Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Consequences: China

China is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Not to mention chock full of people. Many many people in incomprehensible number. The world's largest economy, the world's largest polluter, it just became the world's top energy consumer, surpassing the U.S. Despite its reported plan to consider spending a hugely vast amount of money on clean energy, China's contribution to heat-trapping gases building up in the atmosphere and causing global heating will continue to grow.

But also as a consequence of its size and density--and particularly its geography--China may experience some brutal consequences from forced climate change above and beyond what other countries may suffer in common. Which has huge, vast implications not only for the billions of people there, but for the U.S. and its national security--even if dumbbell CA Senate candidate Carly Fiorina can't see it.

One reason can be found in a precisely written piece by Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books (May 27, 2010.) The reason is in the title: "The Message from the Glaciers." The result of shrinking glaciers, particularly in the Himalayas, is likely to curtail water flow in major rivers and cause all kinds of havoc in much of Asia, including China and India.

India is also really really big. (This is going to be a theme here, so adjust your thought processes.) It is also teeming with people, with a rapidly expanding economy and consequent growth in energy use--and demand for resources. Also (lest we forget ) like China it has nuclear weapons.

Melting glaciers in the polar regions may get the most media attention, but the nearly 50,000 glaciers in the Himalayas, writes Schell, feed Asia's ten major rivers and contribute hugely to water supplies as well as seasonally based agriculture. While an error in estimating the melt in the last IPCC report got a lot of attention, the fact that this melting is occurring rapidly--partly because these higher elevations are heating up faster and hotter--is conveniently ignored.

One consequence: "As Zheng Guoguang, head of the China Meteorological Bureau, recently put it, “If the warming continues, millions of people in western China will face floods in the short term and drought in the long run.”"

As if the heating as a general consequence of fossil fuel-induced global heating wasn't enough, the very melting of the glaciers accelerates the process. Buried beneath top layers of snow and ice is the black carbon that accumulated underneath, as a result of fossil fuel burning (especially coal, the primary fuel in China .) That it is black negates the reflective ability of the white glaciers and leads to more melting. That it is carbon means that more global heating-causing gases are released into the atmosphere:

On the accumulation zone of one glacier in the Qilian Mountains in western China, Hansen and Yao found that “fresh snow melted within two days, exposing dirtier underlying snow with black carbon concentration seven times greater than the fresh snow.” They concluded that the soot burden, which had markedly increased since 1990, had now become “sufficient to affect the surface reflectivity of the glaciers,” by increasing their “effectiveness in absorbing sunlight.” With their natural reflective and self-protective ability, or “albedo,” impaired by soot, and with temperatures continuing to rise, scientists like Hansen and Yao now fear that “most glaciers, worldwide, will be lost this century, with severe consequences for fresh water supplies.”

And below all that is the permafrost, which releases even more of these gases when it melts:
But the most profound global impact of this thawing, which has already begun, will be the enormous amounts of methane gas—roughly twenty times more potent in heat-trapping capacity than CO2—that will be released by the decomposition of once-frozen carbon rich organic matter in the area’s soil. Indeed, continued thawing threatens to turn what has been a major carbon-sink—sequestering about 2.5 percent of the world’s soil carbon—into a huge new source of emissions."

These consequences of melting aren't unique to the Himalayas--the attention paid to the Arctic region (including Alaska and northern Canada) and the Antarctic is more than justified. And these aren't the only consequences. But they do suggest several things: How really big changes--particularly for human civilizations as well as other lifeforms--can come from what may seem like small temperature changes. How consequences on the other side of the world can affect everyone on this side (especially considering how China seems to be making nearly everything we use, and the country holds our national debt and financial future in its hands, as well as the geopolitical, military and therefore national security issues.) And how consequences "snowball" in an odd reversal of that metaphor's reference. The snowball becomes much larger simply by rolling down the mountain because of the snow and other material it can accumulate. In this case, the consequences "snowball" as glaciers melt.

Schell doesn't discuss appropriate actions since they are by now obvious. He notes that the temperature rise expected by mid-century (more than 2C) is more than enough to continue and accelerate glacier melting which is already affecting, for example, 95% of the glaciers in Tibet. So consequences are coming, and should be prepared for. But he also notes that unless heat-trapping gases emissions aren't severely cut, the rise could more than double, with faster and worse consequences.

But he does end his article with the conundrum--or by now familiar lament-- of why urgent action isn't being taken in view of these well-known realities. His final statement: "And many more studies should be undertaken to scientifically clarify all these links. But there is already enough information for the world to know that we confront a very dangerous prospect, with no adequate effort underway to find the missing link between the knowledge we already have and action".

It is the question of why this emergency is not being appropriately confronted which I, in my unbelievably small way, hope to address hereabouts in future posts. Please stay tuned.

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