Apocalypse-Soon: Copenhagen Views The Climate Future

Nightmare of drought and drowning is no dream scenario

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(Editor’s Note: Earthjustice attorneys Martin Wagner and Erika Rosenthal are blogging live from the Copenhagen climate change conference. This is today’s post by Erika).

The Copenhagen talks opened with nightmare images of catastrophic climate crisis. The first session included an apocalyptic video in which a Danish girl dreams a parade of climate horrors—first she’s walking through endless drought-stricken land, then she’s clinging for dear life as the sea rises around her.

New research indicates that both these nightmare scenarios could come to pass far sooner than scientists dreamt even a few years ago.

Global warming is accelerating snow and ice melt around the world. When Arctic glaciers like the Greenland Ice Sheet melt it shrinks the planet’s cooling ice cap and sea causing sea level to rise. When high mountain glaciers melt, like the massive "third pole" in the Himalayas, it threatens drought for more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Glaciers act as great stores of water. For millennia they have melted steadily, feeding rivers and reservoirs while being replenished with fresh snow. But climate change threatens to irreversibly alter this crucial cycle. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that Himalayan glaciers were receding fast, adding that "If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

A report issued earlier this year warned that if global warming continues unabated many of the Andean tropical glaciers could disappear within 20 years.

I spent the day yesterday with Dr. Syed Hasnain an Indian glaciologist who has spent his life studying the Himalayas. His research, along with that of Professor V. Ramanathan, an atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is helping to reveal the causes of glacier melting—and give us hope that we can do something about it.

Hasnain and Ramanathan believe that the glaciers are melting faster not only because of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, but also because of the effects of clouds of soot, or "black carbon," from diesel fumes, dirty coal-burning industry and wood fires. Black carbon, dark bits of particulate matter pollution, warms the atmospheric by absorbing sunlight, like a black sweater; then when the pollution falls out of the atmosphere onto snow or ice, it darkens the surface absorbing more solar energy and speeding melting. (See Earthjustice’s 2 minute black carbon video). Because black carbon has a short lifespan in the atmosphere, staying aloft for only about a week, reducing emissions has a near immediate cooling effect.

Hasnain and Ramanathan believe that as much as half of the observed glacier melting may be due to black carbon, which means that we can slow glacier retreat in the Himalayas quickly by focusing on cleaning up the sources of air pollution—from diesel exhaust to cook stove fumes—that have been recognized as a health crisis for decades.

The World Health Organization conservatively estimates that smoky indoor air pollution alone, mostly from cook stoves burning wood and dung, causes 1.6 million premature deaths each year, mostly women and children working and playing around dirty cook stoves burning wood or dung.

Ramanthan grew up in India and has now returned to his village—and his grandmother’s kitchen—to run a ground-breaking experiment, the "Surya"" project for the Sanskrit work for sun.

Most people in developing countries use wood, dung or charcoal to cook and warm their homes. The Surya project will give 3,500 rural homes efficient solar and other cookers along with GPS-enabled cell phones to document use of the stoves and visually measure indoor air quality. Ramanathan’s team will also take sophisticated measurements in the atmosphere to see how quickly local levels of black air atmospheric pollution can be brought down, thus slowing warming.

Earthjustice has been working to reduce black carbon emissions at home and around the world as part of our initiative to defend the communities, wildlife and ecosystems of the Arctic  . Black carbon is now thought to be the second most important global warming pollutant in the Arctic after CO2. And in the American west, black carbon is accelerating snowpack melt, contributing to our own water crisis.

Although everyone here in Copenhagen knows there’s nothing more important than to seal the deal on greenhouse gases, complementary action on black carbon is also critical. Without it we may not be able to save the Arctic which we all rely on to cool the planet, or preserve the glaciers that give us water for life.


Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.