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Global Warming and the Demise of Human Civilization—Andrew Glikson

In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act”—George Orwell

March 2016 set a new record temperature for that time of year, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The global temperature was 2.30°F (1.28 °C) warmer than the average for March from 1951 to 1980, which is used as a baseline.

In total, CO2 levels have risen from ~280 to ~407 ppm since the 18th century, currently rising at a rate of ~3 to 4 ppm/year as measured at Mouna Loa observatory, Hawaii

Little mention is made of the existential threats posed by the climate and nuclear issues in the context of the current elections in the US and Australia.

According to the world’s climate research institutions and the bulk of the peer reviewed scientific literature, the Earth has now entered a critical stage at which amplifying feedback effects to global warming transcend points of no return. Manifestations of a shift in state of the climate include; current rise in CO2 at 3.3 parts per million per year, the fastest recorded for the last 65 million years; extreme rises in Arctic temperatures; a plethora of extreme weather events such as cyclones, floods and fires; demise of habitats such as the Great Barrier Reef where corals die due to high water temperatures and coral bleaching; and other developments.

The extreme rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the onset of the industrial age, and the corresponding rise in mean global temperatures as a direct result of the rise in carbon gases, pose an existential risk to the future of nature and civilization.

Global Warming Increasing

Figure 1. Plot of mean global temperature since vs CO2 levels since 1860 – data from NOAA, compiled by D. Denham.

The consequences of further burning of the vast carbon reserves buried in sediments and in permafrost and bogs can only result in a mass extinction of species which rivals that of the five great mass extinctions in Earth history.

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Figure 2. Fossil fuel emissions and reserves.

Thus, according to James Hansen, NASA’s former chief climate scientist:

Burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows. The palaeoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes.”

Conducted with the knowledge of the consequences of continuing combustion of carbon constitutes an act whose lingual description exhausts the resources of the English language. The term ‘crimes against humanity and nature comes to mind.

Is there anything in international and national laws which can avert the continuation of current carbon emissions?

The manifest paralysis of the global political system in the face of the climate impasse, evidenced by the failure of a succession of UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change to undertake meaningful steps to reduce CO2 emissions, requires a search for alternative avenues to limit the deleterious consequences of continuing carbon emissions as reported by the IPCC Working Group II, and pending the report by Working Group III.

Traditionally, political and economic negotiations aim at a compromise. Unfortunately, no negotiation is possible with the basic laws of physics which dominate the climate system.

Do global and national legal systems offer any possibilities in this regard?

In exploring potential legal restrictions on carbon emission, I believe the following international and national instruments are relevant.

Crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the international Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum, which says:

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“…crimes against humanity are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority...”

United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Part III Article 6 states, among other things, that:

“Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998: Article 7 Crimes against humanity “Extermination” which:

“…includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.”

Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Section 119, Protection of States from Invasion and Violence, mandates:

The Commonwealth shall protect every State against invasion and, on the application of the Executive Government of the State, against domestic violence.

Australian Commonwealth and State laws regarding air quality standards and prohibition of pollution also come to mind. Recently, a successful challenge has been raised in the US in this regard by Professor James Hansen.

It follows that, where and when the majority of authoritative scientific institutions (NASA, NOAA, NSIDC, Hadley-Met, Tyndale, Potsdam, CSIRO, World Academy of Science, IPCC and so on), based on the bulk of the evidence, indicate beyond reasonable doubt that open-ended emissions of greenhouse gases inevitably lead to a major shift in the terrestrial climate, and thereby the demise of humans and of species, a toleration and/or condoning of continuing emissions by governments contravenes at the very least the spirit of international laws.

The consequences for ignoring will result in the following;

  1. Since the mid-1980s an abrupt rise in the temperature levels of the atmosphere, driven by an increase in concentration of greenhouse gases arising from release of >600 billion ton of carbon (GtC) to the atmosphere is leading to an extreme shift in state of the atmosphere-ocean system, such has no precedence in the recorded geological history, with the exception of events which resulted in the mass extinction of species, including massive volcanism, extra-terrestrial impacts and large-scale release of methane.
  1. As a direct consequence of the above, as well as reduction of the transient protection by industrial sulphur dioxide since mid-1980s, mean global temperatures have risen since about 1970 by more than 0.6o Currently, had it not been for the aerosols, mean global temperature would have been higher by an additional near to 1oC.
  1. Allowing for the masking effect of sulphur aerosols, the total rise in temperature since the onset of the industrial age ~1750 is reaching levels similar to those of the Pliocene period (~2.6 – 5.3 million years ago). The shift is occurring at the fastest rate recorded by paleoclimate studies. Whereas many species can adapt to gradual environmental changes, the current temperature rise rate resulting from ~2-3 parts per million (ppm) CO2/year may not be sustained.
  1. The current change is manifested by an increase in the rate of melting of the major ice sheets, accelerating sea level rise and a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, reflecting elevated energy level of the atmosphere-ocean system.
  1. The consequences of continuing carbon emissions and consequent rise of mean global temperatures would render large parts of the Earth’s land surfaces uninhabitable due to temperature rise, droughts, storms and flooding of coastal, deltas and lower river regions by sea level rise – estimated as about 25+/-12 meters under Pliocene conditions, constituting an existential calamity for civilization and nature.
  1. Excepting injection of transient short residence-time sulphur aerosols, the arrest of current climate trend would require (A) a meaningful reduction in current rate of carbon emission (~9 GtC/year) and (B) development of new methodologies for draw-down of atmospheric CO2, by at least 50 ppm, requiring research efforts on a global scale.
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Figure 3. A global temperature map for 2015 showing the cold water region in the North Atlantic Ocean. 2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The record-breaking year continues a long-term warming trend – 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now occurred since 2001. (Credit: NSA/GSFC/Scientific Visualization Studio). .The cold water region south of Greenland signifies a potential collapse of the North Atlantic Thermohaline Current.

According to Germany’s chief climate scientist: "We're simply talking about the very life support system of this planet”. The deleterious alteration of the climate over populations and nations constitutes an assault against humanity and nature and yet, to date, while spending about $2 trillion dollars each year on so-called “defense”, it appears human laws and institutions are paralyzed, unable to avert the portents of a climate catastrophe. While humans are in many circumstances able to negotiate, no negotiation is possible with the basic laws of physics which dominate the climate system.

andrew glikson

Andrew Glikson
Earth and Paleoclimate scientist