Early Spring wildfires cover parts of North America with smoke. Record temperatures roast the Pacific Northwest, again. India and Thailand went into their ninth straight week of unbearable heat. That’s how it was last week. This week you will hear 3 of my best interviews on wildfires: Mike Flannigan, Andrew Sullivan & David Bowman. But first I want to explain why I almost gave up.
Listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)
Doing climate science is like war zone reporting. Sometimes the shells land too close. A few weeks ago my guests reported two significant developments. First, the engine that drives most of global ocean circulation has already weakened. Dr. Matthew England made this plain in our interview: essential currents around Antarctica have changed due to global warming. The ramifications are massive and global.
The second story, spread over two programs, revealed obscene spending and development plans by fossil fuel companies – all fed by the world’s largest investors and banks. They know fossil fuel burning wrecks lives and habitats. But they just made hundreds of billions of dollars profits and they want to feed that golden goose to make more. From the Arctic to the Amazon new wells, pipeline and shipping ports are fully funded, to be built during the next seven years.
Gas industry executives are clear they expect to keep shipping methane from those projects up to and beyond the year 2050. Somehow they persuaded a few governments to call methane “clean energy”. Never mind unnatural gas production leaks the powerful warming gas methane at every stage of production and distribution. Never mind it is burned into carbon dioxide lasting hundreds of thousands of years in the heated atmosphere.
THEY HAVE DECIDED
Earlier in the climate fight, we believed there was time. We expected a decision point, a time-frame when humans would either slash emissions or decide to keep developing and the rich will try to adapt. That decision point was always ahead of us. But now it has been made. Right out in the open, blessed by governments who claim green awareness, fossil fuel companies have committed us all to a world at least 3 degrees C. hotter than pre-industrial times. So why bother?
The future is planned and paid for, but not cast in stone. “We” did not decide to fry the world, to make billions homeless. About 60 people in the largest fossil fuel companies and countries decided to continue building their profitable operation. They are supported by hundreds more highly-paid people in big banks and investment houses. They donate a lot to politicians. They threaten economic ruin if they don’t get their way.
The Disney Corporation just canceled a billion-dollar project in Florida. In Canada 2020, Teck resources canceled it’s $20 billion tar sands mine after protests. In 2021, the Keystone XL pipeline was halted when U.S. President Joe Biden revoked a key permit.
Just because a few corporations and national companies say they are going to produce dangerous fossil fuels doesn’t mean we have to let it happen. Some countries can still vote for change. Others may need revolution. Billions of people depend on stopping the new surge of fossil fuel production.
When I began broadcasting Radio Ecoshock in 2006 on CFRO co-op Radio in Vancouver, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit an ominous level of 381 parts per million in the atmosphere. On May 9, 2013, CO2 levels in the air reached the level of 400 parts per million according to NASA. Reaching four hundred parts per million was scary. This week the air holds 421 ppm according to NOAA, and 423 according to the Bloomberg carbon clock. We are already well into the danger zone.
Investors and governments can choose to fund renewable energy or fossil fuels. Each of us can make that decision better and faster by reducing our own fossil burning. It’s hard. Stop flying, but what about when your brother is dying two thousand miles away?
UK author and columnist George Monbiot hit this right in his 2006 book “Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning”. In his book presentation in Vancouver, recorded by Radio Ecoshock, Monbiot pointed to the thorny problem of “love miles” – the travel that results from families now spread across continents or even the world. These love miles might be the last fossil fuels you and I burn, until fossil-free flight or bullet trains are available. Monbiot suggested we should choose mates living near to us so the new families can continue to meet without travel.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, corporate culture encouraged and then demanded families move around the country. The military does the same. Families were split up. Now we know the cost to the atmosphere, that needs to be reversed. Localism may be the survival mode, as it was in Medieval times, the last age before coal.
If we can’t change, you and I, then like the fossil fuel companies, we have already decided. We will keep our ill-gotten gains, our frantic supposedly easier lives. They can take our fossil addiction from our dead hands. And that may literally happen.
At the same time, we continually re-assess this question: what is reality? Science can help. The whole process of science is built on doubt. We realize our grasp of actuality is foggy, filled with pre-conceptions, wishes and superstitions. So we test against the physical world, measuring all sorts of things, checking, and recognizing possible error.
LOSING THE COMFORTABLE NARRATIVE ABOUT WILDFIRES
We know, for example, that wildfire smoke is not neutral for climate change. For years experts said fires are natural in nature. Wildfire smoke may cool local weather for a few days, but trees are adapted to fire and the forest will regrow. Some said the younger forests would capture more carbon than the mature trees that burned. That was a cycle we did not need to worry about, so long as homes did not burn down.
That comforting narrative is being disproved by new science. Wildfires can change large weather systems. An article published in October 2022 found, quote: “the heat and aerosols generated by wildfires in the western United States can intensify severe weather in the central United States.” Does that sound like this year with wild tornados and storm after storm?
THE CAULDRON OF THE BOREAL FOREST
Let’s look at Boreal fires, the giant firestorms sweeping across northern Canada and Russian Siberia. The headline: “Study reveals record-high carbon dioxide emissions from boreal fires in 2021”. They say “Boreal fires, which typically account for 10% of global fire carbon dioxide emissions, contributed 23% in 2021”.
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service reports this year’s fires are not as extreme as previous years. With their satellite eyes, CAMS reports this about fires in Russia:
As for Central and eastern Russia, seasonal fire activity started in April, but has increased during the first week of May. CAMS FRP data show active fires burning in a band stretching from Russia’s Chelyabinsk region across Omsk and Novosibirsk regions to Primorye in the Far East, affecting also Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Despite the increased daily total FRP in these regions of Russia, it is worth noting that the total estimated wildfire carbon emissions for April and May are below average for the period as of 9 May.
CAMS Senior Scientist, Mark Parrington told the press:“The scale and intensity of the current fires are reflecting increased fire risk following some weeks of drier than usual conditions. Wildfires are not particularly unusual in the boreal forests spring, and we have monitored fires in both Canada and Eurasia at this time of year in the past.”
Parrington has been a guest on this program. By comparison to the worst records, this is not a panic year in their view.
But then they say Northern Hemisphere fires have the highest carbon emissions since 2019. Quote:
“The CAMS data put carbon emissions from wildfires in Alberta at just over 5 megatonnes so far this year, which means that the province’s carbon emission are already the highest since the extreme fires experienced in May 2019, in which over 880,000 hectares were burned and the resulting smoke was transported across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Forest fires DO add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and contribute to warming. Whether some of that carbon will be recaptured depends on regrowth of the northern forests, which is no guaranteed given increasing extremes of heat and drought. Sometimes forests never come back.
Whether or not the carbon is recaptured, record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from burning forests comes at the worst time. Time is key here. With only a few years left to stop extinction-level warming, any greenhouse gases, from any source, pumps up the heat engine that begins to feed itself. Global warming can lead to more and faster global warming. Several scientists here on Radio Ecoshock, especially Tim Lenton and Johann Rockstrom identified dozens of tipping points into feedback loops humans can never stop.
Four major tipping points are likley to be triggered when the global mean temperature crosses 1.5 degrees C for any length of time. The World Meteorologic Organization just issued a press release saying Earth would cross that 1.5 degree mark one of these years, within the next five years. With the developing El Nino, that atmospheric milestone could come as early as 2025. We are in a drastic situation. Drastic action is required.
Global warming above 1.5C could trigger ‘multiple’ tipping points
You know these northern regions have been warming up to 4 times faster than the rest of the world. Just last week a settlement in the Canadian Arctic hit a crazy new record high. Forest fires in Northern Alberta began in late April, often a time when snow is still on the ground. This year hot summer weather struck in early May, and the first began in nearby British Columbia and the NorthWest Territories. In a couple of weeks I will talk with Mike Flannigan in Alberta to get the real picture.
The heat goes right down the Pacific Coast. All kinds of heat records were broken in Portland Oregon in early May. Vancouver, cool coastal Canadian Vancouver, hit 33 degrees C in the suburbs, feeling like 36 degrees or 96.8 Fahrenheit. That would be rare in August. It does not happen in early May. And all that sounds cool compared to 45C/113F in Thailand for a few weeks. Japan was sweating it out, but the G7 leaders did not discuss global warming. What is there to talk about? Everybody at the table has big energy backers. Nobody wants to rock the fragile economic boat. Large-scale society is paralyzed as big changes wash over us.
Find out about Extinction Rebellion.
It’s so bad, Harvard Magazine just published an article titled: “Financing Climate Adaptation – and Deciding What to Let Go”. Author Jonathan Shaw says, quote: “The economic scale of the required economic adaptation… is ‘beyond anything the public sector could possibly afford to fund.’”
“Triage / cutting losses is a necessary part of any sensible climate response.”
We all knew it would come to this. The rich elite admits climate change is now unstoppable. We can’t save everything, so they presume to set priorities for the rest of seven or eight billion people. Harvard must be saved of course – even though their multi-billion-dollar Endowment funds refused to divest from fossil fuels. They invested in wrecking the future students allegedly train for. Many universities still do, although a student-driven divest movement is growing.
Maybe this is why multi-billionaires seem to want fascism to badly. They know crowd control will be needed when hot humans rebel. They need a belief system that allows hundreds of millions of “others” to be displaced or killed in poorer parts of the world, along with the poor in their own countries. Repeated climate damage could lead to a more fair world, or much more injustice. That we don’t know yet.
I’m working on some interviews with surprising news about how this planet actually works. Those interviews will appear periodically, interspersed with replay interviews. Along with an overflowing river of climate news, I have family members that need help for a week or two. I will be in and out of the studio.
You can email me with your comments or interview suggestions. The address is radio at ecoshock dot org. I may not respond to all, but I read all. Listener tips led to some great guests. We will hear from one of them now.
FROM CANADA, DR. MIKE FLANNIGAN
* This interview with Dr. Mike Flannigan is from Radio Ecoshock May 27, 2011. Listen to/download the Mike Flannigan interview (13 min) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi
That interview with Canadian fire expert Michael Flannigan, first broadcast in May 2011 and still true 12 years later. Find out more from my blog for that program here.
FROM AUSTRALIA PROFESSOR ANDREW SULLIVAN
These interviews have been edited for length. Next up: Dr. Sullivan, first broadcast in March 2022. Find links to follow up in my show blog.
Listen to or download my 24 minute interview with Andrew Sullivan in CD Quality (22 MB) or Lo-Fi (6.3 MB)
FROM TASMANIA, DR. DAVID BOWMAN
Next we hear from Tasmania. Dr. David Bowman is a world-respected fire expert. We talked in January 2013. That interview with David Bowman was edited for length. Get the whole thing here.
Listen to/download the full David Bowman interview (23 min) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi
You can download or pass on all these interviews using easy links in this show blog Links for the Bowman interview are here..
We are out of time. Next week we talk with climate scientists about water vapor. Why are half the world’s lakes drying up? Is it true increasing water vapor could double the impacts of greenhouse gases humans dump into the atmosphere? Our guests are atmospheric scientist Dr. Andrew Dessler from Texas A&M and Dr. Ben Livneh from University of Colorado Boulder. Listen and learn.
Please support this independent science journalism with your donation, large or small.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and caring about our world.