2015 Hottest Year on Record

Environmentalist Chris Williams says 13 of the 15 years in the 21st century have broken global temperature records, pointing to the effect of carbon emissions not simply El Nino

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

2015 has the dubious distinction of not only being the hottest year on record, but it’s also on track to pass the milestone of being 1 degree Celsius above preindustrial levels. Put another way, we are about halfway to the 2 degree Celsius temperature limit agreed on in the Paris global climate agreement earlier in December.

With us to discuss all of this is Chris Williams. He’s a longtime environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Thank you so much for joining us, Chris.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Chris, let’s talk a little bit about why we are seeing this rise in global temperatures. Can we attribute most of what we’re seeing here to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere?

WILLIAMS: Yes. The science out of the last intergovernmental panel on climate change report, the fifth one, is definitive on that, both in terms of we are seeing global warming, that’s a well-established fact now, and secondly that human actions, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and putting extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is responsible, the majority responsible for the 1 degree C rise that we’ve seen, as you mentioned, since the preindustrial era over the last hundred-odd years.

So yes, to answer your question, we know it’s us that’s doing it. And we also know how we can stop it. So it’s just a question of when are we going to start getting around to that.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But if you watch the mainstream press, especially if you’re living in the Northeast and you’re hearing about how warm it is, it’s often simply put that it’s the El Nino effect. What do you say to that?

WILLIAMS: Certainly El Nino is a factor. We know El Ninos come around every seven to ten years or so. And that generally speaking, as the winds change in the Pacific, that generally speaking means you get a lot more rain in South America, as we’ve just seen massive flooding and rainfalls in Brazil and Argentina, and other patterns that are difficult to put down to, you know, the regular run of things in terms of extra rainfall in Texas and the South of North America, as we’ve also seen. And unseasonably warm, 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in New York. Enormous change. A very, extremely mild, winter up to this point.

But you can’t separate that, the El Nino effect, from the extra energy that we’ve been putting into the atmosphere by not allowing it to migrate out into space as it would have previously done because we’re getting better and better, if that’s the right word, at insulating the planet and keeping this blanket over the top of us that is keeping more, trapping more of the heat inside. And so that’s leading to the global–so what is heat, really? Heat is a form of energy. And an enormous quantity of energy. It’s been estimated over the last 15 years that we’ve been since the ’90s, basically the equivalent of exploding four atomic bombs every second of every day of every year. That is equivalent to the extra energy that we’ve been putting into the atmosphere.

So with all that extra energy, the extra warmth, you would anticipate a few different things. One is more extreme weather events, more wildfires as things dry out. The flipside of wildfires being, the antecedent to wildfires being drought, which we see in California. And huge quantities, cloudbursts almost unprecedented in living memory, in England at the moment, in South Carolina, North Carolina earlier this year. Also flooding in southern India, because the monsoons were not as extensive as they normally are.

And so all of those things are in line with scientists’ predictions about climate change. And I think it’s important to note that it’s true that 2015 is a record-breaking year by a considerable degree. But what year did it break, what record did it break? Well, it broke the heat record for 2014. And 13 of the last 14 years–13 of the years in the 21st century have been the warmest on record. So the hottest years. So that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with El Nino, and everything to do with the heat trapping gases that we are accumulating in the atmosphere due to the primarily, as I said, the burning of fossil fuels.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Chris, let’s switch gears here and talk about other factors that may be speeding up the warming of the earth. Can you talk about what NASA scientists and others have really referred to as the sleeping giant of climate change, which is essentially the melting of the permafrost zones, which could unleash huge amounts of methane, greenhouse gases more powerful than CO2. Can you talk about that a bit?

WILLIAMS: Sure. I mean, it’s been referred to as a sleeping giant. Because up until now, I mean, permafrost, that is soil that is permanently frozen, as the name suggests. And it contains huge quantities of organic matter that would ordinarily, if they were not frozen, have been rotting as bacteria basically respired and turned some of that material, organic plant matter and so on, into waste products, primarily one of them being methane. And we know that methane is 20-odd times more powerful over a shorter time period than carbon dioxide.

So this is a really potentially catastrophic development, in that we’re starting to see the very kind of beginning of, because the Arctic is warming, and actually with 1 degree C of warming or 2 degrees C of warming, we’ve already got to 1, it doesn’t mean–that’s an average. So it doesn’t mean that all areas warm equally. And what we’ve been seeing is that places like the Arctic are warming significantly faster, for various different reasons.

And so we’ve got 1 globally, but the Arctic [has gone up] more. And so that means that there is not just the melting of the ice that we’ve been seeing reported quite a lot, but also the melting of the soil, essentially. And there are a number of implications, especially for indigenous communities living along shorelines and towns and cities that are sinking, because once the soil, basically as it unfreezes itself, then it takes up a very different volume.

But the other thing is that it will start releasing potentially gigantic quantities of methane, which would have a very large and very short-term impact on global warming. So that’s a very worrying potential development which we were, scientists were mostly not expecting to see this soon, but because of this differential warming that the planet exhibits we were already starting to see the first signs of that. So that is a very worrying development.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the future, because 2015 is almost behind us. What about 2016? Because you have some climate scientists saying that there is no doubt that 2016 will be even hotter than 2015. Would you say we are at a tipping point in terms of possible climate future, and what was achieved in Paris, is that anywhere near being enough if we are to reverse course?

WILLIAMS: I mean, we’re already making predictions, scientists are already making predictions, that by 2050, for example, most of the conifers, most of the evergreens in the Southwest of the United States, will be dead. About 70-odd percent of them. We are heading towards permanent dustbowl conditions in the Southwest over the, you know, the first half of this century.

And so whether we are at a turning point, nobody’s really going to say is it this year, is it next year, because that’s too difficult to predict. But we’re certainly getting close to a set of potential tipping points. The Arctic permafrost melting being one of them. But also heading towards, we’ve already hit 1 degree of warming, where politicians supposedly want to keep us to one and a half, which would be a fantastic development. But even if we stopped everything now, we’re heading that way. And so we’re obviously not doing that. Because for example, they say they want to do something, and yet at the same time as they say that, a few days later they authorize for the first time in 40 years the export of oil from the United States.

So we’re still continuing on that path. And I think that what we really need to be doing is decreasing overall emissions by 2020, and then radically reducing them by 5-8 percent every year from there on if we’re going to even be thinking about the possibility of staying below 2 degrees C of warming, which is already too much because of what we already see happening.

Because what we don’t know, the one thing that has been too difficult to predict, is exactly how sensitive is the earth’s system to increases in CO2, and the implications for temperature changes. So we know that the temperature lags behind the concentration of, increasing concentration of greenhouse gases. But how far behind and how drastic will it be, that’s where the kind of variation in estimates comes from. But none of them are good, and most likely too conservative, because the IPCC operates by consensus. And so everybody has to agree to say, okay, well, this is what’s going to happen, which tends to be the less-extreme version of what could happen.

So that’s kind of starting to be backed up by the way in which the earth does appear to be more volatile and more sensitive to the changes that we’re making than is predicted by the science. So if anything we’re in a worse situation than we were hoping for.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Chris, I don’t want to completely leave our viewers with this negative outlook. What could we do? Just a quick–some tangible things that we could be doing right now.

WILLIAMS: I mean, I think the really good news is that a lot of those things, at least on the ground, have already started to happen. That’s why the politicians had to say something more substantive in Paris, because they are feeling the pressure, or the heat, as it were, from social movements around the world. So I think that that is good. I think it’s also good that we know what the solutions are. And we also know that wind is now one of the cheapest forms of producing electricity. Even with all the subsidies to fossil fuels solar is catching up, and is expanding. Both those things are expanding, although not fast enough and not in significant enough percentages.

So how do we really–because it’s not enough to expand at one end if you’re not decreasing at the other end. This is what they won’t do, and this is what we need to push for, is actually the closing down of the fossil fuel industry and the opening up of entire new industries. One of the first things that we can do there is to force the removal of all the trillions of dollars in subsidies to produce more fossil fuels. We shouldn’t be exploring for any more. We shouldn’t be removing export bans.

We should be talking about how do we phase out the use of coal, how do we increase the generation of electricity through solar and wind power, for example. How do we change our electricity grid to cope with those things, something similar to what Germany has been doing, where they get 40 percent on a regular basis of their electricity from solar and wind power in northern Europe. Eminently possible in many, many other countries, as various studies, Mark Jacobson at Stanford and so on, have shown.

And so there is a lot of–I mean, I remain optimistic, because the problem is social and political. And if it’s that then it means that people around the world can organize and fight and resist, and enact real change. So if we do that, if we rearrange social power, then we will be in a fantastic position to rearrange electrical power.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Chris Williams, always a pleasure having you on the program. Thank you so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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

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