Melting of Antarctic Ice Sheet Unstoppable, Will Raise Sea Levels Worldwide

Posted May 21, 2014

MP3 Interview with Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in-residence and board secretary of the Post Carbon Institute, conducted by Scott Harris

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Two teams of scientists have reported that the Western Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing as a result of global climate change, and is already triggering a rise in sea level at a faster rate than previously forecast. Researchers say that the melting of the entire western Antarctica ice sheet may eventually increase sea levels by as much as 13 feet. These conclusions were confirmed by several years of readings from the European Space Agency's CryoSat 2 satellite. The data collected indicates that Antarctica's ice sheets are losing nearly 160 billion tons of ice per year — which is twice as much as the estimates from previous surveys.

The melting, which over the next 200 to 1,000 years, inundate low-lying coastal regions across the globe making them uninhabitable. A rise of less than four feet of sea level would flood U.S. coastal cities including: Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston, where more than three and a half-million people live today. Scientists involved in the research say that the melting of the Antarctic ice is unstoppable, even with concerted and urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But without a rapid reduction in those emissions, the rate of melting ice in the polar regions, and in Greenland, will almost certainly increase.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute and author of 11 books on energy and the environment. Here, he discusses the recent reports on melting ice in the Antarctic and the importance of instituting policies to move away from fossil fuels and toward developing renewable, green energy sources.

RICHARD HEINBERG: Well, this study, that was done by NASA and published in the American Geophysical Union Journal, suggests that the melting is going to take place over a fairly long period of time, and no one can say for sure, but probably over centuries. But what’s distressing is the scale of what’s melting. I mean once all of this ice is melted, the world’s oceans will be over 100 feet higher than they are today so it’ll be a different world, different coastlines. And, the other thing that’s disturbing about this is the word "irreversible." The authors of this study were very careful in choosing their words. Effectively, even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, this melting and disintegration of the ice sheet will continue in any case as a result of the greenhouse gasses we’ve already put into the earth’s atmosphere and the self-reinforcing feedbacks that have already kicked in. So, on top of the melting of the north polar ice cap, and the increasing rate of melting of the glaciers on Greenland, now we have this irreversible melting in Antarctica. It’s all, as you can imagine, very, very bad news.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Richard, as someone who’s studied the fossil fuel industry and the alternatives, the green alternatives to fossil fuels as our energy source, what is the most important thing that we could do now as a country, and as a world community, to address this? There seems to be so much climate change denial in our politics, especially in the United States, that it’s dispiriting and frustrating to understand our government is really not responding to the crisis.

RICHARD HEINBERG: Well, it’s important, of course, for citizens to make their voices known about this problem. You know, policymakers have a tough time with this because in order to address climate change, we’re going to have to get off the energy sources that made the industrial revolution and all of the immense wealth creation of the last few decades possible. And fossil fuels really are remarkable from the energy standpoint. They’re energy dense, in the case of oil, highly portable. Oil runs virtually all of our transportation, and we rely on that not just for getting, you know, from A to B, but also transporting food and products and manufacturing processes, agriculture, on and on and on. We’re immensely dependent on fossil fuels. So, getting off of fossil fuels is a big job and it’s going to entail some sacrifices. And no politician wants to get out in front of an audience and say, "Well, you know, we have some hard work ahead of us and we’re going to have to make sacrifices." Politicians want to say, "Oh, if you vote for me everything’s going to be better. We’ll have lots of economic growth, no problems."

And, that’s just, unfortunately not the real world in the 21st century. We have a lot of belt tightening to do. We’re going to have to reduce our energy consumption, reducing our fossil fuel consumption in agriculture, and changing our patterns of transportation, land use, the way we design our cities. Lot’s of things are going to have to happen and it’s going to take leadership. If we’re going to make it through this difficult time, we’re going to have to have planning and leadership.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think the most effective thing people who are concerned about climate change and the lack of action on the part of our government in the face of large contributions to politicians from the billionaire Koch brothers and folks of that sort who are very much, I think, steering our politics away from addressing climate change. What’s an effective thing that we can all do?

RICHARD HEINBERG: Well, there’s a lot actually. I mean, working to fix our political system is one thing, but that’s a long-range task. But also, working locally, you know, there are wonderful programs all across the country that are regional, local, city-wide, county-wide, in some cases state-wide, that really are working to change policies, to change our trajectory with relation to energy and fossil fuels. So, getting involved in those projects locally, things like transition towns that are totally grassroots where people just get together and say, you know, "What can we do right now with what we know and the tools at our disposal? What can we do in our own lives and communities to reduce our fossil fuel consumption?" That kind of thing is exciting and it really makes a difference and it doesn’t require, you know, this long-range, slow, difficult process of changing our political system, which has to happen but, you know, it can’t happen overnight.

Richard Heinberg is author of 11 books – his most recent, titled, "Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future." Find more information on the melting of Antarctic ice and groups working to address climate change by visiting postcarbon.org, resilience.org and richardheinberg.com. This transcript was compiled by Evan Bieder.

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