By melting the Arctic, we are defiling ourselves.
Sadly, the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the global average since 1951.
It’s because we humans have been burning massive quantities of fossil fuels. This increases heat-trapping atmospheric gases, primarily carbon dioxide. This retards the ability of the atmosphere to shed heat, which explains why it is warming.
Why is the Artic warming faster than elsewhere?
It’s because it is more sensitive to temperature changes.
In both the northern and southern hemisphere heat is shifted from the steamy equator towards the poles. In the Arctic, the exchange of heat is more efficient because of geography, specifically, because of the high mountains in Europe, Asia, and America.
By way of contrast, Antarctica is encircled by ocean, which doesn’t mix warm and cold fronts as efficiently. It’s warming, too, but more slowly than the Arctic.
Furthermore, unlike Antarctica, the Arctic Ocean is almost completely circled by land mass. This prevents the Arctic Ocean from revolving (as the ocean does around Antarctica). Instead of circling, seawater surges north from other oceans and south from the Arctic Ocean through the Bering and Fram Straits, which creates a gigantic transfer of warmer and cooler waters.
It is not just ocean currents that amplify warming in the Arctic: there also seems to be north-south mixing in the atmosphere. Pollutants such as soot from smokestacks discolor and warm snow. (Burning coal also produces mercury as a by-product; mercury levels in the tissues of northern animals such as walruses, beluga whales, and polar bears have risen.)
“The albedo effect” occurs when light colored snow and ice give way to darker colored land or water. The darker colored surfaces absorb more heat from the sun, and this heat melts more snow and ice creating more darker colored surfaces. This powerful positive feedback loop may completely free the Artic Ocean from ice in just 20 or 25 years!
This will certainly create stupendous environmental change that will likely wipe out some high Arctic species of plants and animals as southern interlopers move in.
The melting of the Arctic Ocean will not affect the global sea level. (Ice that floats on water only displaces its own mass.) However, the melting of the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will; they are shedding ice much faster than previously predicted.
Earlier predictions on how high the sea level rise will be may be too modest. The consequences on human population centers may be severe.
If scientists are correct, polar melt water last raised sea level when the Arctic was significantly warmer than it is today. That was 125,000 years ago. How much higher were the seas? Four to six metres! (One meter is longer than a yard: about 39.4 inches.)
The melting of the Arctic Ocean will release a huge deluge of cold water that may disrupt the circulation patterns of global oceans. (That has happened multiple times in the past.) If it happens, weather patterns will be affected and that will affect the human food supply.
Furthermore, the Arctic permafrost may thaw. (That, too, has happened before.) The problem for humans is that such a thaw would release huge additional quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, causing additional global warming.
Sooner or later, the melting Arctic will cause a tipping point that will mark effectively irreversible climate change. (The change may not be permanent, but it will take thousands of years to reverse – if it does.)
Ice in the Arctic ocean is now at its lowest levels in at least 2000 years. We have temperature records going back to 1880; six of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2004! On average, pack ice is one-half as thick today as it was in the 1970’s.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 40% higher than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. If that surprises you, you are clueless about your home.
Of course, northern melting may have what some consider to be beneficial consequences. For example, burning so much fossil fuel has caused climate change and that very change will make access to Arctic sources of hydrocarbons easier to extract (and, therefore, burn). What a prospect! More profits for the oil companies and more pollution and global warming for everyone.
For similar reasons, some Arctic countries may temporarily be enriched, but that will be paltry compensation for the cost to our home, our planet, from unchecked Arctic warming.
We are rapidly defiling our global commons.
It’s insanity for us to think that natural resources exist in unlimited abundance and that it is our right to consume as much of them as we desire.
John Maynard Keynes: “Consumption . . . is the sole end of all economic activity” (from General Theory). The mindset that should be dropped is the consumption mindset.
Grey Owl (Archie Belaney): “Remember, you belong to Nature, not it to you.”
I go even farther than Grey Owl: Nature is us. Ultimately, there’s no separation between us and our home. If so, to defile nature is to defile ourselves.
Of course, mine is not the mindset of western culture. Adopting mine involves a radical shift.
For example, in Paul Zane Pilzer’s book God Wants You to be Rich: How and Why Everyone Can Enjoy Material and Spiritual Wealth in our Abundant World, he specifies what he thinks is “the real foundation of our prosperity—the United States Constitution and the tens of thousands of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that have painfully evolved over the last two hundred years.”
I, too, value living in a society governed by law. That is an important criterion.
It is not, however, a requirement for prosperity. (Furthermore, obviously, his foundation is inapplicable to most humans.)
I interpret his use of “prosperity” to be like my use of “living well.” It may be easier to live well in a law-governed society than not.
However, that is hardly the foundation of living well. The foundation of living well is the use we make of the mind. Living well is the process of bringing Being to Becoming. That’s it. Governing the mind properly results in living well; everything else, including possessing material goods, is secondary.
We do live in a world of abundant natural resources. That does not mean that they are unlimited. (Nor does it give us the moral right to squander them.)
Pilzer’s whole mindset is foolish. For example, he thinks that “Technology is the major determinant of wealth because it determines the nature and supply of physical resources.” Even on this view, it is the physical resources themselves that are the root cause of wealth! Of course, we couldn’t use them without extracting them, but the extraction is secondary, not primary. No resources, no extraction.
In fact, Pilzer seems to know nothing of either God or spiritual wealth.
Unfortunately, Pilzer’s mindset of gaining more and more and more is, and has been, the dominant one in western culture. It even has a Biblical sanction.
That’s a pity.
If we do not dramatically and radically restrict consumption, both by voluntarily reducing individual consumption and by voluntarily reducing the number of humans consuming, we’ll very quickly realize that Malthus was a much better economist than Pilzer and his ilk.
Thomas Malthus: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio” (from The Principle of Population).
Wouldn’t we be wise to reduce both human population and consumption voluntarily in as quick and painless a manner as possible?
Continuing to defile our home will only result in unnecessary pain and suffering.
All we need is wisdom – not more consumption or more people.
Ordinary humans look at other people and the world and wonder, “What can I gain from them?” If they are not stupid or uneducated, such egocentric fools are usually fanatics who are willfully ignorant.
By way of contrast, liberated humans look and realize, “I am that.”
As always, if you know from reading this, please someone who might benefit forward it.
Recommended resources: “The melting north” in The Economist (16-22 Jun 2012), E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful , and Nisargadatta’s I AM THAT. (If you are unfamiliar with it, The Economist is a weekly news magazine with a politically conservative stance.)