A story in progress
Chapter 1. In the Beginning
And that’s how the opening lines of the story read for well over 100 years.
Chapter 2. A New Character
Eunice Foote was not only a pioneering American scientist but also a well-known inventor and women’s rights campaigner. Sorenson’s summary highlights the significance of the experiments conducted by Foote. Her most notable achievement was to demonstrate enhanced absorption of radiant heat energy by CO2. She also showed the potential for atmospheric warming due to rising CO2 levels. Significantly, this year (2019) is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Eunice Foot.
Chapter 3. Optimism
How wrong this proved to be, on all counts.
Chapter 4. Win Win Turns to Lose Lose Lose
In 1850 the Earth’s population was around 1.2 billion. It is now over 7.7 billion. This growth, along with industrialisation and increases in per capita production and consumption, has driven the increasing concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
While the Earth’s population increased 6.5 times since 1850, global CO? emissions are now over 150 times higher than they were back then. At that time the United Kingdom was the top emitter of CO?, with emissions nearly six times those of the country with the second-highest emissions, the United States. France, Germany and Belgium completed the list of top five emitters. Now China is the world’s largest emitter, followed by the United States, India, Russia and Japan. Significantly, while the United States has ranked as the world’s second-largest emitter from 1850 to today, its emissions have grown almost twice as fast as the increase in global emissions of CO2. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than for at least the last 800,000 years, and the rate of increase is unprecedented in the Earth’s history.
As anticipated, at least in qualitative terms, the oceans have indeed absorbed CO2 – around half of the global emissions since 1800. But even this saving grace comes at a cost. The absorption results in ocean acidification, thereby slowing the growth of calcareous organisms such as coral, while also reducing the rate of further CO2 uptake by the oceans.
The oceans have also taken up much of the additional heat initially trapped by the atmosphere. Indeed, more than 90% of the Earth’s energy imbalance between 1971 and 2010 has been stored as heat in the ocean. But once again, this has come at a cost. The additional heat in the ocean caused 40% of the global mean sea-level rise between 1993 to 2010. A warmer ocean further slows the rate of CO2 absorption, seriously impacts marine organisms and ecosystems, and has wider and serious negative consequences for natural and human systems, both terrestrial and marine.
The consequences of atmospheric and oceanic warming and acidification cascade through and impact all terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric systems. The changes are so pervasive we now use the umbrella term “climate change”, as opposed to the much narrower expression of “global warming”.
Chapter 5. Implications for the Pacific and Beyond
Ocean. Fish protein makes up 50-90% of animal protein consumption in rural areas of the Pacific, and 40-80% in urban areas. Pacific Ocean-based fishing and tourism alone provide USD 3.3 billion to the economies of Pacific Island countries and territories, amounting to 10.5% of regional GDP. More specifically, Melanesia’s ocean economy has an estimated worth of USD 548 billion, or USD 5.4 billion annually.
But studies suggest that by 2050 there will be a 20% decline in coral reef fish production in some Pacific Island countries. For 75% of Pacific Island countries and territories coastal fisheries will fail to meet food security needs by 2030, due to a combination of population growth (exacerbating unsustainable extraction), climate change and inadequate national distribution networks. Moreover, nine of seventeen Pacific Island countries and territories could experience declines of over 50% in maximum catch potential by 2100.
Chapter 6. From Hindsight to Foresight
Hindsight informs us that over recent decades, and despite the Pacific experiencing some of the highest rates of sea-level rise globally, over threequarters of the 394 Pacific atoll islands included in the study were stable in area. Importantly, nearly 20% of the islands increased in size, usually due to a combination of natural and human factors. The areas of less than 10% of the islands decreased in size. The finding that atoll islands affected by rapid sea-level rise did not show a distinct behaviour compared to other atoll islands is of even greater significance.
Recent physical modelling experiments of a reef island add credence to the above findings. The experiments demonstrated that overwash processes provide a mechanism to build and maintain the freeboard of such islands above sea level. Thus these islands have the capability to respond to rising sea level, through island accretion.
The above findings can be complemented by several important insights. The coastal areas of high islands, where people and built assets are usually concentrated, face levels of risk similar to those of atoll islands. Land tenure, infrastructure and other land uses limit the option to retreat in the face of sea-level rise, more damaging storm surges and other coastal hazards. And we all need to be reminded that there are multiple determinants of atoll and high island habitability in the longer term, not just sea-level rise.
In response, the Pacific is demonstrating considerable foresight. For example, the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific was endorsed by Pacific Leaders in 2016, and came into effect at the beginning of 2017. The Framework is a global first, where the Pacific seeks to reduce exposure to climate and disaster risk, support low carbon development and improve disaster response and reconstruction. It reflects an understanding of the need to manage climate and disaster risks as an integral part of development. The Framework promotes a “development first” approach, where the desired development outcomes are identified first, and then assessed to determine how climate and disaster risks may affect their achievement. As a result, identification and prioritization of investments relate to the overarching goal of resilient development, where the two goals of sustainable development and building resilience are achieved through a joint approach.
Does all this mean that, 20 years on, Schindler would have a different view of the “unfolding greenhouse mystery”? This condensed version of the story would suggest not.
While the plot has changed from solving the science to clarifying island and human futures, multiple objectives, tensions and maneuvering are enduring features of the climate change story