“The Black Saturday fires created winds of 120km/h that snapped trees in half. The fires created their own weather, triggering storm clouds and lightning strikes that started more fires.
“They created flames that leapt 100 metres into the air and fireballs that barrelled ahead of a front and landed with explosive force in dry paddocks….
“The fiercer they became, the more strength they drew from the heat, wind and energy they had spawned.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 7.8.09)
No wonder that Australians, who suffered 173 dead and 500 injured in the Black Saturday fires that swept Victoria on 7 February, are fearfully reporting the return of ‘El Niño’, the ‘naughty child’, the nickname given to the warm Pacific weather that dries up Australia to a cinder.
El Niño is back and already causing mischief around the world. “This one is brewing up to be the second-strongest on record”, the Independent reported on 3 August. Although weather systems are difficult to predict, in the last three months the Pacific ocean ‘thermostat’ has gone higher than at any time since 1997-98, the year of the most powerful El Niño of the last 50 years.
1997-98 was the world’s hottest year, with major droughts and catastrophic forest fires in South-east Asia. Australia’s wheat production, which has never fully recovered from its ten-year global warming induced drought, may be cut by a quarter this year.
The sugar crop in India has fallen by up to a half this year. Speculators have forced a doubling of the price of raw sugar on the commodity markets, where it has reached a 28-year high. The food riots which marked the last El Niño may well come back, not directly because of food shortages so much as because people cannot afford the skyrocketing prices which result from speculation on the possibility of shortages.
“World will warm faster than predicted in next five years” ran a Guardian headline on 27 July. We face an alarming confluence of circumstances. The sun’s eleven-year cycle of activity is reaching its hottest and an El Niño has started.
Meanwhile our capitalist governments have done almost nothing to slow down the output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The British government stands by while Vestas, which produces wind turbines, sacks much of its Isle of Wight workforce and closes factories.
The leaders of the G8, the leading industrial countries, met in the Italian city of L’Aquila in July. They aim to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels by cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Their present plans won’t achieve this, but even if realised, it will be far too little, too late. As a minimum, scientists argue for a more immediate cut of between 25% and 50% by 2020. The G8 leaders did not agree.
Yet emissions of greenhouse gases have not slowed but have accelerated. Studies have shown that carbon dioxide and methane rose sharply in 2007, with some evidence that our heated planet is now beginning to release the frozen carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the arctic circle.
Northern peatland carbon reservoirs trapped in the permafrost are very sensitive to climate change, and the danger increases of self-reinforcing ‘positive feedback’ in which the carbon dioxide released adds to global warming.
Researchers warn that a 1°C temperature increase will thaw the permafrost to the extent of releasing between 38 and 100 million tonnes a year of surplus carbon dioxide. This alone could cancel out the European Union objective of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 92 million tonnes a year.
Scientific American reported (June 2009, special edition) the astonishing research of Katey Walter, whose study involves stepping “gingerly onto the three-day-old ice of a remote lake in northeastern Siberia” in order to tap into “platter-size bubbles” of methane frozen into the ice – she has fallen through into the icy waters more than once.
These bubbles are “pockets of gas which have risen from thawing permafrost – formerly frozen soil – at the lake’s bottom”. The lakes which release the methane appear to be growing so fast that they are unrecognisable from year to year. This mechanism could explain the sharp rise in methane in the atmosphere in 2007. Methane has twenty-five times the power of carbon dioxide to produce global warming. The story hints that positive feedback has begun.
What will happen to the arctic ice cap this year and next, if the El Niño remains in full swing? Will it shrink further? Arctic sea ice for the month of July this year was the third lowest in extent for any July in the satellite record, after 2007 and 2006, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre has warned. The warmer arctic waters will cause further releases of methane.
El Niño’s warmer pacific waters can contribute to more energetic storms. One million people were evacuated in China recently as Typhoon Morakot caused the worst flooding for 50 years, sweeping away a six story hotel in Taiwan and burying whole villages in landslides without warning.
At the same time, fires afflict the globe. Forest fires raged out of control in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, forcing thousands to flee their homes, and across southern Europe, claiming at least six lives. More than 700 wildfires were burning across British Columbia in early August, with 5,000 evacuated. Thousands more fled from fires in California. 20 million acres burned in the USA in 2006 and 2007 combined, three times the 1985-1995 average.
The number of fires covering at least 10,000 square metres in Riau province of Sumatra, Indonesia, reached 2,395 in July, the highest number ever in one month in the country. They were reported to have been started by the plantation companies, and are thought to be a major contributor to the recent leap in carbon emissions. They are blanketing neighbouring Malaysia in haze, closing schools and airports (Jakarta Post, 18.8.09)
Australia is facing its “worst ever” bushfire season, the state of Victoria’s environment department warns. Perhaps this time the government will ensure the evacuation of its people.
Governments, in tune with their big business backers, are not taking the necessary action to avoid an impending catastrophe, which has already begun to strike the poorest workers globally and particularly the rural poor.
Just as mass movements have been necessary in the past (and are today) to win reforms for working people from the cocooned capitalist politicians, so too are mass movements essential to shift them into action on the environment. If they do not move quickly enough, they only further demonstrate that they have outlived their usefulness.
By Pete Mason