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Climate Scientist Jason Box: “Our Economic System Is Crashing with Reality”

Web ExclusiveAugust 02, 2019
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A heat wave is causing unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization just declared July 2019 the hottest month ever recorded. We speak with Jason Box, professor and ice climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about the intensifying climate crisis. He says humanity must move toward living in balance with the environment. “If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately stabilize CO2 … there’s no real prospect for a stable society or even a governable society,” Box says. “Perpetual growth on a finite planet is, by definition, impossible.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our discussion of the climate crisis, its effect on Greenland and the world. The massive heat dome that shattered all-time temperature records across much of Europe last week has settled in over Greenland, driving temperatures across the vast region to as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. In July, Greenland’s ice sheet lost almost 200 billion tons of ice, the equivalent of around 80 million Olympic swimming pools. This comes as the World Meteorological Organization said Thursday that July was the warmest month in recorded human history. That followed the hottest June on record, as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels climbed to a record high of 415 parts per million earlier this year.

We’re continuing our discussion in Copenhagen, Denmark, with Jason Box, professor and ice climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

Jason, thanks so much for continuing with us. Explain why you have worked on Greenland for so long, why Greenland is so significant in the world. And for people who are watching this from the tip of Latin America to Asia to Africa, why should we pay attention to Greenland? What is so unique about it? And what does this surge in temperature, hot temperature, mean?

JASON BOX: I’ve been working studying Greenland, starting with my studies in the U.S. at the University of Colorado, working with some excellent people. And for 15 years, we worked on Greenland. I then took a job in Copenhagen doing a lot of the same work. We are running a monitoring system at the surface, where we get hard numbers to check models and satellites.

And Greenland is iconic because of its large size. It’s like three times the area of Texas. It has a huge potential for sea level rise. Until now, larger — smaller ice bodies in Arctic Canada, Alaska and the Alps have actually been contributing more, relative to their area, than Greenland has. Now Greenland has taken the lead position for the last 20 years in its sea level contribution. So, it’s kind of stealing the show. But, meanwhile, like just this month, last month, alpine glaciers in the Alps, setting all-time loss records, Arctic Canada, Alaska. So, this is a global pattern.

It is the result of elevated natural greenhouse effect. We’ve almost increased CO2 by 50% above preindustrial levels. It’s unequivocal that the observed climate warming is the direct result of this excess CO2 in the atmosphere. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to see record-warm temperatures, records being set year after year, going forward. And it’s actually intensifying. I think it’s no longer a subtle signal. And so, you know, the land ice, it definitely tells a story. It reacts to warming, but much more immediate consequences come from the continents, which are warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world. And that is a direct — directly undermines food systems and water security.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does Greenland look like?

JASON BOX: In summer, you have a seasonal snow cover that builds up. This year is actually really thin snow cover, winter snow, and then that melts off, exposing a really dark, bare ice surface. It kind of looks like concrete, but it has a lot of water coursing over the surface, a huge amount of water production at the surface over vast areas, and that water then drains in. It actually heats the ice internally. Warmer ice is softer. It flows faster. The same water then lubricates the ice of the bed, speeding it towards the sea. The same water then ejects out into the marine environment and actually drives more heat exchange with a warming ocean. So there’s lots of connections that we’ve established in looking at large ice bodies like Greenland, and we see a lot of interconnection.

The story, of course, doesn’t end when the icebergs break off Greenland or melt into the sea. That extra freshwater is disrupting ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, one of the key parts of the global ocean circulation system that is being disrupted heavily now. It’s probably going to increase storminess in northwestern Europe. We’ve seen some conspicuous examples of that. This enhanced greenhouse effect is putting a lot more moisture into the atmosphere. So, actually, the Arctic is getting wetter, the continents drier. We have profound shifts in the hydrologic system globally, and they’re really starting to be not so subtle anymore.

And we’re going to see this year after year as various records are set, not just dry and hot, but sometimes wet and even cold, because the extremes are increasing as our jet stream gets a lot less steady. It’s normally the jet stream should go flowing more east-west, but now we have these big dips in the jet stream, and that’s how you can get really warm air to the north, really cold air to the south, and then, along those boundaries, sometimes severe weather, storms. And that’s going to make it really hard for farming to predict how to — you know, for irrigation. Farmers used to be able to depend on weather being a certain way, and knowing when to plant and harvest. And that reliability in climate is — we’re starting to lose that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the major report that you did about the Arctic, that you helped write, in April, concluding, “The Arctic biophysical system is now clearly trending away from its 20th Century state and into an unprecedented state, with implications not only within but beyond the Arctic”? Explain.

JASON BOX: I was part of a study where we looked across multiple disciplines and we kind of zoomed out, because we tend to, you know, focus on our favorite region. But this was a pan-Arctic study, also interdisciplinary. We were looking at the biological system at the surface, the ocean system. And when you zoom out, you actually start to see more of the connections and how profoundly the Arctic system is changing.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world because of a number of feedback processes, like the removal of a reflective cover of snow or sea ice, leading to the large increase in the absorption of sunlight; the increase in rainfall and precipitation actually leading to more plant growth, the so-called shrubification of the Arctic. Increasing lightning ignition is now clearly linked with increasing temperature and precipitation. There’s more lightning that provides the trigger mechanism for the increasing wildfires that we’re seeing. This interconnected system, because it’s warming so fast, makes the signal that much easier to see.

Then the study looked forward into the future, and there’s no real prospect, under the most likely climate scenarios, either business as usual or some kind of Paris Climate Agreement-type scenario. We see, even in the Paris climate scenario, a permanently transformed biophysical system of the Arctic, with effects that radiate outside of the Arctic, like sea level rise, like the disruption of weather patterns, that is now being already felt in the midlatitudes. So, the Arctic plays an important role in hemispheric climate, and the signal is very clear.

AMY GOODMAN: A new study finds even modest shifts in government subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward renewables could lead to a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions. The International Institute for Sustainable Development says governments spend some $372 billion each year subsidizing coal, oil and gas. If as little as 10% of that money was invested in wind, solar and other renewables, countries could see a nearly 20% drop in carbon dioxide pollution. Jason Box, can you explain the significance of this? Many people may not understand, for example, in the United States — and that’s where you trained, were educated — that we continue to subsidize the coal, the oil, the gas industry in this country.

JASON BOX: Gasoline is so affordable in the U.S. because it’s heavily subsidized. And that enables the U.S. economy to rev up like it does. And it’s not surprising that there are proponents who want to continue subsidizing petroleum to keep the existing economic system running. However, the externalities of that economic system are producing radical environmental impacts, like climate change, to a point that we can’t really ignore them anymore.

It’s good news that studies are showing that by reducing carbon emissions and putting investments into lower-carbon energy systems, that we can achieve the needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately stabilize CO2 — and we also have to draw down a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. If we don’t achieve that, there’s no real prospect for a stable society or even a governable society, going forward, on a — perpetual growth on a finite planet is, by definition, impossible. So we have to confront the reality that we need an economic system that recognizes the important services that the atmosphere provides to us for free. And so, our economic system is crashing with reality. And so, reports that are detailing the sustainability prospects of shifting investments into cleaner energy are not only welcome, they’re necessary, if we want a stable global society.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the significance of President Trump being a climate change denier, what this means, with the United States the historically greatest greenhouse gas emitter, how this affects the rest of your world — as an American, you are now looking at the U.S. through a vantage point outside of the United States — how this kind of climate change denial affects policy in the world?

JASON BOX: The effect recently with the European elections has been the so-called green wave. There’s been a progressive — I think it might be a reaction to the publicity that climate change has been getting. And so, we see a more rational, more kind of humanitarian approach to environment and climate emerging in Europe, because the facts are very clear and there’s less of — there’s less denial of this, of science and the environmental crisis that we face in Europe, for one.

I think a lot of the world, like here in Denmark, they’re watching the U.S. very carefully but not really falling into the lies that are being spread by the Trump administration, which clearly want to maintain a status quo, because it’s extremely profitable for a lot of people that are supporting Trump just to perpetuate and, I think, to be able to exploit petroleum while they still can. I think those days are numbered. Hopefully, you know, the truth prevails, and the world realizes that we need to not only leave fossil fuels in the ground, we need to protect existing forests and reestablish forests in some attempt to stabilize this increase in atmospheric carbon that threatens global society.

AMY GOODMAN: Jason Box, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor and ice climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, speaking to us from Copenhagen. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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