The Dangers of Climate Change Aren’t Coming: They’re Already Here

Professor Chris Williams says even the U.S. Department of Defense is speaking of climate change in the present tense

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The U.S.’s Southeast is being pummeled by heavy rains and flash flooding. Unsually heavy rainfall is a classic signature of climate change, or a fingerprint, as scientists refer to it, of extreme climate change. From 1958-2012, extreme precipitation increased by 27 percent in the Southeastern U.S. Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration delivered its annual state of the climate report, and not surprisingly, several climate records were broken in 2015, including an unprecedented concentration of carbon dioxide, record high temperatures, record high sea levels, and record high heat content. The report confirmed that 2015 surpassed 2014 as the warmest year on record, driven primarily by long-term global warming, and further by the strong El Nino effect.

But will the Paris agreement be able to mitigate any of this type of climate change? With us to discuss the report while he is en route to the Canadian Arctic on board Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise is Professor Chris Williams of Pace University Department of Chemistry and Physics, and he’s a longtime environmental activist, educator, and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist-led Ecological Crisis. Thank you so much for joining us, Chris.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: So, Chris, there’s a lot in this report. Greenhouse gases have reached new record highs. Global surface temperatures have reached record highs as well, for the second straight year. Also, extreme warming of temperatures globally. So give us a sense of what’s in this report that concerns you the most. I know there’s a lot in it.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s 300 pages. But I mean, it’s–I think one of the things that is difficult for scientists to even [measure], is the cumulative effect of multiple things going on at the same time. So partly that’s because that’s a more difficult thing to do objectively, and partly because ideologically there is this reductionist emphasis on just examining one thing at a time.

So the real issue is that every indicator that we are measuring individually is kind of off the charts. And so you mentioned Paris, the Paris agreement, which said, well, we have to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, because going above that is really dangerous. But this report indicates that we’ve already gone above 1 for the first time ever, and so we are 2/3 or more of the way to reaching 1.5 degrees, that we say we can’t go above, already. And so that’s one indication of how problematic things are. That’s land temperature. And then we know that 90 percent of the heat, the extra heat that we generate through burning fossil fuels, primarily, goes into the oceans. So the ocean’s heating up enormously, which means that what is the biological impact of that?

I mean, people keep–I think it’s really problematic that people say, well, by 2030 we’ll do this, or by 2025, or by 2040. we should be talking about what we ought to be doing right now, because the Arctic, as much as everywhere else, lower latitudes, are heating up, the Arctic is heating up at twice the rate of Southern latitudes. So what that’s meaning is that fish that would normally be in the North Atlantic, for example, are all moving further north to get to cooler water, which has displaced–so they’re more generalized fish. They can feed on a lot of different things. They’re pushing more specialized fish out of their traditional habitats, even further north, and restricting that. So there’s a lot of stress already in the underwater realm which is being added to by plans for more drilling, more ships. The U.S. military released a report last year saying climate change is already present. We should be talking in the present tense, not the future tense. That’s the Department of Defense.

And so there are, one of the lead problems, is that if animals and plants start moving they don’t all move at the same rate. So you’ve got degradation of an entire ecosystem. And if birds don’t migrate to where they used to because the landscape has changed, the climate has changed, do new predators follow them, for example, or does what they feed on follow them, or not? And so actually it’s a breakdown of ecosystems because of the fact that they’re so interdependent that we’re already starting to see both below the water and on land.

So clearly that is going to have an impact on us, because we depend on clean air, water, and functioning ecosystems to stay alive, being just another species on earth.

PERIES: Right. Chris, the department that put out this report obviously is speaking to other departments within the government. Yet our leaders, like whether it’s Hillary Clinton or the other member states that have signed on to this agreement, or even President Obama, who sounds like he understands the urgency of the problem at hand, is not seeing things firsthand like you’re seeing now, and the kind of experience that people at [Clyde River] are experiencing through [seismic] testing and the disruption of this very important ecological system that we talked about in the earliest segment.

They’re not seeing it firsthand, so the urgency just doesn’t seem real to them. Is there any way of communicating what you’re doing, what you’re seeing, the analysis that you’re gathering directly to make this matter as urgent as the military is telling them?

WILLIAMS: [Inaud.] Greenpeace and all the organizations, the Inuit, everybody who is around the world concerned about this issue wants to see more done should be pressuring government, because there’s all this rhetoric about protecting the Arctic, about doing this, that, and the other thing for climate, protecting indigenous rights and so on.

And yet when you look at what’s happened–I mean, I’ll just give you one statistic. When Obama came to office in 2008, the amount of oil that was produced by the United States was 5 million barrels per day. It declined for a long time. Now, as of last year, the U.S. had almost doubled that production of oil to 9.5 million barrels per day. So Obama’s all of the above, which Hillary Clinton fully expects and says she’ll continue with in terms of her energy policy should she be elected, will be more of the same. We’ll have, yes, some funding for renewables, but at the same time the expansion of oil and gas, which the International Energy Agency just released their report on the U.S. government, and they said their prediction is that not only will fossil fuels continue to be 80 percent, it’s around about there, of energy production in 2040. So they’re predicting a rosy future for fossil fuel productions, including coal, globally.

That will be in an economy that is itself 40 percent larger than it is today. So we’re talking about the same percentage more or less, although renewables will grow, too. They’re growing fast. But they’re growing from a very small base. So what we really need to be doing is not just adding more and expanding both sides of that equation, but actually putting a stop to fossil fuel production, in particular coal, essentially right now with regards to coal.

And so how could we do that? We have to shift the amount of funding that’s going to fossil fuels, which is trillions of dollars, which obviously is problematic, because it’s going to impact the largest corporations on the planet, the most profitable ones. And so how do you get out of this conundrum? I think it’s actually impossible for political leaders, for the system, to deal with that question, which is why we have to reach out to and mobilize many more people in order, around the world, as is happening, in order to really chart a new course that says we’re stopping with one thing and we’re massively increasing the resources going to something else, which is renewables. Because we’ve [inaud.] altered both of those things at the same time, both the–who has social power, and how do we generate electrical power? Because we have the technology, we have the know-how, we certainly have the resources, if they were distributed.

And so it really is a question of politics, and how do we rearrange power in terms of biophysically and also in terms of sociopolitically that will help us escape this dire future of escalating threats across the board with regard to all of the different impacts of climate change.

PERIES: Yeah. Setting aside all the wars underway, this is the greatest threat that humanity faces today, so I hope what you’re saying in terms of communities and people getting together and pressuring their governments into action actually takes place. I thank you so much for joining us today, Chris.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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