Climate Change: Have We Reached
the Point of No Return?
Video By Real News
Dahr Jamail and Guy McPherson: Many new studies and modeling say
reversing climate change is a pipe dream - brace yourself for human
Posted August 17, 2015
EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini
Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Examples of deadly extreme weather patterns are alarming. Droughts,
killer heat waves, extended wildfires, drastically melting glaciers,
typhoons, and extreme rainfalls leading to floods and landslides as
well as sea level rises and mass die-off of animals all make it
rather clear. For scientists, the debate has been long over. Climate
change is here and these extreme weather events are the kinds of
things we can expect more of in the future. But have we reached the
point of no return? Is this extreme weather the new normal?
To discuss all of this I'm joined by a two-member panel, Dahr Jamail
and Guy McPherson. Dahr Jamail is a staff reporter with TruthOut. He
currently focuses on the environment and climate change. And Guy
McPherson is Professor Emeritus of conservation biology at the
University of Arizona. Thank you both for joining us today.
DAHR JAMAIL, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you. It's an
PERIES: Let me start with you. The recent James Hansen report
surpasses all previous predictions related to sea level rises. Why
is that happening?
JAMAIL: It's because a phenomena is occurring called abrupt climate
change, and it's actually something I started to really become
acutely aware of back in 2013, and became aware of Dr. McPherson and
his work and conducted a long interview with him, and wrote a long
article for TomDispatch.com called Are we already off the climate
precipice?. And you read the article and the answer is clear, yes.
And the fact is, when we look at, connect all the dots, which Dr.
McPherson has done and has been doing for quite a number of years
now, that it shows when we look at the pattern of for example the
IPCC worst case predictions of, whether it be temperature increases
or sea level rise, or CO2 in the atmosphere, the reality continues
to dramatically outpace the worst case scenarios. And so the worst
case scenarios in the modeling keep being amended with more new data
coming in, and the reality is that the reality keeps outpacing it to
the extent that even the modeling can't even keep up. And we're
seeing things happening on such a fast pace now regarding extreme
weather events, 1,000-year floods turning into 100-year floods
turning into 10-year floods. Same with fires and temperature
increase records, and all of this is happening so quickly and
dramatically that there's no question that this has been going on
for years now.
And I think, to cut to the chase, to kind of put this out there from
the start, I think that any ideas of changing the situation are a
pipe dream and don't really show an extent of the knowledge of how
far along we already are. And we're in a position now where it's
kind of brace for impact.
PERIES: Guy, many experts in your field of evolutionary biology say
we are entering a period of sixth great extinction. And you go as
far as saying that humans could be among those species going extinct
in the near term. What is the evidence, and why are the drivers that
might bring this about, what are the drivers that might bring this
GUY MCPHERSON, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA: Well, one of the drivers is
abrupt climate change. We have passed the history that we've all
learned about, that of relatively slow, linear climate change, and
we've entered an abrupt stage of climate change, which earth has
experienced many times in the past.
With respect to the sixth great extinction, it's pretty clear that
the scientific community is conservative as usual, especially the
academic science community. When a paper in Science Advances, just
within the last couple of months, finally concludes we're in the
midst of the sixth great extinction, well, if you go back five years
to a United Nations report five years ago this month the United
Nations concludes in that report that we're driving to extinction
150 to 200 species a day. Every day. So we've known based on
conservative sources that we're in the midst of a mass extinction
event. And finally the scientific community and the academic
community are beginning to catch up.
The rate of evolution via natural selection trails the rate of
climate change by a factor of 10,000 according to a paper in the
[August 2013] issue of [inaud.]. And there's been, there have been
several papers that have come out since then pointing out that
large-bodied organisms, large-bodied mammals such as ourselves are
not going to escape. And even widely-distributed organisms, as
reported last week in [inaud.] journal literature, are unlikely to
evade just because they're largely distributed.
So we've thought for a long time that we've had some things going
for us. We're really clever and we're widely distributed. We're
capable of living in a variety of habitats. None of that seems to
matter with respect to the data on conservation of species and
abrupt climate change.
PERIES: And what do you think are the contributing factors?
MCPHERSON: Well, climate change is triggered by carbon dioxide
emissions into the atmosphere. And in the past there has been a
wobble in the earth that has contributed slight warming. And then
there's been carbon dioxide released from the ocean. The ocean is a
big battery. It stores heat and it stores carbon dioxide. Ninety
percent of the warming in paleoecological events have come--90
percent of the warming has come after that carbon dioxide is
released from the ocean. Well, in our case we started bringing
fossil fuels, and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that
carbon dioxide has served as a blanket to hold the incoming heat
down close to the earth. And as a consequence we've triggered a
bunch of self-reinforcing feedback loops, many of which are
irreversible, including methane release from the arctic, for
example, and also methane from the permafrost. As permafrost
degrades it breaks down into methane.
So we've gone beyond carbon dioxide being a major contributor.
There's also water vapor in the atmosphere, especially in the [inaud.]sphere,
and methane that are being released as well. So we've gone beyond
the point of human consumption of fossil fuels triggering this
event, and have now entered a stage of abrupt climate change the
likes of which our species has never seen.
PERIES: And Dahr, give us a sense of what's happening in the arctic
that is crucial to what's going on at the moment.
JAMAIL: Well, I think at this point the general public's probably
been provided with this information enough times. I'll just gloss
over it. The arctic sea ice, one of the important roles it plays is
it's a reflector of solar radiation. When the white literally causes
the solar radiation to bounce off it and go back out into space,
keeping a lot of that heat from being absorbed into the water up
there. As it melts, as it loses both volume and reach, it does that
less so. And so it opens up the Arctic Ocean to absorbing that much
more solar radiation, and it's one of the runaway feedback loops
that Dr. McPherson talks about where the sea ice melts, it allows
more radiation to be absorbed. The water warms up, the sea ice melts
even faster, et cetera et cetera et cetera.
And so that's happening. And that is basically one of the prime
drivers, and there's been scientific reports come out on this in the
last year as well, showing that the weather impacts and the
contribution that the sea ice loss is having on extreme weather
events like the two dramatically frigid winters in the Northeast,
and also factoring in with what's happening across the Atlantic and
even impacting Western Europe now and the UK, that's all tied in
with the loss of the sea ice. And it's just speeding up the effects
of climate disruption abruptly around the globe.
And as Dr. McPherson talked about earlier, we could literally by the
end of, the latter end of this summer, experience the first time
since humans have been on the planet where we have, even if it's
just a few days, but an ice-free arctic at the end of the summer.
And if it doesn't happen this summer the odds are even higher that
it's going to happen next summer. It's imminent at this point. We're
going to see it some time in the next two, maximum three years. And
once that starts happening, each year it's going to increase in the
time that it's ice-free from maybe one week to two weeks to three
weeks, and eventually get into the months, at which point we see
what's happening now.
We're going to wish that things were this, happening at this level
and this pace and this intensity. Things are going to really go off
the charts as far as how much weather systems get completely
destabilized. We're going to see a dramatic increase in droughts,
floods, just massive vacillations in the weather, hence why I tend
to call it climate disruption instead of just climate change.
Because literally the climate's kind of going into a fibrillation
trying to stabilize itself and it's not going to be able to. Not to
something that we've--not to the planet that we grew up on, so to
speak, when we don't have an arctic ice cap. Greenland is melting at
record paces. Another report that I wrote about, that came out a
couple of months ago, showed--estimated that by 2100 all glaciers on
the North American continent could likely be gone by 2100. The
estimate was between 70 and 99 percent, I believe. And they said
realistically it's probably going to be closer to 99 percent.
So think about that, considering that the single largest ice sheet
on the planet up in the Yukon Territories, the single largest ice
sheet outside of the poles, that means that entire ice sheet would
be gone. So just think about it, for those of us living in states
where there are glaciers, and try to imagine that landscape without
any glaciers at all. And all of this is of course tied in with
what's happening in the arctic, just to give you an idea.
PERIES: Dahr, there seems to be a real disconnect in terms of the
U.S. government policy and the urgency of the problem, and the
contribution of the fossil fuels to all of this. Can you comment on
President Obama's most recent announcements and whether it's going
to have any effect on what you're describing today?
JAMAIL: Well, it's always follow the money in journalism. You know
that, I know that. I think some of the more informed viewers,
they've probably been aware of that for a long time. It's always
follow the money, and never could that be more true but in politics
on the national level in this country, where you look at Obama's
backers and you look at the power of the fossil fuel lobby in this
country, they are what created and has funded and is funding and
will continue to fund the so-called denial movement. All of the
links are there. It's black and white, it's not opinion. The Koch
brothers money, Exxon money, setting up those think tanks back in
the '50s that developed into the climate denial movement. It's all
there in black and white.
Naomi Oreskes has written about this very, very accurately and at
length in Merchants of Doubt and some of her more recent articles
and books as well, as have numerous other people and journalists.
And so when we look at Obama's statements about well, I'm going to
do this for climate disruption or whatever. I mean, it's literally
rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's propaganda. Because
on the one hand he's saying these things that a completely
uninformed news consumer would hear and say oh yeah, it appears as
though Obama is doing something, while he's letting Shell start
drilling in the arctic, while he's opening up the entire Atlantic
seaboard to offshore drilling. While he's letting the fracking
industry across the country just run rampant across everywhere in
the U.S., literally where there's anything to frack at this point.
While he's not being a leader in any sense.
And yet it's amazing to me that even on the broader left there's
still this idea that somehow there can be reform, or somehow there
can be political pressure generated to cause him to do the right
thing. And that's like, I don't know what that is. It's really hard
to imagine that kind of behavior. I mean, we, the report that Dr.
McPherson referred to of the sixth great extinction that we are
officially in and the scientific report, even that report says
clearly, it's not just Dr. McPherson's opinion, but that report says
humans are expected to be in the first wave of species going extinct
in this sixth great extinction event. It's going to go on for
hundreds of years.
And we are at the front end of it on a geological time scale which
is, even on a geological time scale, is happening so fast that our
science can barely even keep up with it. And yet you've got Obama
talking about 30 percent cuts over X number of years, et cetera
while the plane's going nose down, straight towards the ground at
PERIES: Guy, what are the immediate threats in terms of these
disruptions and sudden climate change that we're experiencing? What
are the most immediate threats we will see?
MCPHERSON: Well, we're already seeing methane going exponential in
the atmosphere, and methane is many, many times more powerful a
greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule. We're
going to see increased storms. Truly catastrophic events, like you
started when we opened this interview, listing a few of those. Those
are not behind us. Those have been going on for a while, at least
since Katrina in 2005, ten years ago. So we haven't fully felt the
impact of carbon dioxide released in 2005. These massive storms are
yet another one of these self-reinforcing feedback loops. Because
these big storms kill a lot of plants, notably large trees, and that
triggers more carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere. Which
makes the situation worse, which contributes to big storms, and so
So I think we're going to see more of the same. When the great
science fiction writers, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury and Aldous
Huxley were asked at the end of their lives how they could see the
future so clearly, they each responded with essentially the same
answer: they're just reporting what they're seeing today. And so if
you take today and extrapolate into the future, we're going to see
more. Just absolutely more. More abrupt heating, more storms, more
and more rapid loss of arctic sea ice and the glaciers melting, and
on and on.
And where that leads in the not too distant future is no habitat for
humans. We tend to forget that we're human animals. And like other
animals, we need various attributes to survive. Like food. Food is
really handy and I really like it, too.
PERIES: Guy--and this question is to both of you, but I'll start
with Guy first. Some medical experts have deemed climate change
should be classified a medical emergency, and we should be prepared
to take appropriate and immediate action. What is the opinion on
this, and is there any way of curbing the temperatures right now?
MCPHERSON: Well, there's really no politically viable approach to
deal with climate change. Work by Tim Garrett, an atmospheric
scientist at the University of Utah that was initially published in
2009, and he's published a couple of followup papers since then,
that work indicates that civilization itself is a heat engine. And
the only way to turn off the heating of the earth is to terminate
civilization. Well, I don't think that's really a politically viable
approach. And any politician who ran on that campaign would not just
lose, but would also be perhaps tarred and feathered. Nobody wants
to hear the end of this setting of living arrangements for
relatively privileged people living in the global North.
So in addition, it seems that Garrett's initial paper, which was
written more than eight years ago, which points out that only
collapse of civilization prevents runaway climate change--well, as
it turns out now we know that collapse of industrial civilization
leads to abrupt climate change as well. So it's a double bind. We
either turn off the heat engine, which causes very abrupt rise in
global average temperature in a matter of a few days, or we keep the
heat engine going and it causes that same rise in temperature in a
few years. Pick your poison, but at least recognize that it's
PERIES: And Dahr, final word to you in terms of can this be curbed?
JAMAIL: I would agree with what we just heard. I think at this point
it cannot be curbed. I think best case scenario if all governments
got on board and mandated immediate cessation of all fossil fuel use
and switched to renewables, et cetera et cetera, all of this, it
might mitigate it in the midterm a little bit, and that's about the
best thing that could possibly be hoped for realistically. And I
think each of us needs to think about what does this mean, watch the
science very closely, what's happening, and get very clear about
what's important in life and how each of us needs to live.
And stay tuned because it's a unique--the thought I would leave with
is that we are at a unique period in history where this is only the
sixth great mass extinction event ever. And the only one that humans
have caused. And here we are right at the front end of it, and it's
an amazing time to be on the planet, and I think we all just need to
pay very, very close attention to what's happening around us at this
PERIES: Dahr Jamail and Guy McPherson, thank you so much for joining
JAMAIL: Thank you.
MCPHERSON: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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