International tribunal seeks to build case against Monsanto

Monsanto is going on trial! Not, alas, in an official legal proceeding but instead a “civil society initiative” that will provide moral judgment only.

The International Monsanto Tribunal will conduct hearings in The Hague this weekend, October 15 and 16, and although not having legal force, its organizers believe the opinions its international panel of judges will issue will provide victims and their legal counsel with arguments and legal grounds for further lawsuits in courts of law. The organizers also see the tribunal as raising awareness of Monsanto Company’s practices and the dangers of industrial and chemical agriculture. The tribunal web site’s “Practical Info” page summarizes:

“The aim of the Tribunal is to give a legal opinion on the environmental and health damage caused by the multinational Monsanto. This will add to the international debate to include the crime of Ecocide into international criminal law. It will also give people all over the world a well documented legal file to be used in lawsuits against Monsanto and similar chemical companies.”

There certainly is much material on Monsanto, a multi-national corporation that has long sought to control the world’s food and which is able to routinely bend governments to its will.

March Against Monsanto in Chile (photo by Mapuexpress Informativo Mapuche)

March Against Monsanto in Chile (photo by Mapuexpress Informativo Mapuche)

For example, there was the “Monsanto Protection Act,” quietly slipped into an appropriations bill in 2013 that had to be passed to avoid a U.S. government shutdown, requiring the Department of Agriculture to ignore any court order that would halt the planting of genetically engineered crops even if the department were still conducting a safety investigation, and rubber-stamp an okay. This past July, a piece of legislation known as the “DARK Act” was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama that, under the guise of setting national standards, nullified state laws that mandate labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and substituted a standard that makes it almost impossible for any GMO food to be so labeled.

Its reach by no means limited to its home country, Monsanto has pushed to overturn safety standards across Europe, and among the goals of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to reverse EU laws mandating GMO labeling and eliminate laws banning GMOs in food.

A long-term goal of ending corporate impunity

Because it is not possible to bring criminal charges against Monsanto, tribunal organizers say, it is necessary to initiate civil actions. They write:

“Critics of Monsanto claim that the company has been able to ignore the human and environmental damage caused by its products and pursue its devastating activities through a systematic concealment strategy through lobbying regulators and government authorities, lying, corruption, commissioning bogus scientific studies, putting pressure on independent scientists, and manipulating the press. Our endeavor is based on the observation that only through civic action will we be able to achieve compensation for victims of the American multinational.”

The tribunal organizers also recognize that a company like Monsanto does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is part of a larger system that is imperiling the world’s environment:

“Monsanto’s history is a paradigm for the impunity of transnational corporations and their management, who contribute to climate change and the depletion of the biosphere and threaten the security of the planet.

Monsanto is not the only focus of our efforts. Monsanto will serve as an example for the entire agro-industrial system whereby putting on trial all multinationals and companies that employ entrepreneurial behavior that ignore the damage wrecked on health and the environment by their actions.”

Tribunal will follow customary international law

Lawyers and judges from five continents will be involved in hearing evidence and handing down findings in December. Customary international law will be followed in all proceedings, tribunal organizers say:

“The Tribunal will employ as its legal guidelines: the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted by the Council of the UN Human Rights June 2011; the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) giving it jurisdiction to try alleged perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is the international authority on the responsibilities of business with regard to human rights. The guidelines state that companies must respect all human rights, including the right to life, the right to health and the right to a healthy environment. They define society’s expectations vis-à-vis businesses. They will serve as the basis on which plaintiffs will build their case for demanding compensation from Monsanto for damage caused by the company’s activities. The Court will consider whether Monsanto’s conduct could be considered criminal pursuant to existing international criminal law, or under the law of ecocide, which is gaining support for consideration as an offence.”

Using international treaties as a basis for adjudicating these questions, the tribunal will focus on six topics:

  • The right to a healthy environment.
  • The right to health.
  • The right to food.
  • Freedom of expression and academic research.
  • Complicity in war crimes.
  • The crime of ecocide.

Monsanto has been invited to present a defense and supporting documents against any evidence presented against it. The company has declined to participate, calling the tribunal a “publicity stunt” by people “not interested in dialogue,” and saying it is “is not against organic agriculture” in a statement issued last December. In announcing its latest financial results earlier this month, it predicted “continued strong penetration of key soybean traits, global corn germplasm upgrades and spend discipline” for 2017. So no change in its behavior should be expected.

Monsanto wants to tell you what to eat

Monsanto’s march toward control of the world’s food supply is focused on proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant.

monsanto-government-pipelineThe U.S. environmental group Food & Water Watch, in its report “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile,” summarizes the corporation’s power:

“Monsanto is a global agricultural biotechnology company that specializes in genetically engineered (GE) seeds and herbicides, most notably Roundup herbicide and GE Roundup Ready seed. GE seeds have been altered with inserted genetic material to exhibit traits that repel pests or withstand the application of herbicides. In 2009, in the United States alone, nearly all (93 percent) of soybeans and four-fifths (80 percent) of corn were grown with seeds containing Monsanto-patented genetics. The company’s power and influence affects not only the U.S. agricultural industry, but also political campaigns, regulatory processes and the structure of agriculture systems all over the world. …

Because of Monsanto’s market dominance, its products are changing the face of farming, from the use of Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, to the genetic makeup of the food we eat. … Monsanto has a close relationship with the U.S. government, which helps it to find loopholes or simply create regulations that benefit its bottom line. Monsanto and other corporations have increasingly funded academic research from public universities, which they use to justify their latest products. Monsanto’s international power has grown at an alarming rate, much to the dismay of developing countries that have inadvertently been exposed to its relentless business strategy. For all of these reasons, Monsanto has become a company that farmers and consumers around the world should fear.”

India has no laws Monsanto is bound to respect

Vandana Shiva, a member of the International Monsanto Tribunal’s steering committee, last year provided a case study in Monsanto’s practices with an examination of how it forced its way into India. The introduction of corporate agriculture has been so catastrophic in India that more than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, with Dr. Shiva reporting that 84 percent of farmer suicides have been attributed to Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton.

Baskets of many different kind of Brinjal (aka "Eggplant") put out by protesters during the listening tour of India's environment minister relating to the introduction of BT Brinjal. Spring 2010 in Bangalore, India. (photo by Infoeco)

Baskets of many different kind of Brinjal (aka “Eggplant”) put out by protesters during the listening tour of India’s environment minister relating to the introduction of BT Brinjal. Spring 2010 in Bangalore, India. (photo by Infoeco)

She explains what she calls Monsanto’s “outright illegality” in India as based on Monsanto claiming patent rights to its products even though patents on life forms are illegal in India; that its collections of royalties on unpatenable products have led to a wave of bankruptcies by farmers who struggle to survive in the best of times; and its “smuggling” of unapproved genetically modified organisms into India that “pose grave risks” to health. Dr. Shiva writes:

“India’s laws do not permit patents on seeds and in agriculture. But that hasn’t stopped Monsanto from collecting close to USD 900 million from small farmers in India, pushing them into crushing debt. This is roughly the same amount of money Monsanto spent buying The Climate Corporation — a weather big data company — in a bid to control climate data access in the future. … [L]ocal seeds used to cost [a tiny fraction of the cost of Monsanto’s seeds] before Monsanto destroyed alternatives, including local hybrid seed supply, through licensing arrangements and acquisitions.”

Local pests developed resistance to Monsanto’s GMO cotton, which releases toxins, forcing farmers to use more pesticides — an extra expense and environmentally destructive. Although this is bad for farmers, consumers and the environment, it is highly profitable for Monsanto. Dr. Shiva writes:

“Genetic engineering has not been able to deliver on its promises – it is just a tool of ownership. [Monsanto’s genetically modified] Bt Cotton is not resistant to Bollworm, RoundUp Resistant varieties have only given rise to super weeds, and the new promises being made by biotech corporations of bio-fortification are laughable. There is no benefit to things like Golden Rice. By adding one new gene to the cell of a plant, corporations claimed they had invented and created the seed, the plant, and all future seeds, which were now their property. Monsanto does not care if your cotton field has Bollworm infestations, just so long as the crop can be identified as theirs and royalty payments keep flowing in. This is why the failure of Bt Cotton as a reflection of bad science does not bother them — the cash is still coming into St Louis. At its core, genetic modification is about ownership.”

Farmers become Monsanto’s hired hands

Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to Food & Watch Watch. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

Worse, Monsanto has agreed to sell itself to Bayer A.G., the German chemical conglomerate with its own history of abuse. Should regulators allow these two corporations to merge, it would create the world’s largest supplier of seeds and pesticides. Bayer’s chief executive officer, Werner Baumann, enthused that the proposed deal would “deliver substantial value to shareholders, our customers, employees and society at large.” That “value” for “shareholders” was mentioned first is all you need to know that profits and control are what this deal is really about.

What better monopoly could a corporation achieve than a monopoly in food? That has long been Monsanto’s goal, and a merger with Bayer would only tighten its grip. This is not reducible, however, to simple greed or evilness. Grow or die is the ever-present mandate of capitalism and one result of that tendency is the drive toward monopolization — a small number of enterprises controlling an industry. Just because food is a necessity does not mean it is exempt from capitalism’s relentless competitive pressures.

When “markets” are allowed to dictate social outcomes, actions like those of Monsanto are inevitable. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. And they have no interest in you knowing what is in your food, or even that it is safe.

Global warming will accelerate as oceans reach limits of remediation

If humanity stopped all production of greenhouse gases today, Earth would experience several decades more of additional global warming. That is not simply because the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere by human activity won’t disappear in a day, but because the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers.

Earth has tipped into a heat imbalance since 1970, and this excess heating has thus far been greatly ameliorated because the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the enhanced heating since the 1970s. This accumulated heat is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

The latest in a series of scientific reports detailing the disastrous course of global warming, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. In addition to the increasingly unstable weather, more potent tropical cyclones, displacements of aquatic life and boost to atmospheric temperatures that such a rise would cause, massive amounts of frozen methane hydrate in the depth of the seas could be thawed, adding a potent new source of greenhouse gases.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to the report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers. The report builds on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in turn was the basis for the Paris climate summit in late 2015. That summit was noteworthy in setting a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of a 2-degree rise, often cited as the outer limit before uncontrollable changes are inevitable.

But even if all the national pledges of the Paris climate summit were achieved, global temperatures would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. by 2100, and the likelihood of all those pledges actually being met are minuscule as there are no enforcement mechanisms. A list of major countries’ pledges reveal a failure to make adequate progress, with many pledges dependent on “cap and trade” scenarios that often amount to subsidies for polluters.

Paris climate summit pledges inadequate

The “Explaining Ocean Warming” report does not sugar-coat that, stating in the conclusion that a fulfillment of the Paris pledges would not result in a return to hospitable conditions. The report says:

“[T]hey actually represent a ‘minimum ambition’ to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Achieving the ‘minimum ambition’ will already bring major changes in the functioning and resources of the ocean as we know them. Exacerbating an already concerning situation is the fact that the absorptive role of the ocean is also predicted to decline in the 21st Century, suggesting that the physics and chemistry of the ocean will be significantly different by 2100. As atmospheric CO2 continues to increase as a result of our activities, the solutions (i.e. mitigate, protect, repair, adapt) become fewer and less effective, thus decreasing the long-term ability of humankind to cope with the changes in the ocean that are now being observed.”

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The report explains that, volume to volume, sea water is 4,000 more times efficient at retaining heat than is air, providing thus far a buffer to further global warming. But how long can the oceans do this? And at what cost? Coral reefs are dying, sea life patterns are changing, fisheries are in danger of collapsing and oceans are becoming more acidic. Further changes are locked in for decades ahead already, and humanity is ill prepared for this as the stresses on the seas through this excess warming are barely understood. The report says:

“[T]he consequences of increasing human activities have indeed injected vast quantities of heat into the ocean, shielding humanity on land, in so doing, from the worst effects of climate change. This regulating function, however, happens at the cost of profound alterations to the ocean’s physics and chemistry that lead especially to ocean warming and acidification, and consequently sea-level rise. … The problem is that we know ocean warming is driving change in the ocean — this is well documented — but the consequences of these changes decades down the line are far from clear.”

The 13 warmest years for sea surface temperatures have all occurred since 1997, with 2015 the highest yet and eclipsing the previous record of 2014. Parallel to that, August 2016 was the 16th consecutive month that overall global temperatures were the highest on record.

How high and fast will the seas rise?

The continuing building up of heat portends a potentially catastrophic rise in sea level. Two papers published last year calculate that, because of the greenhouse gases already emitted, humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level, and a paper published earlier this year predicts that seas could rise “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A still more pessimistic National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist, Margaret Davidson (giving her personal opinion, a NOAA publicist stresses), says that sea level could rise by as much as three meters by 2050 to 2060, a faster rise than current projections. She cites studies being done on the West Antarctic ice sheet. It is important to remember that the scientific controversy centers on the speed of global warming, not its existence — 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming, according to a NOAA study that also found the highest levels of agreement correlate with higher levels of expertise.

A major problem is that global warming, as with the associated environmental problems, can’t be solved within the capitalism that has caused, and is accelerating, the problem. All incentives under capitalism are for more growth and thus more greenhouse-gas emissions, and there is no provision to provide new jobs for the many people who would be displaced should the heavily polluting industries in which they work were to be shut down in the interest of the environment. The private capital that profits from environmental devastation is allowed to externalize the costs onto society, an inequality built into the system. The concept of “green capitalism” is a dangerous chimera.

There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. That means significant reductions in energy consumption, an impossibility within a system that requires constant, unending growth. The rosy predictions of magical technology that will allow business as usual while scrubbing the atmosphere of new greenhouse gases, relied upon in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was in turn the basis for the Paris climate summit pledges, are not realistic, environmentalists say, and thus an illusion. Earth’s environment is crossing multiple points of no return — business as usual is impossible.

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. That is necessary for economic and political reasons, but the environmental crisis adds another dimension. Otherwise, we “will sleepwalk ourselves into a nightmare, where no level of conservation action in the future will be enough,” in the concluding words of the “Explaining Ocean Warming” report. The task is enormous, but the consequences are even bigger.

No planet for optimists: Coastal flooding may come sooner than we fear

When it comes to global warming, what else don’t we know? What science does know, and what it can infer from studying archeological records, already makes anybody who thinks the long-term habitability of Earth is more important than short-term profits very worried.

One detail that may have been under-appreciated is meltwater. Melting ice sheets, especially in Greenland and Antarctica, is well understood to raise the sea level. But the effects might not be simply the additional water added to the oceans. In this scenario, the melted freshwater will additionally increase warming, thereby creating a feedback loop that will accelerate the loss of polar ice sheets, thus accelerating the rate of sea-level rise. How fast? Fast enough that the sea level could rise “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

This sobering prediction of what might happen without a drastic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions is the conclusion of 19 climate scientists from the United States, France, Germany and China who studied the effect of growing ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica through the use of climate simulations, paleoclimate data and modern observations. The paper, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and led by James Hansen, concludes that swift action is necessary in the face of a “global emergency.”

Icebergs breaking off glaciers at Cape York, Greenland (photo by BrockenInaGlory)

Icebergs breaking off glaciers at Cape York, Greenland (photo by BrockenInaGlory)

Predictions of a future catastrophic rise in the oceans, threatening to drown many of the world’s biggest cities, are by now far from novel. Two other recent papers conclude that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level because of the greenhouse gases already thrown into the atmosphere and the retention and later slow release of much of those gases by the world’s oceans. A study in the journal Science estimates that more than 444,000 square miles of land, where more than 375 million people live today, would be inundated by such a rise.

Compare that to the complacency of the world’s governments at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015. Despite a thunder of plaudits from the corporate media, the governments committed themselves to goals that, even if achieved, would lead to a global temperature rise of nearly 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, with further increases beyond that. That is far beyond the goal of 1.5 degrees set at the summit. But even the summit’s actual modest goals are not necessarily attainable because peer pressure is the primary mechanism to induce compliance; there are no binding legal agreements.

Feedback loops accelerate ice-sheet melting

The Atmospheric Chemistry paper says that sea level was at times six to nine meters higher than today approximately 115,000 years ago when the average global temperature “probably was only a few tenths of a degree warmer than today.” Ice-sheet stability may be a key to understanding rapid sea-level rise, the authors write.

The injection of added freshwater into the oceans from faster ice-sheet melting reduces the mixing of ocean waters, causing warmer water to remain at lower depths and thus making warmer water more available to melt the remaining ice shelves. This additional impact of meltwater on the global climate and its feedbacks had not been appreciated before, the authors write. They summarize this as follows:

“Our principal finding concerns the effect of meltwater on stratification of the high-latitude ocean and resulting ocean heat sequestration that leads to melting of ice shelves and catastrophic ice sheet collapse. Stratification contrasts with homogenization. Winter conditions on parts of the North Atlantic Ocean and around the edges of Antarctica normally produce cold, salty water that is dense enough to sink to the deep ocean, thus stirring and tending to homogenize the water column. Injection of fresh meltwater reduces the density of the upper ocean wind-stirred mixed layer, thus reducing the rate at which cold surface water sinks in winter at high latitudes.”

Existing models, including the authors’ own, underplays this mixing effect, the paper states, and thus anthropogenic warming “may be even more imminent than in our model.” Regardless of the exact timing, a tipping point will be reached:

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large-scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable.”

What might happen if the global temperature rises 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels? The possibilities are:

“Continued high fossil fuel emissions this century are predicted to yield (1) cooling of the Southern Ocean, especially in the Western Hemisphere; (2) slowing of the Southern Ocean overturning circulation, warming of the ice shelves, and growing ice sheet mass loss; (3) slowdown and eventual shutdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation with cooling of the North Atlantic region; (4) increasingly powerful storms; and (5) non-linearly growing sea level rise, reaching several meters over a timescale of 50–150 years. These predictions, especially the cooling in the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic with markedly reduced warming or even cooling in Europe, differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments.”

A cold and arid Europe

The authors cite evidence that at the end of the interglacial period in which sea level was believed to be six to nine meters higher than today, there was a dramatic cooling in northern Europe, estimated at 3 degrees C. in summer and 5 to 10 degrees in winter in southern Germany, accompanied by four centuries of arid weather and a decline in trees. During the period of sea-level rise, the North Atlantic is also believed to have suffered from more severe storms, with archeological evidence from Bermuda and the Bahamas used as evidence.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

As a consensus for global warming emerges, there is less certainty that capping global temperature increase at 2 degrees would be “safe”; thus the Paris Climate Summit’s surprise conclusion to set a goal of a 1.5-degree limit. To achieve such a goal, however, would, as noted above, require cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions far beyond anything pledged. The studies indicating that humanity has already committed itself to a six- to nine-meter sea-level rise imply that temperatures will rise past 1.5 degrees as greenhouse gas-generated heat trapped by the oceans is slowly released into the atmosphere over many decades, if not centuries.

There is no alternative to a massive change to industrial activity — no amount of re-forestation can come close to canceling out the effect of industrial activity.

The Atmospheric Chemistry paper concludes with this sober assessment:

“There is a possibility, a real danger, that we will hand young people and future generations a climate system that is practically out of their control. We conclude that the message our climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.”

Unfortunately, we live in an economic system that requires constant growth and offers no alternative work for those whose jobs would be eliminated were we to shut down the most polluting industries. In one of his novels, Arthur C. Clarke wrote of a 23rd century world that was finally eliminating the clutter and pollution of the 20th century. Sad to say, the late science fiction master was overly optimistic.

Business as usual at Paris summit won’t stop global warming

The bottom line of the Paris Climate Summit is this: The world’s governments say they agreed to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but in actuality committed to nearly double that. A potential runaway global warming still looms in the future.

The surprise of the summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, was the decision to set a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of 2 degrees. This was done at the behest of Pacific Island countries that might be submerged with a 2-degree rise, and the new, more ambitious target, if achieved, would provide a greater margin of error as a 2-degree rise is widely believed to be the limit at which catastrophic damage can be avoided.

The world's coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The world’s coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

How is the new goal to be achieved? Article 4 of the Paris Agreement, reached on December 12, states:

“In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal [of 1.5 degrees], Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. …

Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution. … Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

What mechanisms will be created to ensure that the “Parties” (national governments) to carry out these plans? They “shall” report their progress, “shall undergo a technical expert review” (article 13) and discuss their progress five years from now (article 14). Governments will develop technology (article 10) and will “build mutual trust” through “transparency” (article 13).

In other words, peer pressure is the mechanism. There are no binding legal agreements requiring any country to achieve the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions pledged for the Paris Climate Summit.

Pledges equate to a tweak, not a reversal

A further problem is that should all the pledges actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group, comprised of four research organizations that produce independent scientific analyses, calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. Although Climate Action Tracker notes that this potential rise is less drastic than the nearly 4-degree rise that the world had been on course for prior to the Paris commitments, what has been accomplished is merely to slow the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The world’s governments have set various goals for reducing emissions by 2025 or 2030, with the European Union’s pledge of a 40 percent cut by 2030 the most ambitious among the biggest greenhouse-gas contributors. But the later that greenhouse-gas emissions are brought under control, the more difficult it will be to cap global warming at 1.5 or 2 degrees. A Climate Action Tracker analysis says:

“The need to fill in the gap between the projected [pledged] emissions levels in 2025 and the levels necessary to limit global warming to below 2°C means significantly more rapid, and costly, action would be needed compared to a situation where more ambitious targets for 2025 were adopted and where governments took immediate action now to achieve them. … Annual decarbonisation rates of 3-4%, which would be needed to catch up from 2025 [pledge] levels, are feasible, but the available modeling results indicate that such a reduction would result in much higher costs, more disruption, and more challenges than if action starts now and continues in a smooth way.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued last year foresees a rise in greenhouse-gas emissions for years to come, to above 450 parts per million, before falling to 450 ppm by 2100, which the report says is necessary to hold the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the IPCC report relies on several technological breakthroughs, including capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide, which is not yet close to being feasible.

In an analysis of the summit, Ian Angus and Phil Gasper explain this leap of faith:

“Almost all of the scenarios that show an increase of less than two degrees by 2100 require, first, much greater emissions reductions than anyone is proposing in the next 30 years. And then, after 2050, they require ‘negative emissions.’ That is, there would have to be some technology invented that takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and no such technology exists. And if it is invented, no one can say how it would function on a global scale, or whether it will be safe. It’s pure fantasy, and we can’t depend on fantasy.”

Worse, not all countries have necessarily even pledged to reduce their emissions. Writing in Climate & Capitalism, Jonathan Neale calculates that several countries, including China, India and Russia, have merely pledged to slow the rate of their increases in greenhouse-gas emissions, and other governments, such as the United States, European Union, Canada and Australia, have agreed to cut their emissions by one percent per year. He writes:

“[C]ountries like India and China promise to cut emissions in terms of carbon intensity. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon in fossil fuels that is needed to produce the same amount of work. Carbon intensity has been going down in the United States for a hundred years. It is going down all over the world. This is because we learn to use coal, oil and gas more efficiently, just like we learn to use everything else in industry more productively. So a promise to cut carbon intensity is a promise to increase emissions.”

Pollution as a market commodity

Short-term profits are still given priority over the long-term health of the environment. One manifestation of this is that governments continue to rely on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity. Too many credits are provided for free, and as a result the prices for them have fallen drastically; and politically influential industries are often exempted, even if they are among the most polluting.

All the incentives in capitalism are for more growth, and the accumulation of power that accrues to corporations that grow the most enable large industry to bend laws and regulations to their liking. Stagnation in a capitalist economy causes persistent unemployment and other problems, as the past several years amply demonstrate. And that is before we get to the problem that nobody will be offering displaced workers new jobs should the polluting industries they work in be shut down or curtailed. Industry can say that any new restrictions on it will cost jobs, and rally working people behind them on that basis.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the past 800,000 years (Graphic by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego)

Professors Angus and Gasper, in their analysis of the Paris Climate Summit, stress the necessity of environmentalists working with labor:

“The fact is that workers don’t want to lose their jobs. Here in Canada, we have the phenomenon of people from some of the poorest parts of the country going to work in the Alberta Tar Sands. After six months or a year, they can go home, to a place where there are no jobs, and buy a house or a car, or pay off their debts. Telling those people ‘Don’t do that because you’re causing greenhouse gas emissions’ is just absurd. It’s a guaranteed way to turn working people against the environmental movement.

Now again, unfortunately, we see a lot of that. I’ve heard greens argue that we shouldn’t even try to reach oil sands workers because they’re just part of the colonial-settler assault on First Nations territory. Which is true–so we have to win them away from doing that, not force them into a firmer alliance with their bosses. We need to find ways to work with the labor movement around the whole concept of a ‘just transition.’ That concept has come out of the international labor movement–that we realize the change in the economy is going to result in lost jobs, and nobody should suffer as a result. There should be jobs or full pay, free retraining and so on.”

A worthy goal indeed. But could such a program be accomplished under capitalism? It does not seem so. Professors Angus and Gasper note that such a goal won’t be won without a strong movement. But as capitalism is a system designed for private profit, achieved through the exploitation of working people, a strong movement would have to push beyond it, to a more humane, rational economic system.

Another factor to contend with is that the goals of the Paris Climate Summit, inadequate as they may be, will be null and void should the Trans-Pacific Partnership and/or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership be approved. These multi-national “free trade” agreements would enable corporations to sue to overturn laws that protect the environment, and provide further incentives for production to be moved around the world with an accompanying increase in fossil fuels used for transporting components and finished goods across longer supply chains. TPP rules codifying benefits for multi-national corporations are written in firm language, but there is no such language for environmental or health protections. The TTIP’s language will likely be no better. The TPP does not mention global warming once in its text.

The Paris Climate Summit has been an exercise in feeling good, with the world’s corporate-media reporters at risk of sore arms from all the back pats they are giving. A future world of uncontrollable climate change, with agricultural patterns disrupted and species dying at accelerating rates, won’t feel good, however. Business as usual won’t save the future; only mass mobilization on a global scale can.

We may have already committed ourselves to 6-meter sea-level rise

Even if humanity were to stop throwing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere today, a catastrophic rise in sea levels of six meters may be inevitable. Two previous prehistoric interglacial periods, in which the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was believed to be about what it is today, resulted in dramatic rising of the oceans.

High-latitude ice sheets are melting, and given that global warming is most pronounced in the Arctic, it may already be too late stop a rise in sea levels that would flood out hundreds of millions around the world. Two new papers, the latest in a series of scientific studies, paint a picture considerably less rosy than conventional ideas that major damage can still be avoided.

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Heat energy of oceans in 2014 as compared with the 20-year average (graphic by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

One of these papers, a nine-scientist report led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science, found that modest rises in global temperatures in the past led to sea levels rising at least six meters. She summarized the findings this way to Climate Central:

“Even if we meet that 2°C target, in the past with those types of temperatures, we may be committing ourselves to this level of sea level rise in the long term. The decisions we make now about where we want to be in 2100 commit us on a pathway where we can’t go back. Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”

Professor Dutton was referencing the widely held belief that catastrophic damage can be avoided if global warming is held to no more than 2 degrees C. from pre-industrial levels. The “permissible” level may be less than that, however. More sophisticated “sea-level reconstructions” through interdisciplinary studies of geological evidence and better understanding of the behavior of ice sheets enabled the paper’s authors to infer that temperatures only slightly higher than what we are experiencing today upset the climatic balance. A summary of the paper concludes:

“[D]uring the last interglacial — a warm period between ice ages 125,000 years ago — the global average temperature was similar to the present and this was linked to a sea-level rise of 6-9 meters, caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. Around 400,000 years ago, when global average temperatures were estimated to be between 1 to 2°C higher than preindustrial levels, sea levels reached 6-13 meters [higher.]”

“Small” changes have big consequences

More alarming, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then was lower than it is today. Although geological forces pushing and pulling Earth’s surface can’t be precisely calculated, and thus introduce uncertainty in the actual level of the oceans in the geologic record, the greater uncertainty lies at the higher level of estimates. The paper’s summary said:

“Noticeably, during these two periods, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained around 280 parts per million (ppm). The scientists  also looked at sea level during the Pliocene, three million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels reached around 400 ppm — similar to today’s levels. They hypothesized that sea level was at least 6 metres higher than today and potentially substantially higher. … While the global average temperature rises of 1 to 3°C seem small, they were, like today, linked with magnified temperature increases in the polar regions which sustained over many thousands of years.”

A second paper, State of the Climate in 2014, reports that Arctic sea-surface temperatures are rising faster than overall global temperatures, ice caps across the Northern Hemisphere continue to shrink, record high permafrost temperatures are being recorded in northern Alaska and melting of the Greenland ice cap is accelerating. The paper, a collaboration of 413 scientists from 58 countries, reports that, even if greenhouse gases were frozen at current levels, the oceans would continue to warm for centuries and thus lead to rising sea levels.

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time and warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere. This is already leading to warming oceans, State of the Climate reports:

“Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are preventing heat radiated from Earth’s surface from escaping into space as freely as it used to; most of the excess heat is being stored in the upper ocean. As a result, upper ocean heat content has increased significantly over the past two decades.”

The Science and State of the Climate papers back previous studies that conclude “there is no going back” — the excess heat stored in oceans will be released back into the atmosphere for centuries to come — and that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return.

Ice melts in front of our eyes

Two worrisome trends are that the eight lowest Arctic Ocean sea-ice extents have all occurred in the past eight years, and that the extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet during summer 2014 was faster than the 1981-to-2000 average 90 percent of the time. Antarctic ice is not yet showing accelerated melting, State of the Climate reports, but the paper does note that short-term extremes in temperatures have become more frequent on the continent.

Nor does that mean that all is well in Antarctica. Two scientific papers published in 2014 suggest the West Antarctic ice sheet has become dangerously weakened. One finds that a “large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet … has passed the point of no return” and the other finds that the ice sheet has become sufficiently unstable to possibly collapse in as few as 200 years. That is a long time by ordinary human standards, but very brief in geological terms, and would add greatly to rising sea levels.

So what would a six-meter increase in ocean levels mean? More than 440,000 square miles (1.14 million square kilometers), where 375 million people, would go under water, according to Climate Central.

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global temperature anomalies from the 20th century average, since 1880 (graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The current path humanity is walking is to throw more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Current plans by political leaders to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and completely by 2100 are woefully inadequate, but even those goals will be difficult to achieve. The metabolism of capitalism, and all its incentives, is for more growth and thus more anthropogenic warming. And although reversing global warming is impossible without reducing consumption, that, too, is impossible under capitalism because a typical advanced capitalist country 60 to 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by household spending.

Because of the growth imperative of capitalism — the need to grow or die forces enterprises into never-ending innovations to cut costs — economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer. Capitalism will not guarantee new jobs for those made unemployed by closing down polluting industries, adding incentives to maintain them. “Free trade” agreements accelerate global warming because supply lines are stretched around the world and production is moved to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulations. And as conventional sources of energy are depleted, more extreme measures are taken, including the exploitation of tar sands, adding still more greenhouse gases.

Our descendants are not likely to believe that short-term corporate profits and unsustainable consumption were a fair tradeoff for a world left much less habitable.

Marching on Monsanto and its government protectors

Controlling and knowing what we eat should be a fundamental human right beyond questioning. That it is not sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of cities around the world on May 23, the third annual March on Monsanto.

People on every continent save Antarctica participated in a March on Monsanto — demonstrations took place in 452 cites in 48 countries in opposition to Monsanto Company’s attempt to gain control over the world’s food. More than 200 U.S. cities, 47 Canadian cities, 22 French cities and 13 Argentine cities were among the places hosting organized marches.

One of the earliest rallies was in Sydney, where an organizer told the RT television network:

“This company has repeatedly committed, I would say, crimes against the Earth and what we are trying to show is accountability for corporations. Also we want to promote clean food. Food that’s free of pesticides, which our grandparents just called food.”

RT, in an online roundup of events around the world, also noted that protestors in Berlin, one of 10 German demonstrations, made connections among health concerns even though there is no commercial cultivation of food containing genetically engineered organisms in the country, and GMO bans exist in nine of Germany’s 16 states and in hundreds of municipalities. RT reported:

“Germany’s capital Berlin saw a big turnout even though Germany does not use Monsanto’s seeds. However, activists say local farmers still use Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, which end up leaving traces in breast milk of feeding mothers, the water supply and even urine of people who have not eaten GMO products.”

March Against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto

The struggle against dangerous pesticides received a boost earlier in the month in Germany when the country’s state consumer protection ministers called for a ban on glyphosate throughout the European Union. According to the online news publication EurActiv, E.U. approval of glyphosate expires at the end of 2015 and the E.U. bureaucratic arm, the European Commission, is conducting a safety review. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a business worth an estimated $10 billion to Monsanto. The company not only sells lots of the herbicide but also agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment. The use of  glyphosate on U.S. farms increased from 11 million pounds in 1987 to almost 300 million pounds in 2013.

What you don’t know might hurt you

There is plenty of reason for concern. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a study, published in The Lancet, that found glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen. Other studies, including a 2013 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology, have also reported health concerns. Further, a 2011 Earth Open Source paper, titled “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” says that the European Union and the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety cites “unpublished industry studies to back its claim that glyphosate was safe,” while ignoring or dismissing independent studies that indicate glyphosate causes endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer and birth defects.

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

Then there are the dangers of GMO foods, an area unfortunately quite under-studied. GMO labeling is required by 64 countries, including Australia, Japan and all 28 E.U. countries. Such laws are fiercely opposed by Monsanto and other multi-national agribusinesses, and they thus far have succeeded in keeping labeling laws from being enacted in the U.S. These corporate efforts to undermine food safety are part of the agenda behind the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Marchers against Monsanto took to calling the TPP and TTIP the “Global Monsanto Protection Acts.” One of the goals of those two so-called “free trade” deals is to eliminate the ability of governments to ban or even effectively regulate GMOs, and to ban any labeling of them. Monsanto and other agribusinesses repeatedly claim that GMOs are safe and healthy, but if that is so, why do they put so much effort into hiding them? Biotechnology companies spent $27 million lobbying for GMOs in the U.S. in just the first six months of 2014.

Should the TPP and TTIP come into force, nobody in the 40 countries that encompass these two agreements will be able to know what is in the food they eat or to have effective protection against food that may not be safe to eat.

Already we being used as laboratory experiments, and this will accelerate if Monsanto gets its way.

Water down laws, then dilute some more

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade, and much to do with eliminating regulations, lowering standards and eliminating health, safety and environmental laws in favor of maximizing corporate profits. The “harmonization” that is promoted in these agreements has meant reducing standards to the lowest possible level. Thus, European regulations on GMOs and food labeling will be targeted as “barriers” to trade under the TTIP because those standards are higher than U.S. rules.

Pesticide Action Network Europe notes that the process of European harmonization has already watered down regulations. In its position paper on the TTIP negotiations, PAN Europe says:

“Health standards already now do not sufficiently protect people and the environment and costs are already externalised massively to society in terms of health care (pesticide residues in food/water, contamination of rural citizens), soil deterioration (fertilizers), biodiversity decline (monocultures, pesticides), climate change (fertilizers and deforestation for soy/palm cultivation) and subsidies (taxpayers’ money). … Let’s take the example of pesticide residue food standards. They were harmonised at European level already in 2009 and indeed the least strictest food standards anywhere in Europe were chosen for harmonisation. Soon it was shown that this was a wrong approach. … Cumulative effects of residues are not calculated and the unscientific single-exposure approach maintained.”

Already, an E.U. paper that could have led to the banning of as many as 31 pesticides was not acted on because of heavy pressure from chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A delegation of U.S. chemical-industry lobbyists and U.S. trade officials insisted that the E.U. drop proposals to ban the use of the pesticides despite health concerns.

Just as it is asked why Monsanto and other agribusinesses don’t want you to know what is in your food, we must ask why they don’t want us to know what is in the “free trade” agreements being negotiated on their behalf.

Legislators provide a backup plan

Perhaps as a backup in case the mounting public opposition to the TPP and TTIP succeeds in scuttling them, a Kansas Republican, Mike Pompeo, has cooked up a bill with the Orwellian name of “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (Bill H.R. 1599) in the House of Representatives. H.R. 1599 was introduced on March 25 and is a re-introduction of the previous Congress’ H.R. 4432, which failed to become law. The bill’s stated purpose is: “To amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.” Well, yes, but in what way?

The devil is indeed in the details here. Activists at Food Democracy Now sound the alarm this way:

“This plan is so devious that it radically speeds up the approval process for new GMO crops, limits the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and [Department of Agriculture]’s ability to extend premarket safety reviews, declares GMO foods ‘safe’ and redefines genetically engineered foods as ‘bioengineered’ in order to sanitize this deeply flawed technology to the American public.”

A Daily Kos analysis notes that the bill would create a federal law banning any state or locality from enacting a GMO labeling law. The bill would also prohibit organic natural foods from being marketed as safer or better than GMO counterparts. It would also make it nearly impossible for a farmer to achieve organic certification:

“But most sinister is what I will call the bill’s virtual protection racket. It works like this. As a small organic farmer, if I want to market my product as GMO-free, I must ensure that the entire path to market — from seed to harvest to processing to transportation to distribution — is certifiably GMO-free. If my product shares any infrastructure with known GMO foods, I cannot claim being a GMO-free. … The burden of proof therefore is prohibitively expensive for a typical small farmer, which is what Monsanto, Dow et al are counting on.”

Taking on Monsanto is already difficult. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a suit against Monsanto, challenging the company’s patents on genetically engineered seeds, a suit that eventually represented 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms. The organic plaintiffs sought a pre-emptive judgment against potentially being accused of patent infringement should their fields become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. Such suits are not unknown. Nonetheless, the courts ruled for Monsanto at the trial and appellate levels.

Sell first, ask questions later

A part of the problem is that, under the U.S. regulatory system — what it wishes to impose on Europe and elsewhere — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe. That can occur years after it began to be sold. But, charges Steven Druker in a new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, not even scientific concerns necessarily stop approval in the U.S.:

“[T]he [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had ushered these controversial products onto the market by evading standards of science, deliberately breaking the law, and seriously misrepresenting the facts — and that the American people were being regularly (and unknowingly) subjected to novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.

This fraud has been the pivotal event in the commercialization of genetically engineered foods. Not only did it enable their marketing and acceptance in the United States, it set the stage for their sale in numerous other nations as well. If the FDA had not evaded the food safety laws, every GE food would have been required to undergo rigorous long-term testing; and if it had not covered up the concerns of its scientists and falsely reported the facts, the public would have been alerted to the risks. Consequently, the introduction of GE foods would at minimum have been delayed many years — and most likely would not have happened.”

Mr. Druker is a public-interest attorney who successfully sued to gain access to FDA files. So confident is he in his findings that he has publicly challenged Monsanto to refute anything in his book and said he will change anything that is proven to be incorrect. Speaking at the New York March on Monsanto, he reported that he had not received a response.

Monsanto is perhaps the corporation most determined to control the world’s food. The vast majority of U.S. soybean, cotton, corn and canola are now genetically engineered. Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to Food & Watch Watch. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

We live under an economic system that reduces human interactions to nothing more than transactions, where an ever larger sphere of social decisions are made by “the market” and the quest for profits is promoted as the highest ideal. “The market” is not some neutral entity sitting high in the clouds, as pervasive propaganda would have us believe, but rather nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. A monopoly is the goal of capitalists, and the logical outcome of the relentless competition of capitalism. Just because food is among the most basic human necessities does not mean it is exempt. Don’t starve, organize!

Sometimes you can’t win: More cold and snow thanks to global warming

If global warming is not simply warmer weather, but rather increasingly crazy weather, then this winter has given us ample evidence. An irony of global warming for eastern North America is it seems to be the one place that is getting colder and snowier winters thanks to global warming.

Curse you, Arctic oscillation! New York City just suffered through its coldest February since 1934, and its second-coldest month (any month) since then. Boston’s snow has been of historic proportions. And cities from Toronto and Buffalo to Bangor, Maine, recorded the coldest month in their recorded histories. On the other side of the continent, cities from Salt Lake City, Utah, to San Francisco and Seattle recorded their warmest winter months in history.

In Europe, 2014 was the hottest year on record, based on an analysis that examined temperatures going back to the 16th century, with global warming overwhelmingly the primary factor for such extremes. And, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record, with the top 10 hottest years all occurring since 1998. There hasn’t been a year with an average global temperature below the 20th century’s average since 1976.

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

But nonetheless millions of people are suffering through an extraordinarily rough winter for a second consecutive year. And it may be that shrinking ice in the Arctic Ocean is a significant factor behind the extreme winters much of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing. The Arctic oscillation is a measure of the relative strength of the jet stream, a high-level atmospheric wind that divides polar air from temperate air. When these winds are strong, the jet stream tends not to wander north and south, bottling up frigid air in the Arctic. When those winds slacken, the jet stream develops into a wave pattern, with large movements north and south.

Those high-level winds speed up and slacken based on the differences in barometric pressure between Arctic and mid-latitude regions; a related measure, the North Atlantic oscillation, is the difference between semi-permanent low pressure near Iceland and semi-permanent high pressure near the Azores Islands. When there are significant waves, or north/south amplitudes, unusually hot or cold weather is the result, depending on which side you are on. These patterns can lock into place for weeks or sometimes months, leading to persistent extreme weather.

What is causing these patterns? Research continues, but there is an increasing amount of evidence that a warming Arctic is the culprit. The Arctic is warming faster than the globe as a whole, and the polar ice cap is shrinking as a result, which in turns causes faster warming. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, in a discussion of a paper by Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis, summarized this theory:

“[T]he extra heat in the Arctic in fall and winter over the past decade had caused the Arctic atmosphere between the surface and 500 [millibars] (about 18,000 feet or 5,600 meters) to expand. As a result, the difference in temperature between the Arctic (60 – 80°N) and the mid-latitudes (30 – 50°N) fell significantly. It is this difference in temperature that drives the powerful jet stream winds that control much of our weather. The speed of fall and winter west-to-east upper-level winds at 500 [millibars] circling the North Pole decreased by 20% over the past decade, compared to the period 1948-2000, in response to the extra warmth in the Arctic.”

So although, overall, global warming means hotter temperatures, it doesn’t mean there will never be another cold day, and sometimes it leads to counter-intuitive results. Also, there should be some perspective here. Difficult as the sustained cold has been, it is the sort of weather than once was more common. It’s less common now precisely because Earth is getting warmer.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It does not help that the corporate media lazily misuses the concept of “neutrality” to present a false controversy, as if there is still a debate as to whether global warming is happening, or if human activity is the cause if it is. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

Denialist groups, well funded by energy companies and other multi-national corporations concerned with their short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the planet, seek to sew doubt among the public. The manufactured split in public opinion can then be leveraged to claim there is a “controversy,” dampening the resolve necessary to tackle a problem that will ultimately threaten the habitability of the planet. Consider that the reservoirs serving South America’s biggest city, São Paulo, are going dry and scientists believe the cause of the drought is Amazon deforestation.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

Those who deny evolution do no more than provide a source of amusement. The denial of a planet-wide crisis is something altogether different.