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News of Rapid Glacial Melting Raises a Big Question for Presidential Candidates

by Dave Lindorff

Recent reports of unexpectedly rapid melting of Greenland's ice sheet and accelerated glacial melting in Antarctica, taken together, mean that we may see the oceans rise not just a few feet, but perhaps 15 feet within most of our lifetimes, with devastating results.
Tue, 03/25/2008—Okay. Enough about race.

We've got a bigger problem here than how to get along with each other, as important as that may be, and that's how to make sure that any of us--or our children and grandchildren--are around in another hundred years.

Fast on the heels of reports about the increasingly, and unexpectedly rapid melting of Greenland's giant ice sheet, come even more scary reports about accelerated glacial melting in Antarctica, where there is a whole lot more ice.

Taken together, if these trends, which are based upon extensive photographic and on-the-ice observations, continue, not only could we see the oceans rise not just a few feet, but perhaps 15 feet within most of our lifetimes, with devastating results for coastal cities and regions around the world, but we could see runaway global warming ignited that could put the earth on a one-way trip to a mass extinction event worse, perhaps, than what hit the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

In a remarkable book titled Six Degrees, author Mark Lynas, a science writer with National Geographic Magazine, documents in chilling detail what will happen to life on earth, and to the earth itself, with each degree celsius that the earth's average temperature rises.

Chapters 1-3, which document temperature rises of 1-3 degrees celsius (about 2-6 degrees fahrenheit) are pretty disturbing, but the later chapters documenting temperature rises of 4, 5 and 6 degrees celsius, are truly nightmarish. And the scariest part is that once you get to the 3 degree celsius level, the stage gets set for the higher temperatures, making it difficult if not impossible to avoid the increasingly worsening scenarios. This is because once the temperature gets a few degrees out of whack, crucial forests die off, whole swaths of temperate zone landmasses become desert, and worst of all, the permafrost in the Siberian and North American tundra disappears, freeing massive amounts of trapped methane gas from the rotting swamps and peat bogs that cover that region. And methane, remember, is 23 times as potent a global warming gas as is carbon dioxide.

Worse yet, as melting polar regions lead to a slowdown in the oceanic currents and as the stagnating seas begin to warm, an even greater danger--the release of even vaster quantities of methane trapped as icy hydrates under the sea floor--is posed. If these hydrates pop to the surface in massive "burps," they could, Lynas reports, mimic several such events in the Earth's past, causing global temperatures to soar, and the oceans to become stagnant, anoxic (devoid of oxygen), lifeless pools, which would then begin emitting vast amounts of toxic sulfur dioxide gas. On several occasions, Lynas notes, life itself was threatened on Earth when just such a thing happened, and if such a scenario played out again, life would be threatened again. The difference is that now the sun itself is hotter than it was 55 or 150 million years ago, making a return to "normal" that much more problematic.

Scientists can debate the risks of such a disaster's occurring, and certainly there is (thank goodness!) a minority view that we are not headed towards climate catastrophe.

Hope, as candidate Barak Obama is wont to say, is a fine thing, and I'm all for hope.

But here's the rub: If the majority scientific view is correct, and there is even a small chance that the Earth is headed towards a historically unprecedented rapid heating event that would bring temperatures into the range where methane will start to be the main threat, then doesn't prudence and sanity require that we embark ASAP on efforts to prevent that happening?

The cost of seriously combating climate change now--and I'm not talking about switching from cars that get 25 mpg to cars that get 60 mpg, and switching from coal-powered generating plants to LNG-powered plants; I'm talking about eliminating the internal combustion engine as a mode of transportation, and eliminating carbon-fueled generating plants altogether--would be enormous. That is clear. To actually cut global carbon emissions by 80 percent from current levels over the next decade, we would, economists say, have to forego a couple percentage points of global economic growth every year, cut consumption dramatically, embark on major campaigns to save rainforests, and halt and even reverse population growth. We would, ultimately, have to change our entire economic model from one of growth to one of sustainability.

But how do we compare that kind of hardship with extinction?

Let's say, hypothetically, that there is a 10-percent chance that we are headed down a road that leads to extinction of the human race in a scant 1-200 years, if we do nothing dramatic to change course. And let's say there's a 90 percent chance that nothing bad is going to happen. Should we take that gamble and carry on as we are?

If you say yes, let me change the odds. Suppose there's a 30-percent chance we're headed the way of the dinosaur if we don't change our ways dramatically? Still think we should just carry on?

Personally, I think the evidence before my eyes, in the earlier budding of the trees that I have witnessed just over the last five or six years, and the evidence of the melting away of the Arctic ice cap, not to mention the above-mentioned galloping melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, suggests that the odds of disaster are much, much greater than 50 percent (in fact, I think they're closer to 90 percent!).

In any event, whatever odds you may assign to climate disaster, isn't it the wise thing to do to take steps to minimize that risk? What do you do about car insurance? Sure the law requires you to buy it, but what are the odds of your ever being stopped by a cop and being ordered to show an insurance card? What are the odds of your having an accident, and needing coverage? Heck, I drove 10 years without an accident or a stop (and the one minor accident I did have was so small I was able to pay for the damage and avoid having to report it). And yet each year, I was paying out over a grand for coverage. It would have been far cheaper to skip all those premiums and to pay a fine if I got caught. But, I have prudently calculated that if I ever had a serious accident, unlikely as that may be, it would be better to have the insurance, so I buy it and give up $1000 a year worth of income I could have enjoyed spending. And how much more serious is extinction than the consequences of driving without insurance?

(Actually, as one of my readers astutely points out, Dick Cheney makes the same argument with respect to his so called "one-percent" policy for pre-emptive war. He argues that if there is even one percent chance that a country might pose a threat to the U.S., it is sufficient reason for the US to attack pre-emptively. Now if that is true for some gnat of a country like Iraq or Iran, surely the same logic should apply to the risk of a threat of global extinction. So why isn't the Veep calling for a national mobilization to attack the causes of global warming?)

And here is where our politics and our media are failing us abysmally. With such a huge issue facing not just our nation, but the world, none of the three candidates running for the presidency of the nation that accounts for 25 percent of the world's total carbon emissions has been asked, or has offered, an opinion on this issue.

All three, to the extent that they've been asked about climate change at all, have been allowed to make vague feel-good statements about their support for carbon trading, or for increased gas mileage requirements (Hillary Clinton actually answered a question about global warming by saying she would install thermal windows on all government buildings!).

None has been asked whether he or she thinks that humanity is heading for catastrophe, or whether we can continue with an economic system that makes economic growth a key goal. None has been asked what he or she would do as president if convinced by science advisors that the danger of runaway global warming and imminent mass extinction were real.

How pathetic and irresponsible is that? Reporters will regularly ask candidates what they would do if Iran got the bomb, or if there were another 9-11 type of attack on the US, but no one is asking what they would do if it became evident that our children, or grandchildren, might not survive the century.

It is time to make these would-be leaders all face up to this most serious of all crises. We as voters need to know: What do each of these candidates think about the threat of global warming, and how do they plan to attack it? If they believe the government's own scientists at NASA and NOAA, what are they going to do, both nationally and globally, to save the planet?

Lindorff speakingAbout the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at

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This story was published on March 26, 2008.