundreds of times the total human carbon emissions to date.
Although Namm says "we are probably not in danger of a methane time bomb going off any time soon", recent observations show that Arctic methane is being released into the atmosphere. And there is scientific controversy over how serious and how rapid this release is.
In summary, Naam points to a triple whammy effect:
1. Warming from the greenhouse gases we are currently emitting.
2. Warming from the loss of ice and permafrost in the Arctic, and the exposure of dark water and dark land below.
3. Warming from the release of more carbon into the atmosphere as the permafrost and the Arctic sea floor methane begin to melt.
The situation is already dire. According to a new report commissioned by twenty governments, more than 100 million people will die by 2030 if the world fails to tackle climate change. Five million deaths already occur each year from air pollution, hunger and disease as a result of climate change and carbon-intensive economies. This death toll would likely rise to six million a year by 2030 if current patterns of fossil fuel use continue. More than 90 per cent of those deaths will occur in developing countries.
On a sane planet, action would have been taken long before now to limit the risk. But, as Greenpeace International head Kumi Naidoo notes, fossil fuel industries have been working hard to corrupt the political process:
Why our governments don't take action? Because they have been captured by the same interests of the energy industry.
As we noted in an alert last year, a Greenpeace study titled Who's Holding Us Back? reported:
The corporations most responsible for contributing to climate change emissions and profiting from those activities are campaigning to increase their access to international negotiations and, at the same time, working to defeat progressive legislation on climate change and energy around the world.
These polluting corporations often exert their influence behind the scenes, employing a variety of techniques, including using trade associations and think tanks as front groups; confusing the public through climate denial or advertising campaigns; making corporate political donations; as well as making use of the "revolving door" between public servants and carbon-intensive corporations.
Unsurprisingly then, meaningful action on tackling climate change is nowhere on the political agenda.
Drilling to Oblivion
Around the same time that a record low in Arctic sea ice was being recorded, a new report from the UK's House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee urged a halt to all oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, at least "until new safeguards are put in place." Committee chair Joan Walley MP said:
The shocking speed at which the Arctic sea ice is melting should be a wake-up call to the world that we need to phase out fossil fuels fast. Instead we are witnessing a reckless gold rush in this pristine wilderness as big companies and governments make a grab for the world's last untapped oil and gas reserves.
Caroline Lewis, member of the committee, warned that "the race to carve up the Arctic is accelerating faster than our regulatory or technical capacity to manage it."
But the record of corporate capitalism shows that powerful industrial forces will do all they can to lobby governments to allow for continued economic exploitation of the planet's resources. According to the US Geological Survey, within the Arctic Circle there are some 90 billion barrels of oil - 13 per cent of the planet's undiscovered oil reserves - and 30 per cent of its undiscovered natural gas. The race for corporate profits is now on, with Shell already committed to a "multi-year exploration program" in the Arctic.
The receding Arctic ice is a "business opportunity" for those wishing to exploit newly available shipping routes. Cargo that now goes via the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal will, in many cases, have a shorter Arctic route, ensuring "efficiency savings" for big business.
Companies are also licking their lips at the prospect at getting their hands on vast deposits of minerals as Greenland's ice cap recedes.
"For me, I wouldn't mind if the whole ice cap disappears," said Ole Christiansen, the chief executive of NunamMinerals, Greenland's largest homegrown mining company, with his eyes on a proposed gold mining site up the fjord from Nuuk, Greenland's capital. "As it melts, we're seeing new places with very attractive geology."
A good example of the psychopathic mind-set at the heart of corporate capitalism. Science writer Peter Gleick responded incredulously on Twitter: "25 foot sea rise?" For that is indeed the catastrophic scale of global sea level rise that would occur with the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
The BBC Parks the Problem
The BBC's extremely poor and biased coverage of climate change continues to dismay seasoned observers. As Verity Payne and Freya Roberts noted on The Carbon Brief website, the corporation's "fondness for pitting non-experts against each other over particularly complex areas of climate science reached surreal heights" in a recent BBC2 Newsnight segment on Arctic sea ice loss. The encounter between Conservative MP Peter Lilley and the Green Party's new leader Natalie Bennett eventually degenerated into an argument over the merits of locally-sourced food. Payne and Roberts concluded:
It's hard to understand how, over a year after the BBC Trust reviewed the corporation's science coverage, paying particular attention to topics such as climate change, this is what we end up with.
In fact, the BBC's awful performance is not that much of a mystery. The corporation has always been a reliable supporter of state and corporate power. But particularly since the fallout from reporting the government's "sexing-up" of discredited claims about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, when heads rolled at the BBC, the broadcaster has been at pains not to offend the government and allied interests. Its abysmal failure to inform the British public of the coalition's effective dismantling of the National Health Service is another key example.
According to former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne, who was privy to internal editorial discussions in 2010, the BBC has "explicitly parked climate change in the category 'Done That Already, Nothing New to Say'." Brayne added:
On climate change, that BBC journalistic urgency to be seen to be fair now means, after a period between Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and the disaster of [the 2009 UN Climate Summit in] Copenhagen when global warming was everywhere in the output, that the Corporation has been bending over backwards to reflect the opposite, sceptical view.
Consider the analogy of two men at a bar, says Brayne. One man claims that two plus two equals four, and the other that two plus two equals six. The BBC solution to this disagreement? "Put them both on the Today Programme, and the answer clearly lies somewhere in the middle."
The Today programme, BBC Radio 4's "agenda-setting" morning programme, is a serial offender when it comes to irresponsible climate coverage. On July 13 this year, veteran interviewer John Humphrys interviewed Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences. Part of the interview went like this:
JH: "But to say nearly every spot on the globe has warmed significantly over the past 30 years and indeed the entire planet is warming is different from saying it's going to continue to warm to such an extent that we have to spend vast and unimaginable amounts of money to protect ourselves against a catastrophe that many people, some distinguished scientists say, isn't actually proven."
RC: "Well of course the way you've worded it, it was quite strong; 'vast and unimaginable sums of money', I don't think I've heard anybody make such a proposal."
Moments later, Humphrys made the idiotic assertion that: "You can't absolutely prove that CO2 in the atmosphere is responsible for global warming."
As climate writers Christian Hunt and Ros Donald put it politely:
If the Today programme brought this level of research and preparation to interviewing politicians, it probably wouldn't be taken particularly seriously.
In fact, the standard of political debate on Today, as with the rest of BBC News, is on a similarly appalling level: routinely tilted towards state-corporate power, and all at public expense.
Meanwhile, BBC News happily chunters along issuing a stream of articles and broadcasts about Britain's "dreadful weather" this year and how it has, for example, "cost rural Britain £1bn" in lost income. But you would be hard pressed to find any links drawn between this and human-induced climate change.
Guarding the Mythology of "Feeble Response"
Greens like to flock to the Guardian almost as though it were the house paper of the environment movement. One recent Guardian editorial noted that:
Pessimists in the climate change community warn that within the next century global mean temperatures could rise by 6C. A fierce, sustained drought in the US, with 170 all-time US heat records broken in June alone, has already hurt world food stocks.
These are important points. But given the observed rapid changes in the Arctic under global warming, the Guardian's pejorative use of "pessimists" should probably be replaced with "realists". The Guardian continued:
The global response to these signals of potential calamity has so far been feeble.
This hugely understates the problem. But, even more damning, it diverts attention from root causes. As mentioned earlier, huge vested interests have mounted decades-long campaigns of disinformation, fierce lobbying and intimidation to subvert and bully governments into (a) avoiding what needs to be done in the face of climate chaos; and (b) providing tax breaks, subsidies and other measures to enhance rapacious corporate practices under the guise of boosting economic "growth" and "job creation" (newspeak terms for corporate profits).
Senior Guardian editorial staff seem unable to move beyond the same anodyne waffle they have been publishing for thirty years:
Britain's "greenest government ever" has shown what it thinks of scientific evidence, by placing a homeopathic medicine enthusiast in charge of the National Health Service, and a reputed climate sceptic as environment secretary. The outlook is not promising.
The Guardian has almost nothing to say about the deep-rooted changes required to redress the imbalance of power in society; or about its own role in pushing climate-damaging policies and practices. The Guardian is a corporate newspaper dependent on advertisers for around 70 per cent of its income. Put simply, like other corporate media, it is part of the problem.
Media Malpractice - Challenging the Decline in Coverage
In the US, climate blogger Joe Romm notes that the decline in corporate media climate coverage has been well documented, both in print and the evening news. Bill Blakemore of ABC News observes that a number of the climate scientists "are perplexed by — and in some cases furious with — American news directors." Blakemore elucidates:
"Malpractice!" is typical of the charges this reporter has heard highly respected climate experts level — privately, off the record — at my professional colleagues over the past few years.
Complaints include what seems to the scientists a willful omission of overwhelming evidence the new droughts and floods are worsened by man made global warming, and unquestioning repetition, gullible at best, of transparent anti-science propaganda credibly reported to be funded by fossil fuel interests and anti-regulation allies.
Blakemore adds that he has spoken with climate scientists who "agree with those, including NASA scientist James Hansen, who charge that fossil fuel CEOs are guilty of a 'crime against humanity,' given the calamity that unregulated greenhouse emissions are quickly bringing on." With 100 million deaths from global warming predicted by 2030, the charge is no hyperbole. Indeed this surely represents the greatest crime in all human history. And yet governments and big business, shielded by the corporate media, are getting away with it.
It probably comes as no surprise that the worst US media offenders belong to the Murdoch stable. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows that Fox News had been "misleading" viewers about climate science in 93 per cent of primetime programmes that addressed the subject over a six-month period in 2012. Fox News hosts and guests "mocked and disparaged statements from scientists and drowned out genuine scientific assertions with cherry-picked data and false claims." The opinion pages of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal performed slightly better: only 81 per cent of the examples studied were misleading, according to the UCS analysis. Similar surveys of the UK media are sorely needed. And, more to the point, action taken to challenge this corporate media complicity in history's premier crime.
We have to re-examine our assumptions about what might be most effective in changing things for the better. For years, left and green activists have argued that we should work with corporate media to reach a wider public. For a long time the argument may have seemed unassailable. But after decades of accelerating planetary devastation and rapidly declining democracy, the argument has weakened to the point of collapse. By a process of carefully rationed corporate "inclusion", the honesty, vitality and truth of environmentalism have been corralled, contained, trivialised and stifled.
Corporate media "inclusion" of dissent has deceived the public with the illusion of openness and change, while business-as-usual has taken us very far in the opposite direction. Ironically, meek "cooperation" has handed influence and control to the very forces seeking to disempower dissent. And in the absence of serious left/green criticism, corporate media performance has actually deteriorated.
Why should progressives help this system sell the illusion that the corporate media offers a "wide spectrum of views" when its biased output overwhelmingly and inevitably promotes Permanent War for resources and war on the planet? The corporate media must be confronted with the reality of what it is, and what it has done. It is vital that this be highlighted to the public it has been deceiving.
While the power of the internet remains relatively open, there is a brief window to free ourselves from the shackles of the corporate media and to build something honest, radical and publicly accountable. Climate crisis is already upon us, with much worse likely to come. The stakes almost literally could not be higher.