Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Changing climate (2016)

Book Review from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic’. By Peter Wadhams. Penguin Books, 2016.

Peter Wadhams is a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge and former director of its Scott Polar Research Institute. Over 47 years as a polar researcher he has been on many expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.

His book straddles three literary genres. Part of it is a scientific exposition of the properties and structure of ice and how it forms under various conditions (quite differently in the Antarctic from in the Arctic, for instance). Other passages are a prose poem on the beauty of icy landscapes that only a few hundred people have ever seen. Above all, it is a warning of the gathering speed and momentum of climate change, culminating in a ‘call to arms.’

The author explains all the positive feedbacks that are accelerating global heating. The most alarming new development, he argues, is the release of methane – a very powerful greenhouse gas – from shallow Arctic seas whose warming is starting to melt long-frozen seabed sediments. In his opinion, the seriousness of the situation is understated not only by those who deny the reality of human-made climate change but also by many of his fellow specialists in the field, such as climate modellers who stubbornly stick to the predictions generated by their models even when the latter conflict with recent field observations.

Although most of the book focuses on the Arctic, there is a very valuable chapter on the Antarctic. The Antarctic is rather isolated from the rest of the planet in geographical and meteorological terms, although if global heating continues it will eventually suffer the same fate as the Arctic.

Professor Wadhams takes the view that it is now too late to avert disaster without resort to geoengineering – that is, ‘engineering’ the earth in ways that will reduce incoming solar radiation, increase the albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface or remove greenhouse gases from the air. (For more on geoengineering, see Pathfinders in the September 2010 and January 2011 issues of the Socialist Standard.)

The author’s clear scientific explanations contrast with rather muddled treatment of economic and political matters. But credit where credit is due: there is one paragraph in Chapter 13 where he does penetrate to the core of the problem facing our species:
  ‘The world’s rickety financial structure still requires perpetual growth in order to retain stability … Within the present capitalist system, as practiced by everyone including China, there is no way that a sustainable equilibrium society can be tolerated. Everyone knows that exponential growth … cannot continue and will lead only to disaster, yet every finance minister seeks to encourage economic growth …’
Unfortunately, this is a flash in the pan. Wadhams does not develop this insight or explore its implications. Instead he reverts to blaming the situation on superficial factors like the greed that makes people buy SUVs and the fact that most political leaders have no scientific training (a noted exception being Margaret Thatcher, with whom Wadhams was in direct contact).

It is all very well to call for ‘colossal programs on an international scale’ – but there is no real world community to consider and undertake such programs. Who can imagine the rival capitalist powers pooling their efforts to bring back the Arctic ice? The same powers that right now are ‘scrambling for the Arctic’ – salivating over the profit-making opportunities opened up by the retreat of the ice and manoeuvring to control the region’s newly accessible resources (see ‘Scramble for the Arctic,’ Material World, September 2007)?

The crucial problem is not how to devise programmes to save our planet but how to create the world community.

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