Tuesday :: Jun 17, 2008

The First To Die

by Turkana

Kiribati is dying. A tiny Equatorial Pacific paradise with a population of less than a hundred thousand, Kiribati is destined to become a casualty of global warming. As ice caps melt and sea levels rise, Kiribati will be completely submerged in the ocean. In the next fifty to a hundred years. This is not speculation. This is not a mere possibility. This will happen. This cannot be stopped.

As reported by Katharine Sanderson in the June 6 edition of Nature:

Rising sea levels caused by climate change will force the inhabitants of a group of Pacific coral islands to abandon their homes by the end of the century, their president has declared.

Anote Tong, president of the threatened islands in the Republic of Kiribati, has appealed to the international community to take responsibility for rehousing his compatriots.

The Republic of Kiribati is a collection of 32 atolls and one coral reef island, sitting just west of the International Date Line and astride the Equator. The highest land in the island chain is less than 2 metres above water — most of the land is much lower, and flat. As sea levels rise, Kiribati's 97,000 inhabitants are going to have to find somewhere else to live before 2100, Tong says.

He is not being alarmist.

Environment experts agree that the islands' fate is almost certainly sealed. “You can take it as read,” says Martin Parry, co-chair of Working Group II of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “If we don’t do anything, Kiribati can certainly kiss us goodbye.”

But the only thing that can be done for Kiribati is to heed its president's call and save its people. The land itself is doomed. (more)

Even if rises in world greenhouse-gas emissions were reversed, the delayed effect of climate on sea-level rises is such that it is already impossible to save the islands, says Parry. “There’s probably about 100 years' inertia in sea-level rises,” he says. “We have probably left it too late.”

And even if it weren't too late, the world just isn't going to take the drastic measures necessary to slow the rising tides.

Parry now calculates that limiting sea-level rise to 50 cm would require immediately cutting world greenhouse-gas emissions by half, and ultimately reducing them by 80% overall by 2050. But Kiribati is still doomed: “Half a metre of sea level rise is a heck of a lot for islands like that,” says Parry. Not only will flooding occur, but storm surges will increase, causing further devastation.

Tong is asking New Zealand to resettle his people, and Parry agrees that the international community must take responsibility. But responsibility for the overall catastrophe of global warming and climate change does not appear to be imminent. As reported by CNN, on the day of the Nature issue's publishing date:

Senate Republicans blocked a global warming bill that would have required major reductions in greenhouse gases Friday, pushing debate over the world's biggest environmental concern to next year for a new Congress and president.

Democratic leaders fell a dozen votes short of getting the 60 needed to end a Republican filibuster on the measure and bring the bill up for a vote, prompting Majority Leader Harry Reid to pull the legislation from consideration.

The Senate debate focused on bitter disagreement over the expected economic costs of putting a price on carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas that comes from burning fossil fuels.

Opponents said it would lead to higher energy costs.

Get your mind around that. As reported last year by Der Spiegel, the IPCC reported that the consequences of climate change would include:

  • Some 20 to 30 percent of all species face a “high risk of extinction” should average global temperatures rise another 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius from their 1990 levels. That could happen by 2050, the report warns.
  • Coral reefs are “likely to undergo strong declines.”
  • Salt marshes and mangrove forests could disappear as sea levels rise.
  • Tropical rainforests will be replaced by savanna in those regions where groundwater decreases.
  • Migratory birds and mammals will suffer as vegetation zones in the Artic shift.
  • Not to mention:

    The UN climate panel expects “increasing deaths, injuries and illness from heat waves, floods, storms, forest fires and droughts.” The draft summary for policymakers details “heat-related mortality” especially in Europe and Asia.

    Several hundred million people in densely populated coastal regions -- particularly river deltas in Asia -- are threatened by rising sea levels and the increasing risk of flooding. More than one-sixth of the world’s population lives in areas affected by water sources from glaciers and snow pack that will “very likely” disappear, according to the report.

    But Senate Republicans are worried about high energy costs? Or perhaps they're worried that certain sinister industries didn't like the bill? The same certain sinister industries that might already have something to do with those high energy costs? And the bill the Republicans killed wasn't going to do all that much to solve the problem, anyway. According to McClatchy:

    Senate Republicans on Friday blocked a vote on legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. economy, but its supporters said they'd keep working to get a stronger version ready for the next president.

    Hopefully, someone who will actually lead. Hopefully someone who is actually sane. Of course, John McCain would have supported the bill, as he tries to burnish his environmental credentials, but the bill was weak. And McCain's fix was what you would expect:

    McCain said the bill needed to be debated and improved. The most important change, he said in a statement, would be to include provisions that would benefit nuclear power.

    Sure. The industry-friendly farce that would make some powerful people a lot of money but is not a solution. But McCain didn't even mention the real problem with the bill. Remember how Parry said we need an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, if we're even going to slow the already inevitable sea level rise? Well, at least one candidate noticed:

    Obama said the bill needed to be strengthened from a 66 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 to an 80 percent cut since that's what scientists warn is needed. He also called for more help for middle-class Americans and more resources for regions that "will bear the brunt of this critical transition to a clean energy economy."

    So, let's summarize:

    a) The bill fell short of what was needed;

    b) Senate Republicans killed it, anyway;

    c) McCain ignores the fact that it was inadequate and merely calls for money-making nukes, which won't actually help solve the problem, and will create its own;

    d) Obama calls for the level of emissions reductions the scientists say is necessary even to start solving the problem, and also wants to offer economic assistance to help those who will suffer from the transitional costs.

    Any questions?

    In the House, one Democrat is offering an even more aggressive proposal, although he knows it won't pass. From the Boston Globe, in late May:

    Representative Edward J. Markey, the chairman of the special House committee on global warming, will unveil sweeping legislation today to cut greenhouse gas emissions and raise billions of dollars to create alternative sources of energy.

    The bill - the culmination of more than 40 hearings by Markey's committee - marks the starting point for a new legislative battle against global warming, a centerpiece of congressional Democrats' agenda for the immediate future.

    Markey, a Malden Democrat, described the legislation, which would take effect in 2012, as the most aggressive plan yet for arresting global climate change, mandating an 85 percent cut in greenhouse gases over the next four decades.

    Hopefully, a President Obama can find a place for Markey in his administration. But meanwhile, the middle of the country suffers from more extreme weather and "natural" disasters, while a tiny island nation is dying. And even the known science isn't enough. As Anthony J. Richardson and Elvira S. Poloczanska wrote in the June 6 edition of Science Magazine:

    The recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fourth Assessment Report (1) noted 28,586 significant biological changes in terrestrial systems but only 85 from marine and freshwater systems. Of these few observations from aquatic systems, 99% were consistent with global warming, which suggests that aquatic systems may be extremely vulnerable to climate change. Here, we argue that the dearth of documented changes from marine systems is an artifact of the distribution of global science funding, the difficulty of disentangling multiple stressors from relatively poorly sampled systems, the disconnect between marine and terrestrial ecology, the way marine ecologists report research findings, and limitations in the existing IPCC process.

    Marine research is under-resourced compared with that on land. If the number of publications (1996 to 2004, Thomson Scientific ISI) is used as a measure, less than 11% of published papers in each of the fields of ecology, conservation biology, and biodiversity research deal with marine systems (2-4). This bias arises in part because investigating the ocean realm is generally difficult, resource-intensive, and expensive.

    What we already know is bad enough. Just ask the people of Kiribati. But we need to know more. We need to do more about what we do know. We won't do either, under this administration. We won't do either if John McCain becomes president. The choice is yours.

    Turkana :: 11:43 AM :: Comments (29) :: Digg It!