"But it is here at the head of the river, under the snow peaks and the waterfall that thunders down out of the magic lake, that I shall pass from one world to another."—Peter Matthiessen
In the book The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen's journey deep into the Nepali Himalaya to spot a snow leopard merely scratches the surface of his inner journey. Nature and our experiences in and with it are, I believe, the clearest mirror of ourselves we could ever hope for.
I told my father I'm rereading this book, and he wrote me back: "Love that book. It was a time in that part of the world when things were still pristine before tourism brought the kinds of people that should never have polluted that sacred environment."
Agreeing with him, I shared what I'd always believed, or at least had always hoped to believe: that there are still those pristine places to be found - it is just that one must travel further, much further, into the "frontiers" to find them.
I'd love to believe this possible, but I know it no longer is. Not anymore, given what the industrial growth society has done, and is doing, to the planet. There is no place left on earth or in the atmosphere or deep within the oceans where the toxic fingerprint of industry has not left its indelible mark.
The faux goal of 2 degrees Celsius continues to be discussed. Meanwhile, the planet burns.
During the first week of December, delegations from nearly 200 countries will convene in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate conference. It has been billed, like the last several, as the most important climate meeting ever. The goal, like that of past COPs, is to have governments commit to taking steps to cut carbon dioxide emissions in order to limit planetary warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial temperature baseline.
Yet this is a politically agreed-upon limit. It is not based on science.
Renowned climate scientist James Hansen and multiple other scientists have already shown that a planetary temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial baseline temperatures is enough to cause runaway climate feedback loops, extreme weather events and a disastrous sea level rise.
Furthermore, the UK meteorological office has shown that this year's global temperature average has already surpassed that 1 degree Celsius level.
Well in advance of the Paris talks, the UN announced that the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere has locked in another 2.7 degrees Celsius warming at a minimum, even if countries move forward with the pledges they make to cut emissions. Hence, even the 2 degree Celsius goal is already unattainable. However, similar to the way in which national elections in the United States continue to maintain the illusion that this country is a democracy, and "We the People" truly have legitimate representation in Washington, DC, illusions must be maintained at the COP21.
Thus, the faux goal of 2 degrees Celsius continues to be discussed. Meanwhile, the planet burns.
Japan's meteorological office announced that this past September was, by far, the warmest September on record, and records now show that October has also become the hottest recorded October. As a whole, 2015 remains easily on course to become the hottest year ever recorded.
As if to place an exclamation point on all of this information, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit a new milestone in excess of 400 parts per million in early 2015 - a 45 percent increase over preindustrial levels.
Extreme weather events propelled by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) abound in this month's dispatch.
Hurricane Patricia tore into the West Coast of Mexico, becoming the strongest hurricane ever recorded, with sustained winds of 200 miles per hour.
Yemen was struck by its first hurricane in recorded history, dumping what is normally a decade's worth of rain in a matter of merely two days. As if that is not enough to show how intensely ACD is ramping up global weather events, less than a week later the second hurricane in Yemen's recorded history made landfall, bringing fresh hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, flash flooding and death.
ACD is, quite literally, extinguishing oceanic life across the planet.
An ACD-driven El Niño brought October storms that wreaked havoc across southern California. Record storms in the high desert and mountains of the southern part of that state brought massive mudflows across major highways, which trapped hundreds of vehicles in mud that was 20 feet deep in places, stranding motorists overnight. The rainfall from the storm, which in one area fell at a rate of 1.81 inches in just 30 minutes, was described by the National Weather Service as a "1,000-year event."
Meanwhile, a recent report shows that marine food chains are at risk of collapse due to ACD impacts, overfishing and pollution. ACD is literally erasing species from coral reefs, the open ocean, Arctic and Antarctic waters, and the tropics.
Moreover, another recent report reveals that bleaching and disease are combining to destroy the largest coral reef in the continental United States, a 150-mile reef found off the coast of Florida. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it is the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem on the planet.
A critical study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled "Global alteration of ocean ecosystem functioning due to increasing human CO2 emissions," warns, "The future simplification of our oceans has profound consequences for our current way of life, particularly for coastal populations and those that rely on oceans for food and trade."
It is yet another scientific report that shows how ACD is, quite literally, extinguishing oceanic life across the planet.
On that note, a paper recently published in The Anthropocene Review reminds us of a sobering fact that other peer-reviewed studies have confirmed: We are indeed living in the sixth mass extinction event, which we ourselves have created.
And when we look across the planet for this month's dispatch, all of the signs appear to indicate as much.
The signs of ACD across this sector of the planet continue to be glaring.
In the South Pacific region, a full one-third of the total population of Papua New Guinea is suffering from a drought crisis that is the worst in the last century. Nearly 2.5 million people in the country must deal with a critical lack of food and water, and the drought is expected to persist at least into March 2016.
In southeast Alaska, Native communities are struggling to continue harvesting traditional foods due to ACD's impacts in that region. From herring to blueberries to shellfish, many of the region's original plants and animals are disappearing.
Drought continues to plague vast expanses of the planet as ACD progresses.
In nearby Canada, as well as across Alaska, much of the northern United States, Scandinavia and Eurasia, the massive boreal forests, which comprise a full one-third of the planet's forest cover, are undergoing a startling decline due to ACD. This is evidenced by permafrost that is thawing and burning up in wildfires, insect outbreaks assaulting the forests, and climate zones that are moving 10 times faster than the forests are able to migrate. These forests are also plagued by logging and oil and gas drilling.
A recent study suggests that in the United States, we need to develop new models aimed at the conservation and preservation of our national parks. The traditional approach of setting land aside to protect its biodiversity is no longer sufficient, since ACD impacts like drought, increasing insect infestations and wildfires do not respect park boundaries.
On a similar note, the rare snow leopard from Matthiessen's famous book is now officially in even greater danger of extinction due to ACD, as warming temperatures continue to shrink the cat's habitat.
Across the world, ACD is also shrinking the habitat of some of the more rare birds in Hawai'i, including the yellow honeycreeper, according to a recent report. The bird's habitat is expected to vanish completely by the end of the century.
Looking southward to colder climates, the king penguin saw a 34 percent decline in population following a year of extremely warm waters in their normally cold southern ocean environment. Their changing climate is forcing them to have to swim farther for food, causing many of them to starve to death.
Drought continues to plague vast expanses of the planet as ACD progresses.
In Ethiopia, the worst drought in a decade is wiping out the country's agricultural sector, upon which most people there depend for their livelihood.
Stepping back and taking a broader view of drought's global impact, the UN recently announced that it expects at least 50 million people will become refugees within just the next five years because their land is literally turning into desert.
As usual, evidence of ACD's impact abounds in the watery realms of the planet.
California faces a future that will likely bring twice as many droughts and three times as much flooding, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications. Of course, the state has its hands full with the current disastrous drought and floods - and unless drastic changes are made, these weather patterns will only deepen and worsen.
Looking now at the ongoing loss of ice around the world, a study by Australian- and New Zealand-based scientists, which was published in the journal Nature, shows that the planet will be locked into thousands of years of unstoppable sea level rise from a melting Antarctic, as temperature increases of just 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius will lead to a massive reduction in ice. Remember that the UN announced that we are already locked into 2.7 degrees Celsius warming even if countries move forward on the pledges they brought to Paris for the COP21.
Recent NASA data show that the melting ice in western Antarctica is already in "irreversible retreat." That ice melt alone is likely to bring three meters of sea level rise.
Warming Antarctic oceans, which are a driving force behind the melting of the western Antarctic, are now threatening to kill off krill, the organism that forms the entire basis of the Antarctic ecosystem, according to biologists with the Australian government's Antarctic Division.
Melting continues apace in Greenland as well, where recently published data reveal how an ocean-based glacier has begun a rapid retreat, and will ultimately add one and a half feet to global sea level rise all by itself. Disconcertingly, another nearby glacier there is also in rapid retreat, and the two together will add over three feet to global sea level rise.
Recent NASA data show that the melting ice in western Antarctica is already in "irreversible retreat."
By 2050, the Arctic coast, along with most of the Arctic Ocean, will be completely devoid of sea ice for at least an additional two months per year, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change on November 4. This absence of ice will dramatically change both the Arctic and the planet itself: The Arctic will reflect far less sunlight back into space, hence increasing the speed of planetary warming.
The issue of rising sea levels has motivated a coalition of small Pacific Ocean nations, including Tuvalu, Tokelau, Kiribati and Fiji, to band together and request that wealthy nations work toward assisting their people to migrate and find jobs as they begin to flee to higher ground. The countries cited "major existential challenges" to their populations due to ACD impacts.
Similar to the crisis facing the island nations of the South Pacific, the Saloum Delta islands of Senegal are also seeing their way of life - and their very existence - move into the firing line of ACD impacts. Since their livelihoods are based on fishing and low-lying agriculture and both are disappearing, due to smaller fish catches and rising seas, respectively, the islands' people are left with no income and are facing starvation.
Back in the United States, the people of the Quinault Indian Nation on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State are dealing with sea level rise that is also threatening their way of life. A 2,000-foot-long sea wall is being constructed to protect houses, but it's only buying them time; the sea level rise isn't stopping. The tribe has developed a $60 million plan to relocate the entire village to higher ground.
Sea level rise is, of course, already impacting the coastal United States. A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows how major cities like New York, Jacksonville, Sacramento, Boston, New Orleans and Miami are facing an existential risk given that dramatic and immediate mitigation efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions are not happening. Remember that we are already locked in to a minimum of 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by 2100, even if dramatic mitigation efforts are immediately undertaken on a global level. The future of US coastal cities is looking bleak.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, sea level rise is set to cause large portions of Australia to lose their coastal mangrove forests before the end of this century, according to recently published research. "Without mangrove forests, fish decline, there's reduced coastal protection, there's reduced coastal carbon sequestration," University of Queensland researcher Catherine Lovelock said of the situation.
On the US East Coast, Atlantic cod, a fish that has long been critical to New England's fishing industry, is now on the brink of vanishing completely. The fish's spawning and survival are being thwarted by rapidly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine, fueled largely by ACD.
Looking south, recent US research shows we should expect dramatic and abrupt changes in oceanic food chains of the Southern Ocean, as it continues to acidify at a dramatic pace. Some of the key organisms in the food chain there are expected to be wiped out in as early as 15 years.
While the most intense wildfire season in US history has come to an end, 2015 officially became the worst wildfire season in Indonesia's history. By mid-October, that island nation saw more than 100,000 individual fires, and damages by the end of that month reached more than $30 billion, and more than half a million people were reported sick from the smoke.
This telling global map shows how ACD-fueled wildfires continue to ramp up across much of the Southern Hemisphere now as their summer approaches.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a chart that shows, very clearly, how 2015's global temperatures are exceedingly above the historic norm.
Air temperatures are becoming so hot as ACD progresses, in fact, that the oil-and-gas-producing Gulf countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, among others, will soon become unlivable because of the extreme heat and humidity, according to a report in the journal Nature Climate Change.
In the extreme weather realm, while it's been a relatively quiet hurricane season in the Atlantic, there were, nevertheless, 21 record-shattering hurricanes and typhoons, all but one of which occurred in the Pacific Ocean.
On the methane front, news comes from the Woods Hole Research Center, which released a policy brief that concluded that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not account adequately for the warming feedback loop that is both caused by and is causing methane releases into the atmosphere. Methane is, depending on the time frame used to measure its impact, roughly 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, evidence of more methane release comes in the form of "accelerating" warming of permafrost across vast portions of Alaska. This warming was brought to light in another recent report, which describes how, when the permafrost melts, the methane frozen within it is released, which accelerates warming further. This causes the permafrost to melt faster, hence the positive feedback loop.
With 2014 already logging in as the warmest year on record for Alaska - and 2015 now on pace to beat it - farming in the state is actually increasing along with the temperature. Think about that for a moment: Farming is now becoming a growing business in Alaska because the northernmost state in the United States is warming so dramatically. The world is rapidly becoming a very different place in which to live.
Denial and Reality
Given the Republican presidential candidates' attempts to vie for the title of "most backward," there is no shortage of ACD denial this month.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz publicly stated that he believes ACD is "religion."
"Climate change is not science. It's religion," Cruz told Glenn Beck.
More information was recently released about how Exxon Mobil, via deep collaborative efforts with the Bush and Cheney White House, sowed doubt about climate science over a period of decades by playing the "uncertainty" card.
Good news connected to that massive bit of well-funded denial comes in the form of a message from former US Department of Justice attorney Sharon Eubanks. She both prosecuted and won a massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco, and now thinks the agency should consider investigating Big Oil for similar claims to those made by Big Tobacco: claims that deliberately mislead the general public about the risks of its product.
Eubanks believes Exxon Mobil, along with other fossil fuel companies, could very well be held liable for violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) if it turns out the companies actively worked together to suppress knowledge about the reality of ACD.
On that note, the New York attorney general's office, in November, opened an investigation of Exxon Mobil, and this investigation could well generate legal inquiries into other major oil companies for similar actions. The investigations may lead to legal actions against all of the companies.
More good news on the reality front: A recent poll shows that a minimum of 70 percent of Americans now believe that ACD, over the last 40 years, is real and supported by solid scientific evidence. The same poll reveals a huge drop in the number of self-identified Republicans who doubt the reality of ACD, the numbers falling from 41 percent last fall to 26 percent.
Over in France, a high-profile TV weatherman in that country, Philippe Verdier, has been removed from being on air after he wrote a book that questioned the reality of ACD. In his book, he casts doubt on the findings of leading climate scientists and political leaders, and says they had "taken the world hostage."
"I received a letter asking me not to come [back to work]," Verdier told the media. "I don't know any more than that, I don't know how long it will last. It's all to do with my book."
To wrap up this month's dispatch: A recent study revealed 41 cases in which "abrupt changes" in the permafrost, sea ice, snow cover, ocean and terrestrial biosphere could trigger natural disasters. The abstract of the study, which was published in the esteemed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reads: "Eighteen out of 37 events occur for global warming levels of less than 2 [degrees Celsius], a threshold sometimes presented as a safe limit."
This means the scientists have identified these "tipping points" where abrupt regional climate shifts can occur due to ACD.
Predicting when they will occur remains challenging, but the results of the study show that all the state-of-the art climate models demonstrate that abrupt changes are likely. The first two hurricanes in recorded history to hit Yemen both striking the country in a six-day period and dumping a decade's worth of rain in 48 hours is an example of this.
"Our results show that no safe limit exists and that many abrupt shifts already occur for global warming levels much lower than 2 degrees," said lead author Professor Sybren Drijfhout from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton.
Despite the now common warning of "no safe limit" of the ever-increasing global temperature, the COP21 will be held with all of the attendant fanfare, media coverage and protests.
Global leaders will appear as though they are doing something to address the single greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced, despite the most respected, prestigious scientific bodies in the world producing one report after another that shows us we have run out of time to turn the ship, as the iceberg has long since punctured the hull.
Rather than pinning false hope to the COP21, perhaps now each of us might sit still, feel what is happening and listen deeply to the earth. If we do, then we might know from within, what is most important, and what we should do next.