"In summary, we have ignored the earth’s environmental stop signs." –Lester R. Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates
Chapter 1. Entering a New World: Introduction
During the late summer of 2007, the news of accelerating ice melting arrived at a frenetic pace. In early September, the Guardian in London reported, “The Arctic ice cap has collapsed at an unprecedented rate this summer, and levels of sea ice in the region now stand at a record low.” Experts were “stunned” by the loss of ice, as an area almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week. 1
Mark Serreze, a veteran Arctic specialist with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, said: “It’s amazing. If you asked me a couple of years ago when the Arctic could lose all of its ice, then I would have said 2100, or 2070 maybe. But now I think that 2030 is a reasonable estimate.” 2
A few days later, the Guardian, reporting from a symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, said that the Greenland ice cap is melting so fast that it is triggering minor earthquakes as pieces of ice weighing several billion tons each break off the ice sheet and slide into the sea. Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, reported that “we have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. The ice is moving at 2 meters an hour on a front 5 kilometers [3 miles] long and 1,500 meters deep.” 3
Corell said that when flying over the Ilulissat glacier he had “seen gigantic holes (moulins) in it through which swirling masses of melt water were falling.” This melt water lubricates the surface between the glacier and the land below, causing the glacier to flow faster into the sea. Veli Kallio, a Finnish scientist who had been analyzing the earthquakes, said they were new to northwest Greenland and showed the potential for the entire ice sheet to break up and collapse. 4
Corell noted that the projected rise in sea level during this century of 18–59 centimeters (7–23 inches) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was based on data that were two years old. He said that some scientists now believe the increase could be as much as 2 meters. 5
In late August, a Reuters story began with “a thaw of Antarctic ice is outpacing predictions by the U.N. climate panel and could in the worst case drive up world sea levels by 2 meters (6 feet) by 2100, a leading expert said.” Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey said, “The ice is moving faster both in Greenland and in the Antarctic than the glaciologists had believed would happen.” 6
Several months earlier, scientists had reported that the Gangotri glacier, the principal glacier that feeds the Ganges River, is melting at an accelerating rate and could disappear entirely in a matter of decades. The Ganges would become a seasonal river, flowing only during the monsoon season. 7
Glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau that feed the Yellow and Yangtze rivers are melting at 7 percent a year. Yao Tandong, one of China’s leading glaciologists, believes that at this rate, two thirds of these glaciers could disappear by 2060. 8
These glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau feed all the major rivers of Asia, including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow Rivers. It is the water from these rivers that irrigates the rice and wheat fields in the region.
We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize. Nature is the time keeper, but we cannot see the clock. Among the other environmental trends undermining our future are shrinking forests, expanding deserts, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, disappearing species, and rising temperatures. The temperature increases bring crop-withering heat waves, more-destructive storms, more-intense droughts, more forest fires, and, of course, ice melting.
We can see from ice melting alone that our civilization is in trouble. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level rises 7 meters (23 feet). If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet breaks up, and many scientists think it could go before Greenland, it adds another 5 meters to the increase, for a total of 12 meters (39 feet). 9
The International Institute for Environment and Development has studied the likely effects of a 10-meter (33-foot) rise. Their 2007 study projected more than 600 million refugees from rising seas. More people than currently live in the United States and Western Europe combined would be forced to migrate inland to escape the rising waters. 10
Now that we are belatedly recognizing these trends and the need to reverse them, time is running out. We are in a race between tipping points in the earth’s natural systems and those in the world’s political systems. Which will tip first? Will we reach the point where the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is irreversible? Or will we decide to phase out coal-fired power plants fast enough to avoid this wholesale ice melting?
A rise in temperature to the point where the earth’s ice sheets and glaciers melt is only one of many environmental tipping points needing our attention. While the earth’s temperature is rising, water tables are falling on every continent. Here the challenge is to raise water use efficiency and stabilize population before water shortages become life-threatening. 11
Population growth, which contributes to all the problems discussed here, has its own tipping point. Scores of countries have developed enough economically to sharply reduce mortality but not yet enough to reduce fertility. As a result, they are caught in the demographic trap—a situation where rapid population growth begets poverty and poverty begets rapid population growth. In this situation, countries eventually tip one way or the other. They either break out of the cycle or they break down.
Over the last few decades, the world has accumulated a growing number of unresolved problems, including those just mentioned. As the stresses from these unresolved problems accumulate, weaker governments are beginning to break down, leading to what are now commonly referred to as failing states.
Failing states are an early sign of a failing civilization. The countries at the top of the lengthening list of failing states are not particularly surprising. They include, for example, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti. And the list grows longer each year, raising a disturbing question: How many failing states will it take before civilization itself fails? No one knows the answer, but it is a question we must ask. 12
1. David Adam, “Ice-Free Arctic Could be Here in 23 Years,” Guardian (London), 5 September 2007.
3. Paul Brown, “Melting Ice Cap Triggering Earthquakes,” Guardian (London), 8 September 2007.
6. Alister Doyle, “Sea Rise Seen Outpacing Forecasts Due to Antarctica,” Reuters, 23 August 2007.
7. Emily Wax, “A Sacred River Endangered By Global Warming,” Washington Post, 17 June 2007.
8. Clifford Coonan, “China’s Water Supply Could be Cut Off as Tibet’s Glaciers Melt,” The Independent (London), 31 May 2007; “Glacier Study Reveals Chilling Prediction,” China Daily, 23 September 2004.
9. U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Outlook for Ice and Snow (Nairobi: 2007), p.103; J. Hansen et al., “Climate Change and Trace Gases,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 365 (15 July 2007), pp. 1949–50.
10. Gordon McGranahan et al., “The Rising Tide: Assessing the Risks of Climate Change and Human Settlements in Low Elevation Coastal Zones,” Environment and Urbanization, vol. 18, no. 1 (April 2007), pp. 17–37; U.N. Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unpp, updated 2007.
11. Lester R. Brown, Outgrowing the Earth (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), pp. 101–02; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 10.
12. Fund for Peace and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2005, July/August 2006, and July/August 2007.
Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute