My wife and I are on our way to shoot a documentary
film about a handful of scientists who have an idea to slow the speed at which
glaciers are sliding into the sea. If it works, it would drastically lower the
predicted level of sea level rise.
As the warming proceeds and the world’s remaining ice melts, sea level rise is
going to become a grave problem for every country with a coastline, so you’d
think there would be legions of people working it. There are not.
Worldwide there may be a thousand scientists working on the ‘cryosphere’, the
frozen parts of the planet, but their energies are divided among many different
aspects of climate change: thawing permafrost releasing megatonnes of methane;
loss of sea ice cover on the Arctic Ocean, why the Arctic is warming four times
faster than the rest of the planet, etc.
How many people are working specifically on accelerating glacial flows? Maybe a
hundred full-time scientists, if you’re feeling optimistic.
What holds glaciers back is the friction between the ice and the bottom. Warmer
ocean currents are eating away at the base of the glaciers and effectively
detaching them from the bottom, i.e. taking the brakes off.
The official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts no more than
one metre of sea level rise by 2100. Many scientists think two metres is more
likely, given predictable further warming even with rapid cuts to emissions.
And if the entire, quite unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet starts to slide into
the sea, four metres by 2100.
A two-metre sea level rise would flood land that is home to a quarter-billion
people: in Asia, goodbye to Shanghai, Bangkok and Calcutta; in the US, farewell
to Miami and New Orleans. At four metres, at least a billion people would be
looking for new homes – and they wouldn’t be in the mood to take no for an
So this plane, and lots of others heading to the polar regions, should be full
of climate scientists looking for ways to slow down the glaciers and the
consequent sea level rise. We’re already locked into far too much warming, and
just cutting emissions is not enough.
However, there are just five scientists and engineers on this trip: an
American, two Canadians, a Brit (who’s normally based at a Chinese university)
and a Finn. They have a really promising idea for slowing down the glaciers and
reducing the speed of sea level rise, but there should be ten or thirty or
fifty teams working on promising ideas.
I’ll get into what their specific idea is next week after everybody has a
better feel for how the proposal will be met, but my point right now is how
pathetically few they are. Not only that, but they are all self-financing
(although some of their universities are helping with the travel). This is
hardly an adequate response to the threat.
Consider, for a moment, the ‘Manhattan Project’, which employed 130,000 people
in 1942-45 to build the first atomic bombs. It cost about $23 billion in
today’s money, but nobody objected because they were afraid that the Germans
might get The Bomb first. (In fact, the Germans weren’t even trying.)
Global warming is at least as big a threat as a few first-generation nuclear
weapons in Nazi hands – far bigger, I’d say – so why is the response so
muted? Can’t people see that climate change is an existential threat that would
justify dozens of Manhattan-scale crash projects to curb the warming?
No, they can’t, and I suspect our ancestors are to blame. All our ancestors
were hunter-gatherers for at least 98% of human history, and hunter-gatherers
lived in the short term.
They could react very fast to immediate and visible threats, but they could do
nothing about longer-term challenges like changes in the climate or in animal
migration routes, so they didn’t waste time worrying about them. We are their
descendants, and that’s our default mode too.
What I’m suggesting, I’m afraid, is that there may be a sort of
species-specific speed limit on how fast human societies can respond even to
very big threats if they are slow-moving, impersonal and invisible. The
Manhattan Project people were in the middle of a war against human enemies; we
If there is such a speed limit, does that mean we are doomed? Who knows? How
fast is fast enough? But the graduate schools are now full of people studying
climate science, and despair is not a useful option.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.