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Have we reached the climate apocalypse?

The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory during a sunset in Sao Sebastiao do Uatuma in the middle of the Amazon forest in Amazonas state January 8, 2015. Picture: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory during a sunset in Sao Sebastiao do Uatuma in the middle of the Amazon forest in Amazonas state January 8, 2015. Picture: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Published Oct 22, 2021


World leaders used to say that we had 20 years to reverse global carbon emissions to avoid global catastrophe, but scientists fear that our time has run out.

Top environmental experts say we are in the final throes of life support for our planet.

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We have had climate conference after climate conference, but the action taken by governments has been almost negligible. For 27 years world climate conferences have produced few results, largely owing to the corrupt relationship between major corporations and the political elite, which ensures carbon emissions keep churning out in the race for profits – from Indonesia to the US to Brazil.

Just look at the Amazon, the green lungs of Earth. Last year, there were 103 000 wildfires in the Brazilian rainforest, the most important ecosystem on Earth. Most were intentionally started to make way for mining, forestry, cattle farms or other industry.

With so much money to be made and votes to be bought, it is no wonder that Brazil's foreign minister Ernesto Araújo tried to say last year that climate change was a plot by “cultural Marxists,” and President Jair Bolsonaro has continually downplayed the threat of global warming. One of the alarming developments after Bolsonaro’s rise to power was that his government changed the monitoring of wildfires from being done by a civilian organisation to being done by the army, ensuring far less transparency.

But we don’t have to look far to see that the world is choking on its own greed. Two years ago, Australian bushfires choked all major cities, incinerating millions of acres. Australians witnessed things they never thought possible – 20 000 bats dropped dead out of the sky, fruit on trees cooked from the inside out, streets buckled from the heat and a million fish died in the Murray river.

California has seen unprecedented wildfires. Heat waves in Europe and North America this summer broke all records, and the Arctic ice cap is melting, heating up at twice the global rate. The Arctic always used to be the planet’s reflector, reflecting 90% of the sun’s radiation back into outer space. Now that the Arctic has such a thin layer of ice, the planet is absorbing the sun’s radiation.

West Antarctica, which is as big as the US and Mexico, is considered a tipping point as it has 90% of the world’s ice. One of its glaciers, known as the doomsday glacier, is 1 200m deep and 160km across. Scientists were shocked to find that it has a big empty cavity where it has been melting on each side. An underwater drone captured something even more alarming – the glacier is starting to detach from land. Five years ago, scientists said we would lose West Antarctica, but it would take hundreds of years, but now they are sweating given the new realities.

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What is happening in Greenland is just as alarming – glaciers have doubled their rate of ice loss mass.

The massive Helheim glacier in south-east Greenland had never really moved until the year 2000, when it lost 8km of ice. As the ice is melting, methane, which has been trapped in the permafrost, is getting released, adding to unwanted emissions. It is estimated that the melting of ice could push up sea levels by 6m by 2040. The consequence of this is that in another 30 years, scientists predict that many cities will find themselves under water, and many island nations will be submerged. Over two-thirds of the world’s biggest cities are by the sea, with 80% of their population living close to the coast.

The city of Miami is a good example of a city in distress. Even on a sunny day when there has been no rain, the city experiences flooding, with water coming up onto the city streets through the drains. The mayor worries that it will only be a matter of time before the whole city finds itself submerged. There is no resolve by state politicians to work to counter the coming catastrophe as Florida Senator Marco Rubio doesn’t believe in climate change.

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But the hard cold reality is that Earth is losing 1.2 trillion tons of ice a year – an increase of more than 60% since the 1990s. Researchers suspect that warming ocean waters, rather than increasing air temperatures alone, may be behind the melting of glaciers in typically frigid north-west Greenland.

What is frightening is that we have reached a point where Earth is heating up to the extent that certain places are too hot to support life. Scientists say that when a city reaches 35ºC with 90% humidity, people will die because their organs will shut down. Parts of Pakistan and the UAE have started to see this happening during extreme periods of heat during the day.

The upcoming climate change conference in Glasgow comes at a critical juncture. The question is whether political leaders will muster the political will to take drastic action.

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Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor