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The most significant recent climate change findings are:
Surging greenhouse gas emissions: Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were 40% higher than those in 1990. Even if global emission rates are stabilized at present –day levels, just 20 more years of emissions would give a 25% probability that warming exceeds 2oC. Even with zero emissions after 2030. Every year of delayed action increase the chances of exceeding 2oC warming.
Recent global temperatures demonstrate human-based warming: Over the past 25 years temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.190C per decade, in every good agreement with predictions based on greenhouse gas increases. Even over the past ten years, despite a decrease in solar forcing, the trend continues to be one of warming. Natural, short- term fluctuations are occurring as usual but there have been no significant changes in the underlying warming trend.
Acceleration of melting of ice-sheets, glaciers and ice-caps: A wide array of satellite and ice measurements now demonstrate beyond doubt that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate. Melting of glaciers and ice-caps in other parts of the world has also accelerated since 1990.
Rapid Arctic sea-ice decline: Summer-time melting of Arctic sea-ice has accelerated far beyond the expectations of climate models. The area of summertime sea-ice during 2007-2009 was about 40% less than the average prediction from IPCC AR4 climate models.
Current sea-level rise underestimates: Satellites show great global average sea-level rise (3.4 mm/yr over the past 15 years) to be 80% above past IPCC predictions. This acceleration in sea-level rise is consistent with a doubling in contribution from melting of glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland and West-Antarctic ice-sheets.
Sea-level prediction revised: By 2100, global sea-level is likely to rise at least twice as much as projected by Working Group 1 of the IPCC AR4, for unmitigated emissions it may well exceed 1 meter. The upper limit has been estimated as – 2 meters sea-level rise by 2100. Sea-level will continue to rise for centuries after global temperature have been stabilized and several meters of sea level rise must be expected over the next few centuries.
Delay in action risks irreversible damage: Several vulnerable elements in the climate system (e.g. continental ice-sheets. Amazon rainforest, West African monsoon and others) could be pushed towards abrupt or irreversible change if warming continues in a business-as-usual way throughout this century. The risk of transgressing critical thresholds (“tipping points”) increase strongly with ongoing climate change. Thus waiting for higher levels of scientific certainty could mean that some tipping points will be crossed before they are recognized.
The turning point must come soon: If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – need to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-90% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.
The tsunami has prompted tasteless claims – but the myth-making about whales does point to deeper connection.
Sperm whale, Kaikoura, New Zealand. Photograph: Philip Hoare
Within hours of the Japanese tsunami, as we watched ships stranded in streets like beached whales, outrageous posts were appearing on the internet suggesting that the tragedy was a revenge for that nation's continuing whale hunt. Some even fantasised that the terrible wave had been caused by the whales themselves. A persistent web hoax proposed that the tsunami had launched a whale into a building. Modern myths are made of such sensational stuff; taste and decency are not the prevailing factors.
What happened last Friday, deep beneath the surface of the Pacific, was invisible to us; as invisible as the radiation that is now drifting southwards from Fukushima reactors. But others conclude, as they did in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, that whales and dolphins – cetaceans – acted as advance warnings of what was to come. Forty-eight hours before the Christchurch earthquake, for instance, more than 100 pilot whales were stranded on New Zealand's South Island. Then on 4 March, 50 melon-headed whales washed up on the eastern Kashima shore of Japan.
There is no scientific basis for such theories – although whales, like birds, probably do use the Earth's electromagnetic field for navigation, and such abrupt alterations in it may well cause them to strand. (Indeed, the Maori who first colonised New Zealand probably followed migrating whales there from Polynesia, who themselves were following electromagnetic lines).
And now, the insidious evil of contamination, in an island nation on which its manmade version was first visited. The Pacific has ever been the nuclear arena – one metaphorically haunted by the hunted whales – and artists and writers have long seen the whale, whether real or allegorical, as an augury of disaster. In the late 1940s and early 50s, the American artist Gilbert Wilson became obsessed with Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick. In 1952, Wilson wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the "White Whale" had become – a century after Moby-Dick's publication – an augury of atomic conflict, and Captain Ahab's "insane pursuit of Moby-Dick into the Sea of Japan" analogous to America's "atrocious nuclear experiments and explosions in the same area".
Similarly, in his critical work, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, published in 1949, the literary critic Howard P Vincent considered that Moby-Dick, the mythical animal, was "ubiquitous in time and place. Yesterday he sank the Pequod; within the past two years he has breached five times; from a New Mexico desert, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most recently, at Bikini atoll." Meanwhile, nuclear submarines – lubricated with sperm whale oil (since it does not freeze in extreme temperatures) – were moving in those same Pacific depths, their very shapes designed to replicate those of hydrodynamic whales.
The Pacific, which covers one third of the Earth, is the great unknown; even now, the last ocean to be explored. Yet it is the backyard of the world's most developed (Japan, the US) and developing (China) nation states. In his book Atlantic, Simon Winchester points out that the modern world began around the Mediterranean, which ceded the locus of power to the Atlantic with America's uprise. Now its future lies in the Pacific, an arena "discovered" by James Cook's voyages of the late 18th century and barely 200 years old in western history.
That yawning, freighted space between Japan and America seems so blank and so full of potential at the same time. From the bland two dimensions of the atlas, this expanse of blue appears entirely empty. Yet it is filled with life: with 25,000 islands, and "ultra-societies" of vast pods of sperm whales that associate in "nations" of their own, communicating in discreet dialects of clicks, uninterpreted by humans. What kind of disasters did they suffer during that terrible seismic shift last Friday? Like the thousands of animals that died in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, their fate is unknown to us, as we understandably focus on the human suffering in Japan. But I would contend that all these things do have a deeper connection, for all of those tasteless internet claims. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
The effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan show it is over. Done. Finished. Nuclear energy cannot be controlled by humans
The catastrophe in Japan has sparked debate internationally on nuclear energy, but it is especially fierce in Germany. After Fukushima, it can no longer be viewed as a viable energy source for the future. German chancellor Angela Merkel must alter her pro-nuclear stance.
There are, of course, several arguments in favour of nuclear energy. In contrast to coal-fired power plants, atomic reactors produce little in the way of CO2 emissions – which is good news for the climate. In addition, the technology is helpful for regions which may not have natural gas reserves, for example. Nuclear energy means a certain degree of independence and a modicum of political autonomy when it comes to determining energy policy. Furthermore, energy produced from nuclear power plants tends to be cheap, making it popular with consumers.
But none of that counts – at least not any more. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan followed by the ever-worsening stream of terrible news relating to the country's nuclear power facilities, even the last remaining advocates of the technology must realise that we can't go on like this. It is over. Done. Finished. Nuclear energy cannot be controlled by humans, no matter how good the arguments might be in its favour. The danger of disaster is real, and it can happen at any time – even in a super high-tech country such as Japan. And it could also happen here in Germany. A sense of security when it comes to atomic reactors is no longer possible. Not anywhere.
The earthquake in Japan is emerging as a decisive turning point in the history of nuclear technology. People learn from experience, and the lesson is clear: not everything that is technically possible is a good thing. New ways need to be found to cover the energy needs of a growing population. And people need to move faster on this issue than they have so far.
That is true worldwide and also, of course, in Germany. After the events of the weekend, anyone who tries to claim that it couldn't happen here looks ridiculous. In Japan there was a chain of unfortunate events: the devastating earthquake followed by the disastrous tsunami. That is true. But what is a disaster apart from a chain of unfortunate events? Be it plane crashes, car accidents or core meltdowns, something will always go wrong when people are involved. At some point this unfortunate chain of events will also hit us – or our neighbours, such as France, a nation which is so fond of nuclear energy. And what will happen then?
Merkel and her government want to review the safety standards at German nuclear power plants. By doing so, they hope to stifle the atomic energy debate. But why do the security measures need to be checked? Haven't we always being told that German nuclear power plants are the safest in the world?
Crisis meetings, security summits, special checks, those are the signs of a dying industry and the rearguard action of its political helpers. At some stage Germany will exit nuclear power – and sooner than advocates of the technology like to think. Old fears of a massive nuclear meltdown have resurfaced in Germany. Traditional nuclear critics within the Green party and the center-left Social Democrats will exploit these fears. A diehard pragmatist such as Merkel will certainly recognise this. And she will change her course. That much is certain.
But how quickly will Berlin be able to shift its tack on the issue? Is the country really moving quickly enough in its adoption of sustainable energies? Certainly not. The companies operating Germany's nuclear power plants are earning billions, but only a tiny fraction of those profits are being channelled into the expansion of the country's use of alternative energies. That must change.
Of course it would be nonsense to switch off all of Germany's power plants overnight just to appease the critics. But the development of sufficient quantities of renewable energies requires political resolve. And that resolve can only be generated once it becomes clear that Germany's nuclear power plants will soon be taken off the grid permanently. That was the logic behind the decision to phase out nuclear energy in Germany by 2022 – a policy established over a decade ago by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats and their coalition partners, the Greens.
But that plan was reversed last autumn when Merkel's Christian Democrats, together with the business-friendly Free Democrats, put a halt to the phase-out and passed legislation extending the operating lives of Germany's nuclear power plants. Now it is clear: that decision was a mistake. And that mistake must now be corrected. No, it is no longer tempting to argue in favour of nuclear power. Not any more.
Are you breathing in and out, looking to the sky and saying thank you... not really wondering why... just grateful for another moment in this garden paradise. What can I do?
How can I help? These words were whispered... these thoughts were heard. This calling, answered. Every day, we have a chance... every day, what that "chance" is changes, modified by the actions, our actions, going on now.