Inspiring your audience – How to ‘Sell’ Climate Change Action

Featured

By Kate Goldstone

 

The battle against runaway climate change is one that every one of us faces. Our children face it too. But across the world climate campaigners are struggling – and often failing – to capture the public imagination, to persuade their audiences to act, to get things moving. As an ex-marketer I think it’s important to explore why it’s sometimes such a challenge to wake our audiences up, and how we can work more effectively to bring millions more protestors into the fold.

The history of climate change

The history of the scientific discovery of climate change (1) kicked off in the early 1800s, when the natural greenhouse effect was first pinpointed. By the 1960s the warming effect of CO2 was clearer, but some scientists began wondering whether human generated atmospheric aerosols might have a cooling effect on the planet.

The ’70s saw the warming powers of CO2 confirmed, and by 1990 both computer modelling and simple observations confirmed greenhouse gases were deeply involved in climate change. Worse still, human-caused emissions were bringing about noticeable global warming. Now we understand a lot more about the causal relations between our CO2 habits and climate change, and there’s no doubt that the human race is at fault. It’s definitively a human thing.

What’s been done so far?

Five decades on from those first indications, it can feel like not a lot has changed. People are still burning fossil fuels, driving everywhere, still flying like there’s no tomorrow, even though our tomorrows are going to be seriously limited if we carry on. Governments are still sitting on their hands, entire nations are sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending everything’s OK. Wildfires are raging, coastlines are flooding, extreme weather is on the up… but nothing much seems to be happening, or at least nothing on the grand scale we need at this point.

Why so little real climate change action?

From an individual perspective, is there anything more scary that the planet you live on, the place that keeps you alive, turning against you? The thing about climate change is, it’s massive. It’s everywhere. It affects every human, plant and animal on the planet, of every kind, in multiple ways, very few of them positive.

Climate change means bad weather. Really bad, unpredictable weather. It means the wholesale destruction of property and crops. It means water wars and mass migrations. It means widespread economic difficulties and it might even destroy whole societies, entire nations. Countries on the Equator will probably become uninhabitable through the heat and lack of rain. People will starve. Because vast swathes of land will no longer be suitable for them, countless precious members of the animal kingdom will die off and become extinct.

From a government perspective, climate change is a really tricky fix. Because governments are only in power for a short time, their viewpoint is a short-term one. They’re not comfortable bringing in unpopular climate change measures that restrict their constituents, cost them money or make their lives less pleasant, and that – as we know – is fatal. It means most of them are doing absolutely nothing, or very little, to mitigate climate change. And it leaves the public, you and I, with very little wriggle room.

If, like me, you’ve stopped flying altogether, barely ever use a car, have fitted energy-efficient light bulbs and other kit to your home and gone veggie or vegan, there’s not a lot else you can do. It’s incredibly frustrating watching governments fiddle while Rome burns. But no wonder it’s so hard to get most people off their backsides and into protest mode, when the problem feels so big, so hard to surmount, so horrifying to even contemplate. It’s very discouraging seeing our leaders doing bugger-all about it, and it’s saddening to see so relatively few ordinary people putting their neck on the block as well.

The remarkable power of optimism

According to an article in New Scientist magazine (2) decades of environmental doom-mongering have fallen on deaf ears. It says that a ‘new environmental campaign with a message of hope’ is what we need, a fresh way to campaign called ‘Earth Optimism’.

Fans of Earth Optimism say the successes we’ve experienced in protecting individual species like the scimitar oryx and Togo slippery frog, the overall decline in Amazon rainforest destruction, and our brilliant work on renewable energies are worthy of celebration. They all reveal the power we have at our fingertips as individuals.

Yes, the movement is accused of naivety, of wearing rose-tinted specs. But at the same time they’re not claiming that everything’s lovely. Rather, they believe we can’t expect people to rise to a challenge like this without inspirational examples of success.

Do environmental campaigners come across as too doom-mongering? Do we come across as ‘guilt-tripping party poopers’ as the article suggests? If you’re in need of a boost, you can follow Earth Optimism’s Tweets here (https://twitter.com/earthoptimism?lang=e)

Taking a marketing perspective

You could say we need to create the marketing campaign to end all marketing campaigns. And marketing is usually about optimism. A positive marketing message is always more powerful and influential than a negative one, which is why we tend to get so frustrated with party political promotion, which focuses a lot harder on negative information about competing parties than positive messages about their own policies.

The more we moan and weep and tear our hair out, the more we’re putting people off. The more dreadful facts and terrifying revelations we put out there, the more we drive people to bury their heads in the sand and keep them there. Do we in fact need fresh, new messages and an Obama-esque ‘yes, we can’ mindset? Do we need to shift the narrative to inspire people? What do you think?

Can we do it? Yes, we can!

If you doubt we can do it, think plastic. You have more influence than you think. Just look at what we’ve done about plastic pollution in the short time between David Attenborough’s epic Blue Planet series, which highlighted the issue, and now. All over the world ordinary people are using less plastic, handing back plastic packaging to the supermarkets it came from, changing their shopping habits, turning up en-masse to clean the world’s beaches and rescue plastic-stricken sea creatures.

Give us a cause and we’ll follow it. Give us a job and we’ll do it. But when we’re left to stew in our own juices as our politicians prevaricate, we’re completely disempowered. Maybe we need to break the task into bite-sized chunks. After all, none of us can save an entire planet’s climate on our own.

Can you think of a way to translate an enormous, unwieldy problem into something people can get their teeth into, get behind, get sorted? Can you think of an optimistic way to express an issue that we need people to focus on? How would you sell climate change action?

Sources:

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

(2) https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631473-200-reasons-to-be-cheerful/

Focus Australia – Serious climate issues down under

By Kate Goldstone

For generations, people from all over the world have made their way to Australia on holiday to enjoy its wonderful warm, sunny weather and extraordinary natural environments. Plenty of families moved there permanently, seduced by the climate. Now New South Wales, the country’s most heavily populated state, is officially experiencing total drought, and Australia’s legendary hot dry weather is fast becoming more or a problem than a pleasure (1).

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as “rainfall over a three-month period being in the lowest decile of what has been recorded for that region in the past ” (2). The current very dry winter down under is intensifying the ‘worst drought in living memory’ in some areas of eastern Australia, with New South Wales, the provider of a quarter of the country’s agriculture, now 100% in drought. 23% of New South Wales is in a state of ‘intense drought’ and the rest is either in drought or drought-affected. And in the news’ grim wake there’s a growing litany of horror in the form of failing crops, dying livestock, and severe water shortages.

Some farmers are being forced to pay as much as a hundred dollars for a truck of hay to keep their beasts alive. Some are selling off their animals in despair. Others are digging in to wait for the rain… if it ever comes. In the Australian countryside farming suicide rates have always been higher than average. Now they’re around 40% higher than urban suicide rates, according to the national mental health charity Sane Australia (3).

The blame lies at the feet of climate change

Of course Australia’s weather is naturally varied year-on-year, and is affected by multiple complicated factors. Like much of the world’s weather it’s a chaotic system, and hard to predict. But all the same, a growing number of scientists are laying the blame at the feet of climate change. The Australian government itself admits the risk of severe drought could be more likely thanks to human-created global warming. As the Prime Minister PM Turnbull acknowledged, he doesn’t know many people in New South Wales who don’t think the climate is getting drier and rainfall becoming more volatile.

Government relief payments do nothing to fix the underlying issue

The Australian government is already paying out annual relief of as much as A$16,000 to affected farmers. The Prime Minister has just promised extra payments of up to A$12,000, in a move that has been criticised for being too little, too late. In a nation where drought isn’t a stranger at the best of times, it’s clear those in power are worried. But like most governments, they’re not doing anywhere near enough on the people’s behalf to mitigate climate change. Emergency relief doesn’t contribute to the fight against global warming, it merely papers over the cracks.

Australia is at more risk of runaway climate change than most

Worse still, The Guardian (4) reports that climate change could affect Australia more than any other continent. A science agency and Bureau of Meteorology report says they expect temperatures to rise as much as 5.1C in Australia by the year 2090. Scientists have long predicted that a 4C rise would be catastrophic, and that makes a hike of more than 5C downright terrifying. Unless action is taken to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions right now, officials say there’s a ‘very high confidence’ that temperatures will continue to rise steeply across Australia throughout the 21st century. Let things slide any further and the Australian government’s lack of real action could see the worst case 5C scenario become a reality.

How high temperatures affect humans

High temperatures affect more than agriculture, of course. If you’ve ever suffered through an exceptionally hot summer’s day you’ll know how nasty and uncomfortable it can be. The human body has an internal temperature of around 37C, and it dislikes being any hotter. Prolonged exposure to heat and humidity can easily kill you. If it doesn’t you’ll suffer muscle cramps because you’re dried out, short of vital electrolytes, and salt-deprived. If you’re not used to high temperatures you can suffer heat edema, where your hands and ankles swell up like balloons when your poor blood vessels dilate in an effort to radiate heat away. If you see little prickly red spots on your skin, it’s a heat rash caused by blocked sweat pores. If you stop sweating altogether, it’s time to worry – you’re on the road to potentially fatal heat stroke. When you heat up to more than 40C and lose consciousness, you’re in real trouble.

Extreme heat also results in dizziness, nausea, fainting, hallucinations, and something called heat syncope, where you get a temporary drop in the blood flow to your brain because you’ve lost so much fluid. Vomiting, diarrhoea and palpitations also reveal your body is not at all happy. No wonder, in summer 2003, an estimated 70,000 people died in the great European heatwave, which saw temperatures soaring to record levels for weeks on end.

All this happens to humans… and to our fellow creatures, who also suffer and die when temperatures exceed the usual maximum. Australia’s precious Great Barrier Reef, for example, is dying fast, being bleached to death thanks to rising sea temperatures. And once it goes, that’s that – it’s gone. Half a million years of growth, and we destroy it within a few decades. It’s shameful.

No continent is an island

The thing is, no continent is an island. Climate change is global. No one country is protected from it, no one country can make it go away. If Australia doesn’t act fast enough on climate change, the USA will ultimately suffer. If the USA doesn’t act fast enough Europe will suffer. If the EU doesn’t act now, China will suffer. And so on. We’re all interconnected, as are our economies. When one part of a global economy nosedives, so does the rest.

Australia might just be facing a perfect storm. When you blend dire predictions with government inaction and a climate that might already be changing off the scale, the future doesn’t look rosy.

It’s time to force the world’s governments to act on our behalves, to try to secure a decent future for our children. Will you go to jail for the cause, the greatest challenge mankind has had to face since we made our way out of Africa? Can you support the cause in any other way? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Together we can make great things happen.

 

Sources:

(1) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-45107504

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drought_in_Australia

(3) https://www.sane.org/

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/26/climate-change-will-hit-australia-harder-than-rest-of-world-study-shows

(5) https://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles/five-awful-ways-extreme-heat-affects-the-human-body/51464

Focus Canada – What will the Canadian climate look like in 2030?

By Kate Goldstone

There’s a lot of talk about saving ‘the planet’ but planet earth will survive whatever we do to its climate. While the planet itself doesn’t need saving, we are fighting tooth and nail to save the human race and our fellow creatures, whether they happen to be furry, scaled, many-legged or feathered.

In Canada, like many other nations, anthropogenic climate change still isn’t being addressed seriously enough by the government, despite liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s impressive claims. So what’s going on in Canada right now as regards climate change? What effect is it having on the country, and do we still have time to stop the carnage in its tracks?

Canada’s problem? It’s ‘business as usual’

According to an article by CBC News (1) a ‘business as usual’ attitude can only mean disaster for Canada. At the same time the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (2) has highlighted how warming is accelerating faster than ever. It gives us a 12 year deadline to call a halt to the human race’s continuing excesses, and it affects you whatever country you happen to live in.

So far this year Montreal alone has seen 70 human deaths from excess heat, with stifling temperatures regularly exceeding thirty degrees and high humidity that made it feel more like forty degrees. British Colombia encountered the worst wildfires since records began. Flooding brought Toronto to a standstill. And while some areas of the planet have ‘only’ warmed by one degree recently, some areas of Canada have seen dramatic temperature increases of four and a half degrees or more over the past seventy years, including the Northwestern Territories’ Mackenzie region.

It gets worse. As Canada’s senior climate expert David Phillips confirmed, some areas of the country have warmed twice as much as average in half the time. And unusually harsh climate events, which used to happen rarely, are set to become a lot more frequent as well as less predictable.

In general Canada’s summers have warmed by one degree, and its winters by almost one and a half. Some coastal communities in Canada are already battling with sea level rise, along with the associated land erosion and flooding. And eastern Canada is also suffering. Once thought to be less vulnerable to climate change, the past decade has seen dramatic change there, too.

The impact on human life

David Phillips and his team have run ‘business as usual’ computer models to predict Canada’s future climate. And it’s looking pretty grim. Toronto, for example, could experience more than 50 days of temperatures over 30C in the next 30 years, and that also means a 50-60% greater risk of the horrific freezing rain events that already cause such havoc. 2013’s ice storm, for example, cost the nation an eye-watering 106 million Canadian dollars.

While increasing temperatures deliver a longer growing season for farmers, a warmer climate means the land and vegetation dries out and there’s more likelihood of wildfires and widespread smoke pollution. Plus, of course, even more CO2 emissions. But flooding is the biggie for Canada. Flood damage already costs the country more money than any other kind of extreme weather.

The Weather Network website(3) provides more insight. The Arctic’s Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut are all heating up faster than the rest of Canada, not far short of twice the rate. Ice melt is a growing issue, contributing to rapid sea level rise. The albedo – the proportion of light or radiation reflected by the surface of the ice – plus fast-thawing permafrost, are already causing issues around food security and housing. Public health and people’s overall wealth are set to be hit particularly hard in the north of the country. Inuit and First Nations people, who tend to interact more intimately with the environment, will probably suffer most as shorelines erode, permafrost melts, and roads and buildings are destroyed.

Places like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador are seeing more storms than ever. There are more floods thanks to extreme rainfall and the coastline, where most people live, is the worst affected. Fast-melting Arctic ice is having an impact, with The Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut predicted to be amongst the worst hit by rapid Arctic warming. In a nutshell, things are looking about as bad as they could get.

Best and worst case scenarios

Canada has made efforts to improve things. It has signed the Paris Agreement promising to stop global temperatures shooting up more than two degrees this century, although it’s increasingly likely we’ll miss the target. But at the same time they’ve agreed a new oil pipeline, which sadly reveals how money and short term thinking still come first with the Canadian government despite the hopes raised by Trudeau.

Canada says it will lower its 2005 carbon emissions by 30% by the year 2030. But in 2016 projections revealed the plan was extremely unlikely to succeed, with CO2 emissions targets likely to fail. If things don’t change the year 2030 – just 12 years away – will see Canada’s coastal communities having to move inland, a move that’ll cost the government a fortune. Poor food security will lead to high food prices and more imports. The weather will become increasingly extreme and unpredictable. And if anyone decides to extract the vast reserves of oil and gas that lie beneath the Beaufort Sea, global warming will only accelerate faster.

Imagine the cost if Nova Scotia, as predicted, becomes an island? Imagine the impact on fishing in Canadian waters if the climate warms enough to drive fish away to cooler waters? After all, if the seas warm four degrees, cold water fish will either move away or die out altogether. The usual one in a hundred year storms could happen once every 25 years by 2050. Atlantic Canada’s balsam fir and spruce trees, which dislike warm weather, will die off, and it’ll take decades or even hundreds of years for warm weather alternatives to replace them.

Can we stop it?

As a concerned individual human being, you’ve done everything you can to mitigate climate change. You’ve replaced your lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones. You’ve cut down on car use, or even sold your car in favour of public transport. You haven’t flown for a very long time. You buy less, consume less, warm your home a few degrees less in winter. You insulate, you make do and mend, you recycle and re-purpose. You’ve fitted solar panels, a wind turbine, a water wheel. It’s all good stuff. Actually it’s great stuff. But it still isn’t enough.

Unless the world’s governments act now, and act decisively, Canada will suffer more as time passes. As will the rest of the world’s people, and our fellow creatures. Are you willing to protest peacefully and even go to prison to give our children a future worth having? If so, join us. If not, maybe you can help in some other way? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Sources:

(1) https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/climate-change-canada-1.4878263

(2) https://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/pr_181008_P48_spm.shtml

(3) https://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles//canada-climate-change-water-earth-fire-air-2030-global-warming-sea-level-rise/104395

The wanton destruction of Germany’s ancient Hambach Forest

By Kate Goldstone

Brazil’s leader, Bolsonaro, is waging war on the Amazon, large areas of it are already dying thanks to global warming (1), unable to handle the drought. 170,00 acres of Peru’s rainforests have been trashed over the last five years alone (2). The Congo Basin rainforest could disappear altogether by the year 2100 (3). And still, the remaining precious fragments of Germany’s stunning Hambach Forest are under threat from coal mining.

Hambach Forest lies between Cologne and Aachen. It is remarkably bio-diverse, existing as home to more than 140 important species. It’s also the final remnant of a woodland ecosystem that has graced this part of the Rhine River plain since the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago.

If it sounds magical, it is. But only 10% of the original forest remains, and this precious fragment has been under threat from brown coal mining – thanks to RWE AG’s Hambach surface mine – for many years. No wonder there’s a constant stream of protests and occupations.

While most of us already know that rainforests and cloud forests are the lungs of the world, essential to our survival, fewer people understand that every type of ancient woodland, from temperate deciduous forests to mangroves, needle leaf woods to freshwater swamp forests, is vital for mitigating climate change. Newer growth isn’t anywhere near as effective, which means Hambach is critical to our future.

All this is happening in a country that has long enjoyed a powerful Green movement and boasts decent environmental credentials. So why is the German government sitting on its hands? What’s going on?

Why has there been no Environmental Assessment study of the Hambach?

The incredibly rare Bechstein’s bat is just one of the threatened creatures living in the Hambach, an animal strictly protected by annexes 2 and 4 of the European Habitats Directive. But despite its uniqueness there has never been an Environmental Impact Assessment study on the forest. Germany’s Administrative Court in Cologne vetoed a study in 2017 because permission for mining operations was given to RWE AG way back in the 1970s, decades before Environmental Impact Assessment studies even existed.

A critical disconnect puts profit above our future.

The Hambach surface mine is Germany’s biggest open pit mine, a whopping 33 square miles. RWE AG has always argued that the coal lying under the remainder of the Hambach Forest is vital to meet Germany’s energy needs. However, we all know burning fossil fuels is madness and it has to stop right now.

Sadly there’s the usual baffling disconnect between profit, commerce, power and the future of every living creature on the planet. If RWE AG is allowed to mine the rest of the forest, it’ll mean total destruction. The coal is ripped out of the earth by massive excavators, which mangle the landscape and leave it unrecognisable. Even if they replace the trees with new ones after they’ve mined the heck out of the land, new growth is nowhere near as valuable as the old growth where climate change mitigation is concerned.

Why old forest is better at mitigating climate change than new growth.

According to research reported by the journal Global Change Biology, (4) biodiversity in forests changes irreparably as the climate changes. Trees vulnerable to dry conditions, the water-lovers, usually die off first. These findings alone ‘highlight the need for strict measures to protect existing intact rainforests’, says Dr Kyle Dexter, co-author of the study from the University of Edinburgh.

An article on the Oxford Student website (5) concurs, saying that:

“Tropical forests are not just a random combination of organisms, but a complex ecological web of interactions between species. As written in ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859): ‘When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute their proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But how false a view this is!’.

I think this complexity is best shown by the forest’s sensitivities. The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project shows that when the forests become fragmented, the entire ecological community changes. For example, in a one-hectare fragment after 2 years of isolation, the number of bird species declined by 60%. The high complexity means changes in the population sizes and community compositions can trigger a chain reaction, with synergistic effects, that ripples through the forest, impacting many other species.”

Wikipedia also reveals the importance of old growth in forests (6).

“Old-growth forests … store large amounts of carbon above and below the ground (either as humus, or in wet soils as peat). They collectively represent a very significant store of carbon. Destruction of these forests releases this carbon as greenhouse gases, and may increase the risk of global climate change.”

When Wikipedia says, “Research suggests older forests that have trees of many ages, multiple layers, and little disturbance have the highest capacities for carbon storage ”, they’re referring to research carried out by Jennifer C. McGarve, Jonathan R. Thompson, Howard E. Epstein and Herman H. Shugart Jr. in 2015, (7) which proved old growth naturally sequesters a lot more CO2 than new, for all sorts of reasons including the larger-diameter trunks of old trees, and the presence of lots of dead wood, leaf litter and other organic material left to rot down naturally. Their research adds to a growing pile of scientific proof that old‐growth forests have greater CO2 storage potential than anyone previously realised, supporting the findings made by other scientists including the IPCC in 2006, Luyssaert et al. In 2008, Lichstein et al. In 2009, Keith et al in 2009, Keeton et al in 2011, and Burrascano et al in 2013. And they’re just a few members of a long list of scientists who have come to much the same conclusion.

The fact that these studies even exist reveals how wrong Germany’s failure to save the remains of the Hambach Forest really is. RWE can re-forest all they like, but it’ll potentially be hundreds of years before the new growth performs the same essential carbon storage role as old growth. Destroying forests then simply planting new trees is not good enough, and it’s highly disingenuous of governments and commerce to claim otherwise.

Is there any good news?

While the German government seems to be paralysed, doing nothing to help, there is some good news. A non-profit tech startup in Berlin (8) has offered to buy the remaining 200 hectares the forest to save it from RWE’s coal surface mining activities. They’re called Ecosia and the search engine they’ve created donates the majority of its advertising revenue to conservation initiatives (8). They’ve already funded 40 million new trees, planted right across the world, and they’ve offered RWE €1m to save the last remaining corner of the 12,000-year-old Hambach Forest for the future.

As Ecosia said, “Last year for the first time, Germany produced more renewable energy than brown coal energy, and this is the direction we need to keep working towards. There is a momentum here that we do not want to see lost and we invite other companies and organisations to join us in our offer for the Hambach forest.”

Will RWE agree? So far, no. Their lack of action proves that RWE and the German government don’t think climate change is worth taking seriously. It’s all talk, very little action. Once again, short term gain matters more than the future of our children – and theirs, too.

Action feels good – Join Extinction Rebellion

In a world where as much as 80% of the world’s forest loss is down to agribusiness, even though research proves better forest stewardship plus natural climate solutions might deliver over 33% of the climate mitigation needed by the year 2030 (9), we can’t even afford to let another square metre of the remaining Hambach Forest go.

It’s time for peaceful non-violent direct action, to force our governments to change their policies, even if we must go to jail for it. If the future matters to you, join us. You can also support the good people who are on-site, risking their lives every day to prevent more destruction at Hambach.

Resources:

(1) https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/amazon-rainforest-climate-change-death-global-warming-drought-a8622626.html

(2) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181108130525.htm

(3) https://www.ecowatch.com/congo-basin-rainforest-deforestation-2618692110.html

(4) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14413

(5) https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2018/10/16/the-importance-of-tropical-forests-why-we-should-conserve-them-and-how-they-affect-the-rest-of-the-world/

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old-growth_forest#cite_note-25

(7) https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/14-1154.1

(8) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/09/berlin-startup-offers-1m-to-save-ancient-hambach-forest-from-coal-mining

(9) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/12/eu-states-call-for-tough-action-on-deforestation-to-meet-2020-un-goal-amsterdam-declaration

The truth behind Antarctica’s fast-melting ice

By Kate Goldstone

Resources:

 

Introduction

Antarctica, which has long been thought to be relatively safe from vast ice melts, has proved us wrong. It’s actually in just as much trouble as the Arctic.

Plenty of people believed the ice on Antarctica wouldn’t melt as fast as the Arctic. Then, in April 2017, scientists claimed Antarctica’s ice might actually be melting a lot faster than anyone predicted. It matters because Antarctica is home to 90% of the world’s ice. If it keeps melting this quickly, and the continent’s massive ice sheets go, we’re looking at profound worldwide effects including mass flooding.

What’s going on, and is the trend continuing? Here’s what you need to know.

 

How Arctic and Antarctic sea ice differ

Because the Arctic and Antarctics’ geography is different, so is their ice. The Arctic ocean is partly enclosed, mostly surrounded by land. Its ice is less mobile and floes tend to clump together into thick ridges. Ridge ice has a longer life cycle and stays frozen for longer. The region is home to 5.8 million square miles of sea ice in winter, reducing to roughly 2.7 million square miles by the end of the summer.

The Antarctic is totally different. Made up of land surrounded by ocean, the sea ice there moves freely and drifts faster. There are fewer ice ridges as a result, and the lack of a land boundary to the north means the ice naturally floats northwards into warmer waters before melting. Winter sees about 6.9 million square miles of Antarctic ocean covered in sea ice, but by the end of the summer there are only around 1.1 million square miles of it left.

 

Clear warnings in 2017

April 2017 saw the first reports of Antarctica’s ice melting faster than previously predicted, thanks to the discovery of a network of lakes and streams under the continent’s ice shelves which created a destabilising influence on the ice above. The study was published in the journal Nature and revealed the process is taking place in areas where scientists didn’t think there was any liquid water. As global temperatures keep rising, the speed of the damage can only increase. The team examined satellite images dating as far back as 1973 as well as aerial images snapped by military aircraft way back in the 1940s. And the results were a shocker – some of the streams flowed for 75 miles, and some of the lakes were several miles across.

A few months later in November 2017 a study examined the east Antarctic Totten ice shelf, finding it unexpectedly vulnerable to warming waters. And still governments failed to react, never mind act. March 2018 saw scientists announce more of the Totten Ice Shelf was floating than they’d predicted. Multiple different types of supporting evidence proved the point. Now it looks a lot like a certainty. If Larsen C and Totten melt, the world’s sea levels will rise as much as 5 metres. Totten could easily contribute a 3m sea level rise all on its own.

 

Another equally clear warning in 2018

In August 2018, more headline news surfaced about Antarctica’s ice. It appeared a couple of enormous glaciers to the east of the region had lost ice mass disturbingly quickly in the years since the millennium. The results hinted that forecasts for sea level rise this century will have to be revised upwards, but nobody knows exactly how much. While it’s obvious the ice in Antarctica is melting frighteningly quickly, the complex dependencies and inter-dependencies that make it happen aren’t at all clear.

So far most molten Antarctic ice has come from the west of the continent. The Antarctic Peninsula is under particular threat, reaching out into the ocean and exposed to warmer waters, and the Larsen C ice sheet, which famously cracked in 2017, is also to the west. East Antarctica has long been thought to be more stable, cut off from the planet’s weather systems by powerful spinning gales that stop the warmth getting anywhere near. On the other hand it’s so remote that scientists have spent decades guestimating what might happen instead of actually measuring. But they keep getting it wrong. In 2015 one piece of research hinted the region was putting on extra ice, not losing it, but closer examination revealed it was simply not true.

Even if Totten disappears, we probably won’t see a 5m rise by 2100. There’s such a lot we don’t know about the behaviour of Antarctic ice and the many factors a big melt depends on. It apparently takes hundreds of gigatonnes of ice to raise sea levels by just one millimetre, and Totten isn’t anywhere near that level… yet. But it might speed up, and we have no idea how fast the melting could ultimately become once we pass a tipping point, also unknown.

There are more unknowns around the effect of the geology underneath the continent, the shape of the bedrock itself. And the channels running from underneath the Totten link it to the ocean give warmer water the access it needs to potentially kick off a runaway melt.

Only one thing is clear. The original consensus was far too cautious. Now we know for sure Antarctica is losing ice mass hand over fist. It has been losing ice for years. And nobody knows where the tipping point is.

 

The effects of runaway sea level rises

The cities under the most threat from rising sea levels also happen to be amongst the biggest on the planet, the most financially, socially and culturally important. Alexandria in Africa, The Hague in Europe, Miami in North America and Rio de janiero in South America are all at risk, home to a total of 10 million people, almost all of whom would be displaced. Ten million migrants from just four cities… that’s hard to deal with. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg, if you’ll forgive the pun. On every continent, in every sea-facing country, we’d have to build vast amounts of new housing stock for migrants.

Cities don’t operate in isolation, either. Every drowned city means drowned transport networks, communications networks, power, utilities and food networks, all left under water permanently. Wildlife will suffer just as badly, forced out of natural habitats. It actually doesn’t bear thinking about… but it’s happening all the same. As UN environment chief Erik Solheim said before last year’s Bon conference, “[We] still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future.”

 

What are governments doing about Antarctic ice loss?

Antarctic ice melt is driven by climate change. Governments are not doing enough about climate change. All over the world those in power are still prevaricating, delaying, discussing and disagreeing while Rome burns. It’s our job to force them to act. Will you join us?