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Let Us Now Sing About the Warmed Earth

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Posted on Jul 29, 2013
Subhankar Banerjee

By Subhankar Banerjee, ClimateStoryTellers

(Page 4)

The ecological dystopia, however, didn’t paralyze activists to fight for a better future. I was at the 2009 UN Climate Summit COP15 in Copenhagen. The official summit was a dismal failure. The unofficial Klimaforum, however, gave renewed energy to the climate justice movement. By fighting the political system, we had envisioned, it might be possible to move away from fossil fuels, and toward a clean energy future. However, less than four years later, it has now become clear that fossil fuels extraction is rapidly increasing with government support in North America. It will continue to be that way through the rest of this century, and perhaps beyond. And globally—Russia, China, India, Brazil—the story is the same. This is what I’d call—political dystopia.

We’re already saying adios to one American coastal city: “Goodbye, Miami.” Jeff Goodell wrote in Rolling Stone recently that Miami, and much of South Florida would be underwater by the end of the century due to rising sea level. The primary reason behind the sea level rise is the melting of the Greenland ice cap. Soon we will start saying adios to an inland American city also: “Goodbye, Phoenix.” Drought, heat, fires, water shortage—will make much of the American southwest uninhabitable. People would be faced with two choices. Those who can afford would move away to more habitable places (from Phoenix to Portland, or from St. Pete to Seattle, for example). But for most people, particularly poor people won’t have a choice to move—to a better place. The latter condition would be called, “displacement without moving” that Rob Nixon coined in his groundbreaking book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard).

Additionally, the American police state might use brutal techniques against millions of people who would become climate refugees, and would be forced to migrate. If you don’t believe me read a bit further.

Mexico (like southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) would be hit hard by climate change. It is likely that tens of millions of Mexicans would be forced to move North—to the US and Canada—just to survive. The US government is perhaps envisioning such a future scenario. I’d suggest that this is perhaps one of the reasons why America is spending tens of billions of dollars on—not only building a 700–mile long “Mexico–United States barrier,” but also turning the border into a “War Zone,” as Todd Miller recently pointed out on TomDispatch. Globally the situation would be similar, as a South–North migration forced by climate change is inevitable. In the Arctic, communities are already being forced to move from their ancestral lands. Here are a few recent books on the subject of migration and displacement forced by climate change: Climate Change and Migration (Oxford), Climate Change and Displacement (Hart), Migration and Climate Change (Cambridge), Climate Change and Displacement Reader (Routledge), and Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket). The tremendous social chaos that will arise from migration and “displacement without moving” is what I’d call—sociological dystopia.

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The Whiteman–Hope–Wadhams study has brought to sharp focus, the fourth element—economic dystopia.

Shakhova–Semiletov and Whiteman–Hope–Wadhams Studies

During the 1990s Russian scientist Dr. Natalia Shakhova had done studies of methane release from terrestrial permafrost in Eastern Siberia. In the fall of 2003, Shakhova and her colleague Dr. Igor Semiletov took the study offshore—to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Every year since then, they conducted annual research trips, mostly on ships during summer, but also one aerial survey in 2006, and one winter expedition on sea ice in April 2007. They published their findings in the 5 March 2010 issue of the journal Science.

Methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation.

Their research, for the first time, brought attention to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf as a key reservoir of Arctic methane that “encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean,” and is “more than three times as large as the nearby Siberian wetlands” that was previously “considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane.” Their findings showed that the “permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.” Shakhova pointed out that the current average methane concentrations in the Arctic is “about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years.”

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is shallow, only about 164 feet in depth, which means that the methane that is getting released there, most of it is escaping into the atmosphere rather than getting absorbed into the water, which would have been the case if it was a deep seabed. Shakhova had warned at the time that the release of “even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”

Shakhova and Semiletov now hold joint appointments with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Pacific Oceanological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Their research is ongoing, and Shakhova is the lead scientist for the Russia–US Methane Study.


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