A World Without Ice

July 8, 2019

Dahr Jamail on his book "The End Of Ice" and the significance of the many studies showing glaciers and sea ice around the world are melting at an unprecedented speed

Dahr Jamail on his book "The End Of Ice" and the significance of the many studies showing glaciers and sea ice around the world are melting at an unprecedented speed


A World Without Ice

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. The sea ice that surrounds Antarctica is melting at a rapidly increasing pace, even faster than the Arctic’s, according to a new study based on 40 years of satellite data, but the Arctic isn’t doing well by any means. June set a record low of Arctic sea ice. The Greenland ice sheets melting has increased six-fold since the 1980s. It’s melting at an extent never seen before, according to another new study. And the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas has doubled since the turn of the century, according to a new analysis based again on decades of satellite data. A record-breaking heat wave meanwhile in Alaska, has sea ice there melting far faster than normal, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems. These kinds of stats have scientists all over the world alarmed, and they have huge implications beyond the pages of scientific journals. But from reading most news, you’d never know it. To talk about this, I’m here with Dahr Jamail. He’s a staff writer for Truthout and the author of The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption. It’s a book full of firsthand accounts of ice melting around the world that includes both sobering interviews with climate experts and personal reflection on the climate crisis. Thanks for being here, Dahr.

DAHR JAMAIL Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR So again, these indicators of the climate crisis are often presented as just statistics— sometimes ones that have implications maybe for the ecosystems around ice melting, rarely ones that are wreaking havoc on all life on Earth. But in this book, in The End of Ice, you write, “The reporting in this book has turned out to be far more difficult to deal with than the years I spent reporting from war torn Iraq.” And later you even say that, “we’re setting ourselves up for our own extinction.” Talk about the extent of the earth’s ice loss, and how seeing it up close impacted you, and what it means for life around the planet?

DAHR JAMAIL Well it really is astounding, even to me after spending years researching for the book and then going into the field and seeing firsthand the rapidity of ice loss in the places where I documented in the book. And with these new reports coming out, it’s really, really stunning to consider what this means. I mean, you mentioned several of the important studies that have come out just in the last year and most recently, the study about the Antarctic sea ice loss. In four years’ time, it’s lost 34 times the amount of ice as was lost in the Antarctic over the same period. And so, what this essentially means is an area of sea ice in the Antarctic, larger than the size of Mexico, vanished in a four-year timeframe. It went from a record high to a record low of sea ice extent. This is how fast things are happening in front of our eyes, coupled with the loss of terrestrial ice like in the Himalaya and in the lower 48 United States. We have other reports show that we could have no ice whatsoever, no glacial ice whatsoever, in the lower 48 by the year 2100.

And so, if you think about the human impacts of this, right now as we speak, almost a quarter of a billion people around the world rely on glacial ice just for their drinking water alone. If we look at agricultural impacts, you mentioned the Himalaya, the loss of ice in the Himalaya, some studies showing we could see almost the entirety of glacial ice in the Himalaya gone by 2100. Well in the Hindu Kush region, that’s the source of seven major river systems in Asia. 1.5 billion people rely on that water for drinking and for agricultural purposes, so if all of that ice is gone by 2100, where do those 1.5 billion people go? Because you can’t live somewhere where there’s no water, and then what happens in those areas where they go? So you start to think about the cascading effects, just the human impact. I’m not even talking about the ecological impact, which is equally devastating. But if you start looking at these cascading impacts, then you start to get an idea of really the severity of the crisis that we’re in.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah and you don’t have to look as far as the Himalayas to see the impacts of this. I mean, in your book you take us with you through different regions where you observe the effects of the climate crisis, and you start and end in Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America in Alaska. It’s a place where you describe this intense personal connection. Talk about what you witnessed there. Again, Alaska is currently seeing a massive heatwave that’s melting ice, but also causing wildfires and wreaking havoc on ecosystems, making it hard for people to get food and water.

DAHR JAMAIL That’s right. May was the hottest May ever recorded in the Arctic. And Alaska, even as we speak, is seeing devastating consequences— from the rapidity of permafrost thawing and melting out, to coastal erosion, to over three dozen coastal villages in Alaska alone that are going to have to be relocated. Not in 20 or 30 years, but as in either from right now to within just the next few years alone. In Denali, on the highest mountain in North America, some of the glaciologists that I interviewed for the book while I was up there told me that the Kahiltna Glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers up in Denali National Park and it’s one that you traverse much across when you’re climbing the standard route on the mountain, there’s been a 30-foot loss of ice from the Kahiltna alone. And this is a glacier 40 miles long, and in some areas over half a mile wide, so that gives you an idea of the amount of ice loss that we’re talking about in very, very quick fashion.

Other impacts up there are things like mosquitoes at the base camp. You’re talking at 7,200 feet on a glacier. Some summers now are seeing mosquitoes up there, which is something never before seen and dramatic changes in parts of the route even as high up on the summit area of the mountain. So it’s really—Even up there, this iconic mountain, really the crown of the entire North American continent, even there, just that close to the boundary of the Arctic Circle— very, very dramatic impacts of the loss of ice as well.

DHARNA NOOR And as you look at, sort of, all of these climate impacts, you realize that it’s, sort of, one of these, you know, you pull one string and the whole thing unravels. You begin with ice, but you also travel from Miami into the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to look at the impacts of sea level rise, and ocean acidification, and coral bleaching, and the loss of coral. At one point, you talked to a marine expert, Dean Miller, who says—this is a quote— “we’ll lose the reef fish from bleaching. Then, all the fish that depend on them, all the way up the food chain to the biggest fish, everything is affected.” How does that happen? How is everything affected by an impact that’s seemingly and reportedly sometimes so small?

DAHR JAMAIL Well, that’s right and that’s a great example. If we talk about the loss of coral reefs, which Dean Miller, that same scientist you just quoted, I brought to his attention a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2011 that warned even back then that if the current trajectories we’re on of global ocean warming and acidification trends, that if those trends continued by 2050, we would likely have no more functional coral reefs anywhere on the planet. And things have certainly accelerated very dramatically since that 2011 report, which is why Dean Miller, when I interviewed him a few years ago about it, said he thought that report was far too conservative.

And so, if we lose coral reefs, these are places where upwards of one-fifth to even one-quarter of all marine species on the planet spend some part of their lives there. So again, what happens when you have up to a quarter of all marine life impacted by the loss coral reefs? I’m not even going to speak about the cultural, the economic, and the other, and then the spiritual impact that has on places around the world like in Indonesia and other places in the South Pacific that rely on them so heavily to be there for all those aforementioned reasons. So that’s just one part of the planet that’s impacted and I’m not even talking about things like sea level rise and the loss of ice and ecosystems like the Amazon Rainforest and things like this.

DHARNA NOOR And, you know, all of these things, as you write, feed one another. We’re seeing these, sort of, positive climate feedback loops where more warming oceans means less sea ice, means even warmer ocean temperatures. And we’ve gotten into these cycles such that many scientists believe warming will increase due to catastrophic levels of climate change even if we were to phase out of greenhouse gases tomorrow. And there’s, sort of, a consensus amongst lots of climate writers that we shouldn’t really be alarmist about the climate crisis, and that we should favor a message of hope. How do you feel about that? How do you reconcile that with the, sort of, you know, this framing that we’ve got eleven years to act on climate change, as the IPCC report seems to have suggested to so many writers?

DAHR JAMAIL Well, I think a deliberate downplaying of the severity of the crisis is simply dishonest, and it’s simply grossly inaccurate reporting. It’s like trying to report on a fire without calling it a fire. It’s just simply, it’s just not true. And the reality is I think as journalists, each of us are beholden to report accurately on what’s happening right in front of us. And so, you bring up that UN report from last fall that at the time said we had twelve years to still respond to try to avert catastrophic climate disruption impacts. And that report, what wasn’t reported by much of the media, most of the media, was that there was no new information in the report. It was essentially a regurgitation of a lot of old IPCC information.

DHARNA NOOR Right.

DAHR JAMAIL And then the reality is that we are already in a catastrophic stage of runaway climate disruption. In California, an entire town just burnt to the ground and, you know, probably dozens of people personally that were incinerated in the fire. These impacts are not in the future. They’re right now. If you live on the coast of Alaska that’s melting into the sea as the permafrost thaws, this is present tense. And so, those of us privileged enough to still live in bubbles where maybe our house hasn’t burned to the ground or sunken into the sea yet, can still talk about this as a future tense situation. Again, it’s just not accurate because we already know there’s tens of millions of climate refugees every single year according to the UN, and all of these other impacts that we’re talking about. So we have to report on this accurately and honestly. And that means we can’t try to soft pedal the information in order to leave people with “hope,” but really giving them accurate information so that people can make informed decisions about not just what necessarily to do, but how to be during this time where we are literally watching the unraveling of different parts of the earth’s biosphere. And only then can we make informed accurate decisions on what are the most important things for me to do in my life today, given the severity of this global crisis.

DHARNA NOOR And it is that impact, those impacts that the book focuses on. I mean, you could have focused on the causes of the climate crisis— what you call “anthropogenic climate disruption” like the fossil fuel industry, government inaction— but instead, you chose to focus on the effects and the impacts, oftentimes ones that you can physically see taking place in front of you. Why?

DAHR JAMAIL Because I think it’s really important to, as a human being, for each one of us to really look and see and feel what’s happening to the planet because I believe the core cause of the climate crisis is our disconnection from the planet that happened largely around the advent of industrialization. And I think before we can really mount a proper response— meaning, starting inside each one of us, how am I going to be with this? And then, from that place decide what to do. That can only come from really reconnecting back into the planet because it’s this disconnect, you know, that really leads to things like, oh, we should use geoengineering or other kinds of insane responses like that to try to respond to a crisis that essentially is caused by geoengineering, which is what’s happened to the planet. A more sane, proper response has to come from our hearts being deeply connected to a planet that we understand that we are part of, we are beholden to, we are stewards of the land where we live. How am I then going to respond from that place instead of, oh the planet and nature is still out there, what can I do to fix it?

DHARNA NOOR So where does that leave you? I mean, we were saying before, you know, this book was released in January and since then, even since we first booked this interview a week and a half ago, new figures and studies illuminate the extent to which we’re losing ice and even further destabilizing the climate. And again, many scientists argue that even if we phase out of fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions today, we would be, you know, in a continually warming planet. In the book’s conclusion you’re write, “A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation. However climate is, it is.” Could you talk about that and how you respond to this existential threat? Because some might hear that and think, you know, if there’s no hope, why act? Why do anything?

DAHR JAMAIL I’ve had to really go through the gamut of losing all my own hope and struggling with depression and going through the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. And I think that’s something that each one of us, once we really come to terms with the severity of this and the immediacy of it, are going to run the gamut of going through those stages. And so, I’ve had to find a way to, kind of, let go of hope and I address this in the book of not being hopeful but not also being hopeless, but instead being what has been referred to as a “hope free” situation. Which is, that I have to basically let go of the results of my actions, understanding that we are in a crisis that’s going to irrevocably change the planet. It already has, and it will continue to intensify, so I can’t take an action based upon some expected results because, therefore, I am only setting myself up for depression and to really lose any motivation to keep doing the right thing for the planet. And so, I’ve had to find a way personally to decide what is the most important thing I can do for the planet, which for me personally means keep doing my writing to bring to people’s awareness what is happening, and to be a good steward of the land where I happen to live up in the Pacific Northwest, and take other means to mitigate my own situation. Meaning, reduce my carbon footprint, etc., etc., not because I think that this is going to change things for the earth, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

And I don’t know, the results are out of my hands, but maybe if enough people behave accordingly, things won’t be quite as bad as the worst-case projections in the future. But I’ve had to really boil it down in a very personal way to how can I best serve the earth on a daily basis, and do my best in that regard, and then, essentially, leave the results to whatever happens in the future. They’re out of my control anyway. That’s really the position that I’ve had to reach personally because it’s the only way I’ve been able to really stay sane and not fall into a deep depression watching how fast things are unraveling because, as you said, not just since my book came out in January, but literally in the last week and a half, on a daily basis now, shocking, stunning reports as well as temperature records, wildfires. Things like this are unraveling before our eyes, so it comes down to what can I do right in front of me today to try to help the planet in any way that I can?

DHARNA NOOR All right. The book is The End of Ice. Dahr Jamail, staff reporter for Truthout, thank you so much for being here today and thank you for your work. We look forward to talking to you again soon.

DAHR JAMAIL Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.