The Reality of Global Warming: Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold

Marc Faber discusses how Global Warming is a Reality, not a myth, no matter what you have heard the skeptics say.

Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold

EVERYONE HAS HEARD of global warming. The media, even Hollywood, have made headlines out of it. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that most climate experts are furious with the media coverage of global warming.

Several studies have in fact demonstrated that since 1988 the press, and in particular the American press, has produced biased media coverage in favour of the global warming sceptics by giving them a disproportionate amount of coverage, thus greatly confusing public opinion.

This has resulted in an ever-increasing gulf between the scientific community, which is more and more alarmed by the consequences of global warming, especially the risk of runaway global warming, and the general public, who still doubt the reality of global warming and know virtually nothing of its consequences.

And yet the facts can be easily explained.

The Reality of Global Warming: The Current State of Climate Science

Since the beginning of the industrial age mankind has, by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), released enormous quantities of CO 2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, increasing its concentration from 250 parts per million (ppm) to 379 ppm, an increase of 50%.

The CO 2 concentration has not been so high for at least the last 420,000 years, probably even since the Palaeocene 55 million years ago.

In fact, this gas is one of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect, which warms our planet. So far, rises in temperature have been minimal, about 0.8°C, because the oceans have absorbed half of the CO 2 emitted and because their thermal inertia has served to put the brakes on global warming.

Unfortunately, things are beginning to change. The CO 2 released into the atmosphere in great quantities during the 20th century will remain there for approximately 100 years, during which time it will continue to heat up the planet. It has been proven that this accumulation of CO 2 would still cause an increase in temperature over the course of the next few decades – even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today. 

Global warming will therefore happen as predicted. What will determine our fate is its extent and its speed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the highly regarded scientific authority on climate change – publishes a full report every five or six years summarizing the current scientific knowledge regarding climate change.

The last report was published in 2001. The next one is due in 2007. The 2001 report predicted an additional increase in the average surface temperature of the Earth of between 1.4°C and 5.8°C during the 21st century, the lowest part of the range corresponding to the scenario in which large-scale measures are undertaken worldwide within the next few years.

A temperature increase of a few degrees might seem of little consequence, but in reality this would result in a major climatic change. Let’s not forget that 21,000 years ago, when two-thirds of Europe and North America was covered by glaciers two to three kilometres thick and when sea levels were 120 metres lower than nowadays, the average surface air temperature was only 5°C lower than that of today!  


The Reality of Global Warming: The Main Areas of Concern

The image painted by the 2001 report was already extremely worrying. Since then climate science, provided with exceptional research means and funding, has continued to advance at a fast pace. And, it must be said, the latest results are very alarming because they imply that the extent and the speed of global warming, as well as the risk of runaway global warming, have been underestimated. The main areas of concern are as follows:

  • Scientists recently realised to their astonishment that a phenomenon known as global dimming had been largely underestimated. Global dimming is a significant decrease in sunlight caused by pollution in the atmosphere. It contributed to cooling the Earth from 1960 until 1990 and so partly masked global warming. It is estimated that, until 1990, air pollution protected us from at least 50% of the warming that would have otherwise occurred. This underestimation had therefore hidden the true extent of global warming.

Since 1990, however, the trend has reversed nearly everywhere: the dimming has been replaced by brightening, probably because of the widespread use of clean-air technologies, although the amount of radiation has not yet reached 1960 levels. According to certain climate models, if one takes this new phenomenon into account, the Earth’s temperature could increase by a maximum of not 5.8°C, but 10°C, during the 21st century.   

  • Thanks to their climate models, climatologists have long known that global warming would affect the polar regions more. For these areas the increase in temperature will be approximately double that of the rest of the planet. ( 7) They also know that the Greenland ice-sheet – the ice-cap covering the whole of Greenland – is particularly vulnerable. However, they were astonished and alarmed last summer when they realised that the edges of the Greenland ice-sheet were melting ten times faster than expected. 8 The melting of the whole Greenland icesheet would cause an increase in sea levels of seven metres – sufficient, for example, to put half of London under water. As for the melting of the Antarctic ice-sheet – much less probable in the near future because temperatures there are sufficiently below zero – it would cause a further increase in sea levels of approximately 60 metres.
  • Another major concern is the predicted grim future of the Amazon rainforest. Several studies ( 9) suggest that global warming would be accompanied by a reduction in rainfall over the Amazon basin likely to cause an increase in the number of forest fires and the progressive transformation of the rainforest into a savannah or semi-desert by the year 2050. If this happened, an enormous quantity of carbon currently trapped in the form of wood would be released into the atmosphere in the form of CO 2 , thereby considerably exacerbating global warming.
  • But the worst of all threats lies at the bottom of the oceans and in the permafrost of the polar regions where colossal quantities of methane – estimated at 10,000 billion tonnes of carbon, or the equivalent of more than double the world reserves of coal, oil, and gas – are stored in the form of methane hydrates. Methane is a gas that causes a greenhouse effect 21 times that of CO 2 .

These methane hydrates, which resemble snow in appearance, are only stable under great pressure and at low temperatures. An increase in sea temperature of several degrees could destabilise them, setting off a vicious circle in which the methane would reinforce the greenhouse effect. This would in turn release more methane, and so on. Rather improbable, you might be thinking, but not really. Scientists know that a similar event has already happened on at least two occasions, 250 million years ago and 55 million years ago, causing the extinction of 95% and 90% of all species.

In order to comprehend the scale of the threat, let’s not forget that the event that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago only caused the extinction of 60% of the species. Professor Sir David King, the chief scientific advisor to the British government, was referring to the extinction 55 million years ago when he stated before the House of Lords, on March 10, 2004 that “the Antarctic was the best place to be at that time. That was relatively hot compared to most of the world today, but the rest of the world was uninhabitable”.

On April 27, 2004 he also warned that if the world did not curb its burning of fossil fuels, “we will reach that level in 2100”.  

  • Finally, climatologists fear that because of the increase in temperature, the natural carbon sinks formed by the oceans and by the Earth’s vegetation will become progressively less efficient and eventually turn into natural carbon sources. Certain scientists even wonder if, in the light of the unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2002 and 2003, such a phenomenon has not already begun.   

The Reality of Global Warming: The Growing Awareness of Our Political Leaders  

There is definitely a growing awareness among heads of government of the unprecedented threat posed to humanity by global warming. There is, of course, one big exception: the Bush administration still denies the anthropogenic origin of global warming despite the IPCC, the US National Academy of Sciences, the US American Meteorological Society, the US American Geophysical Union, and the US American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) all having issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for mankind already having modified the climate is compelling.

In contrast, Europe is at the forefront of the battle against global warming. European leaders seem to have begun to realise the true extent of the threat. Valuable first steps  have already been taken to raise the level of public awareness. Without this, no large-scale counteractive measures will be possible as it is increasingly clear that it will be necessary to go far beyond the commitments of the Kyoto Protocol in order to slow down global warming.   

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised that he will make global warming one of his two priorities as the United Kingdom assumes the presidency of the G8 nations and Blair becomes president of the European Union in July 2005.

In order to convince his partners that he intends to base his evidence on a recent report  of the International Climate Change Taskforce composed of renowned scientists and high-level politicians and created on the initiative of three prestigious American, British, and Australian think tanks.

This report recommends that wide-ranging measures be taken without delay in order to avoid an increase in the Earth’s temperature of more than 2°C above that of the preindustrial era (that is, 1.2°C above today’s temperature). The report warns that in the event of an increase of more than 2°C, the consequences of global warming would be catastrophic.   

In order to achieve this goal, developed countries will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60%, with lower but still ambitious targets for developing countries, which illustrates the scale of change that must be achieved.

More specifically, the report insists that considerable effort be made with regard to the research and development of “clean” energy production – that is, emitting little or no CO 2 – together with a reduction in the amount of energy consumed, and urges a doubling of investment from the G8 countries in this field from now until the year 2010.

 The Reality of Global Warming: Conclusion  

Sometimes it is good to consider what future generations will think of us. If we don’t react quickly and decisively to put a stop to global warming, they will think the worst. Previous generations are equally responsible for global warming, but we cannot reproach them for they were not aware of this phenomenon.

Future generations will surely want to act, but scientists say that by then it will be too late. This historic responsibility which rests on our shoulders is heavy indeed, but if we don’t act now future generations will say of us: “They knew and yet they did nothing!”

– Marc Faber
June 24, 2005