You can imagine that the news hasn't stopped during August and in fact, I've got five pages of hyperlinks, each of which could lead to many minutes of podcast. As I said in last week’s trailer to this episode, the Greenland ice sheet is still melting at up to a million tons per minute, and millions of tonnes of GHGs are still being released into the atmosphere. Yes, that slowed down a bit during the lockdown, but not enough to stop the total quantity in the atmosphere from continuing to grow. And now we’re back to close to normal and the British government is urging people who work in offices to go back to them so the sandwich bars don’t go out of business and eventually they hope we’ll be back to business as over-consuming and polluting as usual.
This week I’m going to look first in detail at the latest news from the Arctic and then I’m going to talk about rebellion, because rebellion is seen by many as the only way to get governments to react and take the action that’s essential in the face of the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion is staging mass protests in London, Manchester and Cardiff this week, as I’m sure you already know. Their central demand is for the government to pass their Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. You may not have had time to read it. I have. I’ll tell you what it says.
First, though, there’s news from the Arctic in the journal Nature.
“We have been clearly underestimating the rate of temperature increases in the atmosphere nearest to the sea level, which has ultimately caused sea ice to disappear faster than we had anticipated," said Jens Hesselbjerg Christensen, a University of Copenhagen professor, "Changes are occurring so rapidly during the summer months that sea ice is likely to disappear faster than most climate models have ever predicted," he said.
A recent study from Britain's University of Lincoln concluded that Greenland's ice melt alone is expected to contribute 10-12 centimetres to the world's rising sea levels by 2100. Another group of researchers recently concluded that the melting of Greenland's ice cap has gone so far that it is now irreversible, with snowfall no longer able to compensate for the loss of ice even if global warming were to end today.
Meanwhile, the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic lost more than 40% of its area in two days at the end of July. The Milne Ice Shelf is at the fringe of Ellesmere Island, in the sparsely populated northern Canadian territory of Nunavut.
“Entire cities are that size. These are big pieces of ice,” said Luke Copland, a glaciologist at the University of Ottawa who was part of the research team studying the Milne Ice Shelf.
The shelf’s area shrank by about 80 sq km. By comparison, the island of Manhattan in New York covers roughly 60 sq km.
“This was the largest remaining intact ice shelf, and it’s disintegrated, basically,” Copland said.
The difference between these two ice masses is that the Greenland ice cap is on land and therefore the meltwater pouring into the sea will raise sea levels, while the Milne Ice Shelf is already floating, and therefore will not affect sea levels as it melts. Any reduction in sea ice affects the earth’s albedo or reflectivity, however. Ice reflects sunlight and heat back into space, but the darker ocean absorbs heat. Wild fluctuations in temperature have been observed in the Arctic this year with temperatures peaking at a record 38C in the Russian town of Verkhoyansk on 20 June 2020.
By the end of August wildfires in the Arctic had already emitted 35% more CO2 than in the whole of 2019. They are continuing to burn in Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada. They are now at "unprecedented levels", says Mark Parrington, a wildfires expert at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (Cams). Soot falling on the snow reduces albedo and makes the situation worse.
Many of the blazing forests stand on peat deposits which are likely to burn throughout the winter and break out again next Spring. Scientists complain that these earth-changing fires have had minute media attention by comparison to the fire in the cathedral of Notre Dame last year.
We have a problem.
Scientist James Hanson warned the US Congress of a problem back in the 1980s. British PM Margaret Thatcher - herself a qualified scientist - warned of the threat to the climate about the same time.
In 1992 the UN Earth Summit in Rio decided something should be done and the developed nations set targets to rein in their carbon emissions.
In 2006 economist Nicholas Stern advised the British government to take immediate action as delays of only a few years would make the costs of mitigating climate change many times greater. That was the year when Al Gore published An Inconvenient Truth.
In 2015 the world’s nations came together and signed the Paris Agreement, committing them to take action to keep the increase in global temperatures below 1.5℃. At the time it was estimated that the published commitments would only be enough to keep the rise below 3.6℃: COP26, scheduled for this November, would receive the 5-year report, but of course the conference was postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
Britain will host the event next year and even before it was postponed there was criticism that the UK was not making the essential diplomatic preparations for the conference. Making business secretary Alok Sharma the president of COP26, a politician who has voted in favour of expanding Heathrow Airport, is not a good sign. And the United States, the second largest global emitter, has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement.
We have a problem.
As every year passes it becomes more urgent. That’s why XR is demonstrating in London, Manchester and Cardiff this week. Protesters are demonstrating against the banks and pension funds that invest in fossil fuel producers, against HS2 the high-speed rail line that will cost £100 billion, tear up the countryside and eventually reduce the London to Birmingham journey time by 20 minutes, and against the inertia and inactivity of politicians. The key demand is that Parliament should accept, debate and pass into law the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. Governments are actually doing a great deal to reduce carbon emissions. The problem is that they are not doing enough to meet their own targets of net zero by 2050, and 2050 is generally agreed to be far too late in any case.
From the start of the week XR was concentrated in Parliament Square attempting to urge each MP as they arrived to support the Bill. Behind the scenes hundreds of activists were phoning their MPs with the same message.
You’ll find a link to the text of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill on the blog.
It’s described as, “A BILL to
Require the Prime Minister to ensure that the United Kingdom achieves specified objectives in tackling the climate and ecological emergency; to give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to work with the Secretary of State in creating that strategy; to give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and the strategy; and for connected purposes.
In more detail, and I’m paraphrasing, the Prime Minister’s objectives include:
• To reduce GHG emissions to a rate that is consistent with limiting warming 1.5℃ in line with the Paris Agreement
• To restore and regenerate the nation’s soils, biodiverse habitats and ecosystems and, wherever possible, expand them
• To reduce human impact on wildlife and the land
To do this the PM must work with the Committee on Climate Change and environmental protection bodies throughout the UK.
The Secretary of State, presumably the secretary of state for DEFRA, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is required by the legislation within six months of the passing of this Act, to publish a Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy (‘the strategy’) specifying the measures that will achieve the objectives. The draft bill then goes into specific detail of how this strategy should be drawn up and the scientific factors and technical issues that should be taken into account.
In addition the bill calls for the establishment of a Citizens Assembly to work in cooperation with the Secretary of State and to recommend measures to be included in the strategy.
The functions of the Assembly are to—
(a) consider information provided by experts, and by any other persons who have submitted evidence to the Assembly;
(b) deliberate how the objectives can be achieved;
(c) vote on measures proposed for inclusion in the strategy;
(d) seek agreement with the Secretary of State on the content of the strategy;
(e) propose revisions to the strategy
The Bill was introduced to Parliament on Wednesday afternoon as a Private Member’s Bill by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, supported by just 20 of the nation’s 650 MPs. Historically, unless they are adopted by the government of the day, Private Member’s Bills sink without trace. In this case the bill has been given a second reading date: 12th March 2021, which is the equivalent of kicking it into the very long grass. Understandably XR are more than angry at this deliberate delay. Protests were planned for a full 10 days from last Friday. How they will develop from here is not clear.
The bill itself seems pretty reasonable to me. The most controversial item is probably the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly, but such assemblies are increasingly common across the world. The principle is that a random group of people is brought together, selected on the same basis as people are chosen for jury service. The intention is to create a representative cross-section of the population to consider the issues and advise the government. It is an advisory body. It is not subverting democracy, it is strengthening it. A citizen’s assembly was used in Ireland to inform the debate over abortion. In France the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat was established in response to the gilets jaunes protests and is already taking evidence to understand how France can meet its Paris targets. In the UK Bristol City Council is set to carry out a Citizens Assembly to advise on the city’s coronavirus recovery while the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland will shortly report to the Scottish Parliament on how best the nation can overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century.
Why the demonstrations? People say, “I agree with what they stand for, but they’re going about it the wrong way by disrupting ordinary people’s lives.” After arresting multiple protesters Commander Jane Connors of the Metropolitan Police said: “The reason we have implemented these conditions is that we know these protests may result in serious disruption to local businesses, commuters and our communities and residents, which I will not tolerate.” You couldn’t expect her to say anything else.
Without disruption, no-one will take any notice. That is why thousands of people are involved in these protests. Apart from the thousands on the streets there are those who are phoning MPs, who are providing back-up and legal advice for those arrested and who are organising accommodation and transport for those on the streets. As with the protests last year, those on the streets come from many different backgrounds, different ages, different sectors of society. Many are ready to be arrested, which takes immense courage. Courage, not because they fear the ill-treatment like protestors in Belarus have suffered. Our police have some problems but they are generally pretty respectful and civilised. I remember at last year’s protests seeing them warn activists that if they didn’t move they would be arrested and giving them ample opportunity to move before they did in fact arrest them. Initially the worst that protesters will suffer is the inconvenience of being held overnight and eventually a fine of several hundred pounds when found guilty. What is far more serious is that once you have a criminal record you may face difficulties in getting a job, getting a loan, getting a mortgage, getting insurance, renting a property, travelling to certain foreign countries and in many other situations. It is truly life-changing. That’s why I have immense respect for such people who take these risks for the sake of their principles and for the sake of the rest of us. Why aren’t I on the streets? Well, I haven’t got that sort of courage and I’m conceited enough to believe that passing on my views through this podcast will do as much good as being one extra person on the streets.
The protests go on. Anything that happens after Thursday afternoon will not make it into this week’s Sustainable Futures Report. To be honest, not a lot has appeared in the UK’s national press so far. XR will have to raise the pressure to make an impact and maybe that’s what we will see in the coming days. One thing that’s certain is that XR is committed to non-violent direct action. There may be some minor criminal damage, like spray-painting or people supergluing themselves to doors, buildings or street furniture, but the group is absolutely against any form of violence. It runs training on non-violent direct action.
Is the government listening? As I close, another 90 people have been arrested and there are suggestions that the new legislation designed to prevent illegal raves could be used against protestors. Anyone organising a gathering of more than 30 people is liable to a fine of £10,000.
More next week.
Zoe Cohen shared a link to a story about the melting permafrost in the Arctic. It means that structures that previously relied on the frozen ground as a rock-solid foundation are suddenly suffering from subsidence. There is a solution however. Engineers plan to instal massive chillers to refreeze the tundra beneath their infrastructure. The infrastructure in question is oil production equipment owned by ConocoPhillips. Hang on - isn’t oil production part of that fossil fuel problem which is causing the warming that leads the tundra to melt? You couldn’t make it up…
And that’s it!
Thanks for listening to this week’s Sustainable Futures Report. You’ll appreciate that I’ve had to hold over most of my five pages of leads to climate stories until next time. Many thanks for all my patrons for staying with me and thanks to those of you who wrote to me during August. I’ll share your ideas next time. By the way, if you’d like to become a patron, and your support would be most gratefully received, just hop across to patreon.com/sfr. A word to the wise. For the moment you can sign up from $1 per month. From October the minimum will increase to £1 per month, although existing subscribers will not be affected.
I’m Anthony Day.
And that’s all for now.
Lockdown will have 'negligible' impact on climate crisis – study
Greenland ice sheet lost a record 1m tonnes of ice per minute in 2019
Carbon emissions from Artic wildfires up more than a third
NEW WEATHER INSTITUTE