Recently I awoke to scientist Sue Natali of the Woods Hole Research Center discussing the rapid melting of the Northern Hemisphere permafrost on NEPR’s Living on Earth.
I was alarmed. Hence, I am compelled to be alarmist.
The earth is a very complicated place. When changes are made in one area, like warming the atmosphere and oceans through pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, that small rise in temperature can trigger other changes that release much more carbon independent of the original trigger. These carbon feedback loops have long been predicted by climate scientists, and now it seems they are happening.
The air temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world, as Alaskans can tell you. The permafrost – by definition all of the ground frozen through two straight years (and much of it for tens of thousands of years) – is beginning to melt. The melting allows for bacterial degradation of the organic – previously living – matter. That breakdown process emits carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. The thawing also causes drying of the ground which encourages fires, which then generate more rapid emissions release and faster thawing.
Permafrost covers 25% of the Northern Hemisphere land area. There are 1.5 trillion tons of carbon stored there, about as much as remains in our fossil fuel reserves and three times as much as is stored in the world’s forests and ocean plants.
If the world’s carbon emissions continue at the present rate, we can expect the permafrost melt to release 130 to 150 billion tons by the end of the century. That is equivalent to what our own country will spew during the same period, so the permafrost will double our country’s climate impact.
And, let me repeat: once it starts, we cannot stop it, because it proceeds on the basis of the effects of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
If we cut emissions drastically now, we can rein in its contribution to only 60 billion tons of carbon by the end of the century. But that means acting now.
Pope Francis obviously gets it. His recent encyclical reaches out to all of us, not just Catholics, to immediately change our lifestyles and policies away from the profit-and-consumption frenzy that has put us in the position of threatening our very life support systems.
It seems that segments of corporate America now get it, too, in a perverse way, and are shifting their tactics from outright denial of climate change to promoting ways to profit from our desperate straits. Bill Eacho’s column “Capitalism can stop climate change” bluntly lays out a plan to further enrich those that for the last century or so have used our atmosphere as a free garbage dump for their pollution, and now want to subvert the movement for change. http://www.gazettenet.com/home/17451039-95/bill-eacho-capitalism-can-stop-climate-change
One of the few effective methods of enacting large-scale emissions cuts quickly has been a carbon fee and rebate or carbon tax. http://www.gazettenet.com/home/16628306-95/marty-nathan-it-ought-to-be-a-law-and-can-carbon-fee-and-rebate . It has been effectively imposed in several countries and in Canada’s British Columbia province. Environmentalists have long demanded it in the US, but up till now it has been fought tooth and nail by corporate financial influence in Congress and the White House.
Eacho seems to be the mouthpiece for the wealthy who now see the writing on the wall in favor of putting a fair price on carbon. His article supports the popular measure with this crucial change: instead of the rebate going equally to all (with some invested in infrastructure), half of it would go cut corporate taxes. He says the change is necessary in order to protect the “job-creators” from the “decreased competitiveness” supposedly inherent in the measure.
This excuse is at once bogus, immoral and counters the aim of the carbon fee.
Bogus, because where carbon fee-and–rebate has been implemented, as in BC, the economy has grown.
Immoral, because he is talking about paying back the culprits who have been obscenely enriched by the profligate fossil fuel consumption era.
Contrary to the goal of reducing emissions, as amply demonstrated this week with the passage of the deeply unpopular Trans-Pacific Partnership that was bought-and-paid-for by major corporate lobbyists. The TPP has the potential to undermine every environmental law in twelve countries around the Pacific rim, including the US, if that legislation “threatens future profit”. Putting more money in corporate hands, history assures us, will only increase their power to destroy the sustainable economy we are trying to build.
We are facing disaster as never seen before by humanity. We must be alarmed. We must right now begin to change our lifestyles and our economy, and a carbon tax or fee and rebate is one tool to do both. But using it as a ploy to strengthen Exxon-Mobil and its ilk is not a path we can afford to take.