Last week a gigantic portion of the Antarctica ice sheet broke off. This isn’t the first time an enormous chunk collapsed into the sea, but it may be the biggest. This gigantic iceberg is part of the “Larsen C” ice sheet and measures 6,000 kilometers in size, or roughly the size of the state of Delaware.
While there is no disagreement among climate scientists about whether humans are warming the Earth by burning fossil fuels, there is some disagreement on whether this particular collapse is the direct result of global warming. The debate is over how such an event could be tied to climate change when Antarctica is experiencing its winter. Some scientists have described it as a natural event, others that it is too early to tell. Still others say that the action can only be explained by climate change.
There have been other colossal icebergs that have broken off from the ice sheets of Antarctica and in those cases, it was directly attributable to climate changes. While the reason for the most recent collapse may not yet be definitive, it is crystal clear that global warming is dramatically changing the landscape of the area around the South Pole.
It’s also a stark reminder about how rapidly the burning of fossil fuels is altering the whole planet.
As of early 2017, the Earth had warmed by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when weather records began being collected across the world. That increase also reflects the increasing temperature of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.
The substantial warming that has already occurred explains why much of the world’s land ice is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. Scientists believe that probably all of the warming since 1950 was caused by human activities tied to the release of greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil, and gas. If those emissions continue without change, scientists say that the resulting global warming could ultimately exceed 8 degrees Fahrenheit, which would result in devastating consequences for the world – both its people and its environment.
The melting ice caps are raising sea levels. The ocean is rising at a rate of about a foot per century. That causes severe effects on coastlines, raising costs for wealthy countries and devastating low lying poorer nations, the nations who had the least to do with increasing the world’s temperature. Those countries will see staggering human suffering, and the displacement of millions of their residents.
Experts have known for decades that the burning of coal, oil and gas – fossil fuels – would trap in the Earth’s heat and warm the globe. Even the scientists at the oil companies have known this, but instead of acting, policymakers have allowed the problem to reach a boiling point.
It has been the concerted public relations and lobbying campaign of the fossil fuel industries that has sown doubt on the science of global warming among the American public and installed sympathetic elected officials. Those efforts have succeeded in the election of a national government being controlled by those opposed to responding to the growing global catastrophe.
Most of the attacks on climate science have come from industry-backed organizations which do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming. Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science.
As a result, the Earth has recently seen its levels of carbon dioxide remaining above 400 parts per million. Based on scientific research, the last time carbon dioxide reached 400 ppm was millions of years ago. Carbon dioxide levels were around 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, when large amounts of greenhouse gases began to be released by the burning of fossil fuels. Now it stands consistently over 400 ppm – a level that can lead to runaway global warming.
Yet, the President and the Congress have not only refused to act, but have chosen to undermine what little progress has been made to curtail the burning of fossil fuels.
The likely result will be the additional misery for millions of people, mostly poor, across the globe. History will not look kindly on the greedy interests, the opportunistic and unprincipled political hacks, and callous societies that allowed this to happen. Hopefully, we can soon reverse the nation’s headlong push toward climate catastrophe.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.