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Planet Earth Under Threat

Tipping points

  • Gabrielle Walker
  • 16 Jun 06, 09:39 AM

dripping-sea-ice.jpg

Hello Bloggers,

As Julian has already told you, I’m here with him in Greenland, studying the signs of Arctic meltback. We’ve seen some of the evidence that the glaciers are retreating, and also we’ve been up close and personal with several floes of sea ice. It can be very tranquil out here in the fjord, surrounded by the beautiful multiyear floes, which are so beaten up by their years of crashing into one another that they look like whipped up meringue. But once in a while you hear a sudden crack like a pistol shot, and watch a large block of ice tumble into the sea. And all around there are the uneven dripping sounds of the Arctic melting.

Melting sea ice is a perfectly natural thing. It happens here every summer, and even now—which is quite early for Greenland—some of the floes have blue-green ponds of meltwater on their surface. (Incidentally, even though sea ice is just frozen seawater, the older ice spends its first few years letting all the salt trickle out of wiggly channels below the surface, and the topmost part is now more or less salt free. That means the pools of meltwater taste fresh and sweet—I know, I drank some! Apparently whalers used to use these pools to replenish their water sources, and sometimes to take a chilly dip.)

However, we have also heard worrying evidence that the sea ice is melting more rapidly than before, and that the northernmost ice cap is shrinking. Satellite data show that the summer sea ice has receded by 8 % per year over the past three decades. And some models predict that by the end of the century, the white polar ice cap in summer will be replaced completely by a deep blue ocean.

I’ve just written about Arctic climate change in an article published this week in Nature called “the tipping point of the iceberg”. Those of you who have a subscription can check it out here:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v441/n7095/pdf/441802a.pdf

For the rest, I’ll give a quick summary.

Basically, I talk about “tipping points” in the Arctic. I look especially at three vulnerable areas, the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic sea ice, and the ocean circulation. All three of these have some kind of “tipping point” beyond which they will change more or less irreversibly. The good news is that at the moment, scientists believe that we are still some way off the danger point for completely melting the Greenland ice sheet, or from tipping ocean circulation over the edge.

The bad news is that it looks as if the Arctic sea ice is already on its way. Also with us in Greenland is Jacqui McGlade, director of the European Environment Agency. When I was chatting to her yesterday, she told me that this would make a radical, but perhaps very interesting, difference to the ecosystem hereabouts. She thinks, as do I, that the Earth isn’t particularly afraid of change. It’s a restless planet, and change is part of its nature. But those of us that are living on its surface right now might well start to be alarmed when we realise the scale of the change, when we see the white ice receding, and some of our favourite animals—polar bears, seals and walruses—start to die off. I personally wonder if the Arctic sea ice is such an icon of our planet that losing it might nudge public opinion over its own tipping point with regard to climate change. As one of the scientists I spoke to for my Nature article said: “Tipping points are part of the problem, but they could also be part of the solution.”

Today I will talk a bit more to Jacqui about the different possible futures that Europe faces, and also about what sort of choices we have. She’s the first person I’ve met in a long time who has specific suggestions for what we can do to change our future for the better. I’ll let you know what she comes up with.

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  • 1.
  • At 11:00 AM on 16 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Earth is indeed not afraid of change. It's not conscious in any case, so it couldn't be. Some people are afraid of change, howsoever it comes about and whatsoever it affects.

It is this fear of change in things that operate on such a huge scale over vast stretches of time that promotes the unwarranted and unjustifiable hysteria about global warming. Or, as they call it now to avoid their predictions being falsified, climate change.

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  • 2.
  • At 02:47 PM on 16 Jun 2006,
  • Tony Harvey wrote:

I believe any hope that Neo-liberal capitalism can solve the problem of climate change will prove to be utterly unfounded. To try to put this right without rectifying the clapped out global financial system is useless and environmentalists doing so will carry on coming up against a brick wall. They need to look at the way this system works and intellectually grow beyond the conditioning that economics and finance can only be understood by economists and financiers.

Let me try to explain. The two main cornerstones of Western economies are usury and speculation. Usury in that almost all of the money in circulation has been electronically created by the commercial banks and is called by them “credit” and is lent to Governments and individuals for quick profit not for a particular motive of world betterment. Nothing moves when electronic money circulates when you use your debit card, direct debits, cheques etc and when Governments borrow money- all that happens is that one account’s data entry is debited (decremented) and another credited, (incremented). So this money can be created at no cost to the banks because it exists only as a data entry in the electronic bank accounts and is exchanged between them as such only. The stuff in your wallet/purse created by the Royal Mint for the Bank of England represents a tiny fraction of the ‘money’ that exists, the vast majority has been created by the commercial banks as loans under this “fractional reserve banking system” and circulates electronically and the profit (interest) accrues to the bankers not the Governments. Even pretty low corporation tax is often avoided by the use of foreign tax havens, (At least £20 Billion total in the UK pa avoided at 2003 figures- [War on Want pamphlet]). The need for the continuing increase of the assault on the world’s resources substantially stems from the imperative of “economic growth” which is necessary to keep up with the ever spiralling overall interest payments due on the explosion of different types of loans created by commercial banks and other private interests.

I refer to the ‘cornerstone of Speculation’ in that National economies and their populations are utterly dependant on the $2 Trillion or so (equivalent) that changes hands electronically every DAY- untaxed- around the world on the “financial markets” in search of speculative quick profit unrelated to any exchange of real goods or services. Utterly dependant because National Governments create hardly any of the money that is in circulation at all as I have already explained. Financiers and corporations increasingly trade IN money not WITH money, since deregulation in the 1980s. Why create, innovate and trade in cumbersome goods when you can make far more far quickly and with far less risk just by moving money and money instruments between computers around the world? Almost all the global financial institutions and even many corporations are at it. Any government that even publicly SPEAKS of restricting it or taxing it or significantly environmentally regulating the stock market listed business that it invests in or threatening tax havens even, faces economically disastrous capital flight to nations not doing so within hours on the trading computers on the stock markets and the derivatives computers of the international corporations and banks. You see how the financier oligarchy has got us all over a barrel? No Government dare even publicly consider democratically demanded change to the status quo. No corporation dare significantly reduce the current quick profit return to its international capital investors by SIGNIFICANT investment in alternative forms of energy & transportation as to do so invites a declining share price and capital flight to corporations not doing so. The same goes for national governments. The intellectual economist Lyndon La Rouche in Executive Intelligence Review (see below) actually uses the term “Financier Oligarchy” referring to the way our democracies are going under the economic & corporate globalisation I have already described.

Most mainstream media outlets are owned by stock market listed corporations. Does anyone believe such a corporation will allow SERIOUS debate in its pages or TV stations, of reform to the international financial system when it is this system that is the investment hand that feeds it, both owning the shares and placing the corporate adverts? Does anyone seriously believe that one example tabloid and TV/news station owning international corporation that currently pays no corporation tax in the UK by the use of tax havens will seriously allow such debate in its media outlets? I’m not suggesting columnists and editors are directly told what to say and what not to, but they know there are limits which they must not cross if they are to retain their jobs which are mostly in the form of shortish term renewable (or not) contract posts. And most of them have not ever asked themselves what money really is, who creates it, who controls its circulation, who profits from it and why no Government of left OR right credentials strangely refuses to reform corporate taxation and environmental regulations ONCE IN POWER despite the obvious dire financial state of our public services, worsening annually and the developed countries paltry aid to the developing ones whose populations are starving to death in their millions monthly for the want of the huge surplus of food per capita that exists worldwide (Some 10%- look up UN Statistics)

I believe that Planet Earth’s environment is in a sad and perilous state which each day brings it nearer to the critical, and that even the most dire prophecy falls short of the calamity facing the world today, (this quote from www.share-international.org). Anyone who seriously believes that humanity can burn off gigantic amounts of carbon into the atmosphere daily over some 200 years (in the form of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels) that had been gradually accumulated beneath the earth over hundreds of MILLIONS of years, and while annually cutting down tens of millions of acres of atmosphere purifying tropical forests- all of this without incurring MAJOR upheaval and destruction to the earth’s life supporting climate systems is conditioned and deluded indeed.

I believe that only a total and systemic collapse of the world’s financial system will bring humanity to its senses and- (even though I know this itself would cause major trauma for a while because we have allowed stock market listed corporations to take over most food and energy production and distribution worldwide)- it is my belief and hope that this is coming to pass. The men of money’s selfish greed and competition is over-reaching itself at long last and the frantic efforts to prop up the system behind the scenes are at long last crumbling. (Refer to the writings of just one intellectual- Lyndon La Rouche’s Executive Intelligence Review for example information, www.larouchepub.com). The signs that it is doing so are obvious for those who look beyond their own narrow interests and look below the surface at powerful people’s MOTIVES- not what they SAY but what they DO and WHY that might be- with objectivity. People who bother to READ & STUDY widely. Anyone who thinks that substantially unrestrained powerful people will not try to manipulate to retain and enhance their own selfish interests and who denounces those who highlight this as “conspiracy theorists” is deluded and conditioned indeed. They have just not reflected seriously on the sad condition of greed and fear of loss as well as Spiritual poverty and poverty of intellect that dominates the natures of most of our fellow human being financier oligarchs in power. We’ve all got some major waking up to do if we are to survive

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  • 3.
  • At 03:44 PM on 16 Jun 2006,
  • Euan Gray wrote:

Money is a formalised system of universally accepted tokens by which one can exchange the product of one's labour for the product of another's labour. It is indispensable in any society more advanced than subsistence farming level. If you don't use money, how does, say, a nurse obtain farmed food? What mechanism other than money is used to facilitate this exchange?

Where money comes from, how it is created, and how it is traded is not especially relevant to anything. Money can indeed be created by economic activity, to say otherwise falls into the "fixed quantity of wealth" fallacy which is one of the major reasons why socialist economics don't work.

Ususry - the practice of charging interest on credit - is virtually unavoidable in any developed society. If I lend you money, I face the risk that you might not pay it back. To compensate me for that risk, I charge you a fee for advancing the money. On a larger scale, people putting money on deposit at a bank make that money available for lending to others. To compensate for risk, they are paid interest, which comes from the interest paid by the borrowers. If you don't do this, how do you make investment capital available? You also have to realise that electronic money transactions are not free of cost - you need to pay for systems to keep it safe and secure, you need computers to store all the data and records, you need to maintain all of that, you need to police it to avoid fraud, etc. All that costs money, it is not free.

Unfortunately, no viable alternative to the capitalist system has yet been developed. Socialism doesn't work, at all.

The condition of the environment is not the fault of those nasty evil privately owned corporations. More environmental damage was done by and within countries which rejected the capitalist system than in those which adopted it.

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  • 4.
  • At 04:19 PM on 16 Jun 2006,
  • Tom wrote:

I think that you should be covering the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in St.Kitts. How can it be allowed that countries who have no interest in the matter, and who have been bribed/ paid to vote a certain way?

It is not ethical and it is not right.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been our polling the residents of Caribbean islands, has shown overwhelming support for the ban on commercial whaling, and have urged the delegates to vote for their people's wishes. Greenpeace have also been talking to the locals who want to see the whales saved. They remain anti whaling even though the local government will vote in favour of Pro-whaling legislation due to the subsidied from the Japanese govenments

http://tomblog1.blogspot.com

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Thank you, Tony Harvey. I too reckon global economic collapse is our best hope, but, being American, I'm immune to irony.

"Though I can see no way to defend the economy, I recogniize the need
to be concerned for the suffering that would be produced by its
failure. But I ask if it is necessary for it to fail in order to
change: I am assuming that if it does not change it must sooner or
later fail, and that a great deal that is more valuable will fail
with it. As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French
monarch, for it apparently can see no alternative to itself except
chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness. For, of course, chaos
is not the only alternative to it. A better alternative is a better
economy. But we will not conceive the possibility of a better
economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit
deifying the present one."
-- Wendell Berry, in "A Continuous Harmony"

Plant food crops and
Vaya con Gaia

ed

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Greetings Ice Maiden Gabrielle,

Some see the 'tipping point as a knife-edge, but I visualise it as a parabolic edge which as you get further over the peak, the slope accellerates, and it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine clawing your way back....perhaps it's an icy ridge as well.

Clasic 'overshoot' graphs seem likely.

I hope you can get a word in edgewise, and look forward to further encouraging words from Jaqui.

Keep up the good work, dress warm, and
Vaya con Gaia
ed

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Ice Maiden and colleagues,

A couple of links dealing with the ecological 'tipping point' known as 'overshoot', firstly, the graphs referred to above.
http://greatchange.org/footnotes-overshoot-graphs.html
Which do you think most clearly depicts our future? Then there's the article to which they relate:
http://greatchange.org/footnotes-overshoot.html
which includes a number of definitions which may illuminate terms and attitudes found in these PEuT discussions.

Have a nice weekend
ed

and, if the above ain't enough, there's some more.
http://greatchange.org/ov-catton,malthus.html
http://greatchange.org/ov-catton,denial.html

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  • 8.
  • At 07:10 PM on 16 Jun 2006,
  • Tom Campbell wrote:

I've been travelling back and forth between the US and UK for the last 20 years and from time to time the flightpath has taken me over Southern Greenland and Labrador. Maybe I'm wrong, but there seems to be more black ground to be seen in Greenland in the spring and more white in Labrador. In midwinter, (with the exception of this year) the sea ice seems to extend further down the coast of the US but there's less south of Greenland. This is just an impression of course because most times there're clouds in the way, but all the same, the US coast has seemed to get a bigger burden and the coast of Greenland less.
T.

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For those without a Nature subscription, Gabrielle's article can be read at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClimateConcern/message/10087?l=1

It's well worth the trouble. Thanks again Gabrielle.
xx
ed

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Why does this page stop at three comments, while the link
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/planetearthunderthreat/2006/06/tipping_points_1.html
leads to the full (so far) set but has difficulty showing your nice new picture of dripping ice....?

Software issues? Outsourcing to Californians?

xx
ed

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A quite dramatic story, more so than has been lately reported. (Also very
well written.)
-- ed

http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-greenland25jun25,0,1900887,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines

The massive glaciers are deteriorating twice as fast as they were five years ago. If the ice thaws entirely, sea level would rise 21 feet.

By Robert Lee Hotz, Times Staff Writer June 25, 2006

JAKOBSHAVN GLACIER, Greenland - Gripping a bottle of Jack Daniel's between his knees, Jay Zwally savored the warmth inside the tiny plane as it flew low across Greenland's biggest and fastest-moving outlet glacier......

Vaya con Gaia
ed

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Hi Gabrielle, Holly here, so do you think that there is a similar receding of ice down here in the Antarctic. Some of the scientist that are comming down this season are going to be looking at some of that, by drilling to get cores from about a billion years.
I know that there is some warming on the coastal regions of the ICE but at Pole they are still seeing record cold there.

Anyhow just some thoughts.

Holly

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