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Issue #1798      October 11, 2017

Fact sheet on a warming world

“The total income of the 500 richest people in the world is greater than the 450 million poorest living on $2 a day. We have to change direction. How long are we going to tolerate the current international economic order, and allow the hungry not to have food? Let’s eradicate poverty and bring in climate justice. If capitalism resists we have to do battle with it. If we do not, then mankind, the greatest creation in the universe, will disappear,”

Carbon dioxide concentrations over time

Reconstructions show that concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere have varied from as high as 7,000 parts per million (ppm) during the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago, to as low as 180 ppm during the Quaternary glaciation of the last two million years. One ppm to get a rough overview is the equivalent of one second in 11.5 days, one inch in 16 miles or one minute in two years.

Global annual mean CO2 concentration has increased by more than 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution, from 280 ppm, the level it had for 10,000 years up to the mid-18th century, to 407 ppm CO2 as of July 2017. The current concentrations of CO2 are the highest in the past 800,000 years and likely the highest in the past 20 million years.

This increase has been caused by human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, and to a lesser extent some agricultural processes. Increased levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere has produced the current episode of global warming. About 35% of the CO2 released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes, which produces ocean acidification. The global mean CO2 concentration is currently rising at a rate of approximately 2 ppm/year and accelerating.

Paris Agreement, 2015

The latest international climate treaty, is aiming to keep the global temperature increase well below 2°C, and hopefully limit it to 1.5°C. At the current rate of growth in CO2, levels will hit 500 ppm within 50 years, putting us on track to reach temperature boosts of perhaps more than 3°C, a level that climate scientists say would cause bouts of extreme weather and sea level rise that would endanger global food supplies, cause disruptive mass migrations, and even destroy the Amazon rainforest through drought and fire.

The Paris agreement commits countries to keeping temperature rises to “well below” 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5°C, by cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the second half of the century.

Great barrier reef coral bleaching and ocean acidification

Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef has now been devastated by severe coral bleaching, with the most intense damage occurring further south this year. An aerial survey of the reef’s 2,300-kilometre length showed 1,500 kilometres had been bleached. The bleaching occurs when the algae that lives inside the coral that provides up to 90% of its energy is expelled; afterwards the corals begin to starve. Increasing ocean acidification due to rises in CO2 levels exacerbates the bleaching effects of thermal stress.

Acidification affects the corals’ ability to create calcareous skeletons, essential to their survival. The combination of acidification and temperature rises, could be too much for coral to survive within 50 years. Elevated sea water temperatures are the main cause of mass bleaching events. In 2016, the longest coral bleaching event was recorded, with two major bleaching events in the summers of 1998 and 2002 when, respectively, 42% and 54% of reefs were affected by bleaching.

Cyclone Debbie Australia 2017

In March five people lost their lives due to flooding in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie. The damage bill for Cyclone Debbie is set to pass $1 billion, with around 650 residences in northern Queensland having their homes ruled uninhabitable from cyclone damage. Flooding inundated 38 homes and threatens about 250 properties in the southeast. Flooding in Rockhampton threatened 5,400 properties including 3,000 homes. 15,000 properties were isolated by floodwaters in NSW, and 30,000 people were ordered to evacuate.

Droughts Africa 2017

For two consecutive years, millions of people in over a dozen countries in the Horn of Africa have been hit by drought, while Southern Africa is facing its third consecutive year. More than 20 million people are estimated by the United Nations to be facing severe famine, starvation and the peak effect of severe drought in the world.

The Horn of Africa is facing drought, causing thirst and hunger, decimating livestock, destroying livelihoods, spreading disease and triggering large scale population movements. South Sudan, which has been caught in a conflict since 2013, has 100,000 people on the verge of starvation and has almost 5 million people in need of urgent assistance. Somalia’s neighbour Kenya is also facing drought in half of the country but these are only some of the 17 African countries struggling to come to terms with the impact of two consecutive years of drought, which has left more than 38 million people at risk this year

Floods South Asia 2017

In August, over 1,300 people died, 30-40% of whom were children, and millions were left homeless following devastating floods that hit India, Bangladesh and Nepal, one of the worst flooding disasters in the region in decades. In Bangladesh thousands of villages have been cut off by flooding with people being deprived of food and clean water. More than 6,000 square kilometres of farmland that the country’s economy is dependent on have been partially damaged and thousands of houses have been destroyed. This follows monsoon rains and landslides in July that took 187 lives and affected at least 1.3 million people.

Hurricane Harvey USA 2017

In August in Texas and Louisiana, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, more than 70 died with thousands forced to flee their homes. It dumped 27 trillion gallons of water and caused property damage estimated to be AU$31.2 billion. Harvey, which was downgraded to a tropical storm, broke weather records and left some scientists wondering why it stalled over south Texas instead of moving north to Oklahoma and then Midwest as storms of this nature typically do.

Hurricane Irma, Katia, Jose, Americas 2017

In August and September at least 36 people in the Caribbean lost their lives in the aftermath of Irma and AU$12.5 billion in damages; the tiny island of Bermuda had at least 95% of its homes destroyed. At least 10 people died in Cuba alone, including the flooding and flattening of an extensive area of sugar cane.

When moving through Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, 50 lives have been lost so far with up to AU$50 billion in damages. Hurricane Katia was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall on Mexico’s eastern coast. Hurricane Jose was downgraded to a tropical storm exacerbating the potential of the flooding of Irma. Irma is among the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years.

Is climate change linked with extreme weather events?

Climate change isn’t entirely responsible for the creation of storms, floods or droughts, but has intensified them and created favourable conditions. This simply means the likelihood of extreme weather events will continue to rise, 500-year floods will become 100 year floods, while acute heat waves and droughts will become the norm.

The rise in extreme weather events such as hurricanes and floods have been identified by scientists as the hallmark of man-made climate change. This spring saw the United States ravaged by extreme flooding after hot temperatures followed a heavy winter snowfall. An early summer heat-wave in Europe broke records and ignited wildfires across the region.

The world has experienced extreme floods, hurricanes, storms and droughts. While climate change is often seen as an increase in average global temperature, we can see that much more drastic fluctuations impact specific locations. Increased temperatures accelerate evaporation and build up water vapour in the atmosphere, resulting in intense precipitation events such as sudden hail and flash floods.

Australia’s climate has warmed in both mean surface air temperature and surrounding sea surface temperature by around 1°C since 1910. Globally-averaged sea level rise is around 20 cm since the late 19th century, with about one third of this rise due to ocean warming and the rest from melting ice and changes in the amount of water stored on land.

Unless governments start taking these threats to our future seriously, the mismanagement and wilful denial and outright blocking of action will cause mass-migrations, the likes the world has not seen before, with coastal areas around the world including island nations swamped by rising water levels. We must struggle against capitalism’s war against the environment in the drive for profit, face the challenges that climate change will bring, and react to the crisis accordingly.

Next article – Can capitalism be “fixed”?

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