Global Warning: Arctic tipping point

“We are measuring the pulse of the ice sheet”, said the lead author of a recent Ohio University study, Michalea King, referring to the annual changes in Greenland’s three kilometre-thick ice covering. And that pulse is weakening – the patient is bleeding out.

King has demonstrated that Greenland’s vast ice sheets are melting so fast that even if global warming was to end today, not enough snow would fall to replenish the ice sheets. The yearly pulse of snowfall and melting, measured by King and her team over decades, shows a sudden change.

King’s research team at Ohio concluded that the Greenland ice sheet is now the “largest single contributor to rising sea levels” – estimated at between 20% to 40% of the total. The eventual sea level rise from the Greenland ice sheets alone would be seven metres, potentially drowning the world’s major cities. And the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets together, holding enough water to raise sea level by 65 metres, are melting at the worst-case scenario for sea level rise, as estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC forecasts, on this basis, that 50 million people will be exposed to annual coastal flooding in 30 years’ time.

Global warming results from pollution that began with the capitalist industrial revolution of the 1800s and its iconic smoke-stack factory chimneys. Some effects are slow – and some are already here.

The melting Greenland sheet is “far surpassing the snow that’s accumulating on the surface of the ice sheet”, King says. Even in the 1990s, the pulse of the ice sheets was stable – snow fall and ice melt balanced. The melting increased in the last decade, according to one study, by more than seven times the 1990s discharge.

A ‘tipping point’ has been reached, one that has been warned about for decades by scientists. A tipping point tends to be sudden, like when a lorry tips its load – you watch as the sand on the bed of the lorry stays put while the lorry bed gradually tilts up, then suddenly the whole load slides down to the ground. It’s a turning point after a gradual change – a sudden, qualitative change in circumstances resulting from a slow accumulation of small, unremarkable changes.

In human history, this natural process sees its reflection in the slow build-up of anger against an unjust and outdated social system which suddenly results in a revolution, an overturn into a qualitatively new economic form – capitalism be warned.

But while the seven metre sea level rise caused by Greenland’s melted sheets is perhaps centuries away, the twenty-first century’s global warming tipping point is having very dramatic effects today.

The Arctic, in which Greenland is situated, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. And the results have been shocking. On June 20, verified temperatures reached 38c (100F) in Verkhoyansk, a Siberian town within the Arctic Circle. Siberian fires, visible from space, mark the beginning of the ‘age of fire’, the pyrocene (a term that has caught on from a 2015 essay by Stephen J Pyne). Unprecedented fires swept across Australia during their summer (our winter months 2019-20), a period now known in Australia as ‘the black summer’. Fires have been sweeping across California all summer – termed ‘An Apocalyptic August’, by New Yorker.

Fires in Arctic Russia released more carbon dioxide (CO2) in June and July 2020 alone than in any complete fire season since 2003. The peat appears to be burning uncontrollably all year round, the melting tundra is releasing potent methane, while at the same time, hidden deep in the Arctic wasteland, the accidental reintroduction of the European earthworm, absent for 12,000 years, has added another entirely unanticipated factor. The humble worm “could have the same effect on Arctic plant productivity as a 3C rise in temperature”, a study from the University of Greifswald in Germany showed. (The Guardian, 25 August: ‘The aliens to watch’ – how the humble earthworm is altering the Arctic) All these events are giant feedback loops, adding to the uncertainties in predictions of the pace of global warming. But the Arctic Circle reached its lowest extent in the satellite record in 2020 and researchers now estimate summertime Arctic ice will be gone in just 15 years’ time.

Tragically, a crevasse that opened up in Greenland, likely caused by melt pools that work their way down into the ice and accelerate the melting, claimed the life of one of the foremost climate scientists, Konrad Steffen, in early August. Yet big business capitalism celebrates the shrinking polar ice cap by taking ‘cheaper’ trading routes across the ice-free Arctic. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) tankers are cutting six days transport time, and costing the planet dearly. They burned 239,000 tonnes of fuel in 2019, compared to only 6,000 tonnes in 2017, greatly exacerbating global warming.

Ten years ago, scientists accurately predicted the Greenland tipping point that has now arrived. This is nature in thrall to capitalism, which is geoengineering the planet on an unprecedented scale, unintentionally, without plan or purpose. Humanity does not control its own fate – it is in the hands of the blind forces of the capitalist market. For example, each LNG ship owner competes against their rivals, and if they do not take advantage of the cheaper, shorter journey times across the Arctic, their rivals will, and they will go out of business. This short-termism of market forces cannot take into consideration the environmental destruction that its search for profit at any cost creates.

As Socialism Today’s Global Warning column has repeatedly emphasised, a socialist society would remove the big business profit motive that holds capitalist governments in a death grip, preventing them from acting while the planet burns.

Socialists are not doomsday critics. As Chris Baugh showed in the July column, (Socialism Today No.240, Covid lessons for the climate crisis), using the examples of the Lucas Plan and the One Million Climate Jobs plan, if those who produce and distribute the wealth of society, the working class, actually had control over these resources, rather than the capitalist class, the whole rich experience of humanity would be brought to bear on the problems it faces. At present, most of those incalculable resources are squandered in an often superhuman effort just to bring bread to the table and a roof over our heads.

A socialist planned economy worldwide would have direct access to all the resources of the planet, as it will nationalise big business wholescale, including the energy sector. A worldwide socialist plan would use those resources to solve the climate change problems of truly epic proportions, such as Greenland’s melting ice sheets, and would do so while improving the quality of life for those living in that socialist society.

We cannot guess what geoengineering feats might be adopted once the working class – the 99% – is in the driving seat, and all the efforts of scientists are bent to need not profit. But even if it is true that the warmth of our superheated world has penetrated too far down into the Greenland ice sheets and too far into our oceans to be reversed, then where the resources are in the hands of the working class, a system of dams can be developed over the coming decades and centuries to protect against floods.

By comparison, in the richest country in the world, the levees in New Orleans failed in dramatic fashion during Hurricane Katrina, causing over 1,200 deaths in 2005. This showed capitalism in its dotage, incapable or unwilling to provide the necessary resources to protect the poorest US citizens – in a country with a truly delusional president, who effectively denies global warming.

Capitalist government are helpless in the face of the melting ice. Devastating floods result. A repetition of the development of the best historic dam building achievements of, say, the low-lying Netherlands, on a worldwide scale, in the face of rising seas over the next millennia, is simply inconceivable under a paralysed capitalism.

Bring the rich resources of humanity to the table, reclaim the land from the big landlords and the productive forces from the big capitalists, and we will transform the planet, whatever nature throws at us in the next millennium.

Pete Mason