FRISCO, Colo. — There are many ways to look at ice. Boulder-based researcher and artist James Balog, for example, has captured on video the awesome collapse of mile-wide glaciers. And Jim White, of CU-Boulder, studies molecules of gas that have been trapped in Arctic ice for thousands of years.
Both men, with a lifetime of observations between them, have come to the same inescapable conclusion. If humankind doesn’t cut emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to near zero in the next few decades, future generations will probably live in a world without much ice and snow. People will have to travel to near the North Pole, or to the world’s highest peaks, to visit the last few remnant glaciers and ice sheets. Sea level will be 10 feet to 20 feet higher, and cities like Phoenix may be nearly unlivable — all depending on choices we are making today.
Sharing ideas at the annual Glen Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit in Breckenridge this week, Balog said that addressing climate change — as in doing something about it — means changing long-held assumptions.
“For a long time, we have assumed that people can’t change the Earth,” said Balog, part of the team that produced Chasing Ice, an Emmy-winning documentary about the planetary meltdown. “But now we are learning through modern science that we can change the basic chemistry of this planet,” he said, describing what’s becoming known as the Anthropocene Age, when humans are the dominant agent of planetary change.
Human activity moves more rocks and dirt than any of the Earth’s natural erosive forces, including floods, earthquakes and landslides. Mainly through the production of fertilizers, humans have also become key drivers of other fundamental chemical processes, producing more nitrogen than all the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the planet and more sulfate than all ocean phytoplankton combined.
In the atmosphere, human activities manifest in the buildup of heat-trapping pollutants. The concentration of carbon dioxide is higher than it has been for millions of years — long before humans existed — and that means global temperatures are set to climb several more degrees by the end of the century even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped today.
White’s work with CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research has taken him from a research station in high peaks of the Rockies all the way to Antarctica and to the Greenland Ice Sheet, where he’s retrieved ice samples that show exactly when — and how fast — climate can shift in response to changing CO2 levels.
“We live in interesting times,” White said, addressing the concept of abrupt climate change, which he recently described in a report released by the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. The painstaking analyses of those ancient ice-trapped gas molecules suggests that the Earth’s climate can flip so fast that a city could go from having a climate like Montreal’s to a climate like Miami’s within a human lifespan.
“Steady changes in climate can trigger abrupt shifts in related human and natural systems, reaching thresholds that have impacts to our society,” White said, citing Hurricane Sandy as the first time that flood waters in New York rose above the entrance of subways, resulting in a $60 billion problem.
“The thresholds in our systems are very real. Some of the natural abrupt changes we can see in the ice core record are much faster than what we’re seeing right now … There are some big physical lessons we need to learn. History shows us that sea level changes by large amounts, as much as up and down by 400 feet in the last few tens of thousands of years,” he said.
Some evidence suggests that Greenland’s average temperature can change by 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) in as little as 50 years, a change that would have huge implications for global sea level.
“Right now we’re expecting three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, but the record shows it can rise five times as fast. Greenland and Antarctica can kick in much bigger,” he said.
The litany of scientific facts isn’t enough for some people, and White and Balog addressed some of the social and political aspects of climate change head-on.
“The climate skeptics say it’s about natural variation. It’s not. We’re 40 percent above the peak of natural variation,” said Balog, describing the unchecked emission of greenhouse gases as a global experiment with an uncertain outcome.
“We’ve been beaten up by 4 million years of volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, it’s been imprinted in us that we can’t change the planet in any meaningful way,” he said.
But it’s not true anymore, and he reiterated that it’s crucial for people to understand their own role in those changes.
“It’s every bit important as Newton, Darwin and Einstein. To me it speaks to the need to start paying attention to who we are and what we are doing,” Balog said. Then he shifted gears to talk about why he has dedicated his life to photographically documenting the vanishing ice.
“I want to be able to look at my two [daughters] and tell them I was doing what I could to tell this story, because the world they will be experiencing will be profoundly different. They’re going to be looking back and saying, With the information you had, how could you miss this story?” he said. “I want to push society bit by bit toward positive change.”
White, also a father, put it even more simply. “We say we love our kids, but do we show it?”
He said we have obligations both to future generations and to people living on the planet now who don’t share in the carbon wealth that’s causing the global warming problem.
In the big picture, the problem is too many people, and the answer is to empower women.
“In societies where women have economic and political value, birthrates go down,” White said, adding that global economic equity is the key ingredient. The bottom line is, if there are 2 billion people living in deep poverty, the environment is not a major consideration, he said.
Climate change is not about belief, both men agreed. The science is clear; the question is whether and how we will act, and that leads straight to the political arena.
“We have to look wide eyes-open at the fact that the companies that sell energy are the most powerful companies in history,” Balog said. Those companies have a huge financial interest in maintaining the status quo and have invested heavily in doing exactly that, he said.
“The industry has spent huge amount of money to create the perception that civilization is over as we know it if we stop using fossil fuels. It’s scandalous and tragic that it’s been politicized, and morally and ethically wrong to ignore it,” he said, adding that future generations may raise a question of criminal liability.
“I see it like Big Tobacco. Someday, people may be asking these companies what they knew and when they knew it,” he said, referencing the all-but certain loss of billions of dollars of economic value in places like Miami and New Orleans.
The more imminent political danger is a loss of funding for climate change research, White added, explaining that key committees in the new GOP-controlled Congress are chaired by lawmakers who won’t acknowledge the fact that greenhouse gases are speeding the world toward an uncertain climate future.
“For those of us doing basic research on how the climate functions, we’re nervous. We ought to be watching the climate more closely.” He emphasized the need for a science-based early warning system that could provide some notice of potential tipping points, like shifts in ocean currents or major melting episodes that could raise sea levels by several feet in a few decades.
White said there are some elected representatives on the GOP side who understand the science, but the hardening of political positions on climate change the past 10 years has made it tough for Republicans to win a primary if they give even just an inch. He scoffed at the so-called war on coal, saying that, instead, it’s the shift from one fossil fuel — coal — to another — natural gas — that is pushing coal production and prices down.
But not all the blame goes to politicians. People need to look in the mirror, he said, using America’s obesity problem as an analog for the climate change issue.
“Why don’t we blame farmers for the obesity problem?” he said. “It’s because people can separate the physical law imperatives from their values. We’re capable of parsing value and physical laws into two categories,” White said.
People don’t blame farmers because they know they themselves are ultimately responsible for what and how much they eat. “But in the case of carbon, we blame energy suppliers for our choices,” he said.
Videos of both Balog and White’s talks will be posted on the Glen Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit website in the next few days.