"In September, a few decades from now, our rich, colorful planet will display to a traveler in space only one white polar ice cap instead of two. There could hardly be a more portent symbol of what human beings are doing to our climate than the destruction of one of the Earth's ice caps."
That's according to John Broome, one of the lead authors on the United Nation's latest blockbuster climate report:
"Since its cause is principally our burning of fossil fuel, it should make us fear what might be the next result of continuing in the same way. But, avarice has overcome fear. The surrounding nations see the retreat of ice as an opportunity to extract from beneath the Arctic Ocean yet more supplies of oil and gas to burn," writes the White's professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University in 'Climate Matters.'
Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as the global average.
That's because the Arctic is far more sensitive to climate change than the rest of the world. When sunlight falls on snow and ice, it is reflected back into space. But, when it falls on water, that energy is absorbed. Since the 1970's, a third of the Arctic's summer ice has retreated to leave vast stretches of water.
And, to make matters worse, there are vast stores of methane gas that are currently trapped in the permafrost underneath that ice. Triggering its release could be "catastrophic," says the greying philosopher. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas which has the power to exacerbate global warming 25-fold.
But, warming temperatures mean that some of it is has already started to escape. Acccording to Broome, "there is enough methane there to destroy" the entire human race. And, the terrifying thing is: we may have "already passed that tipping point."
Having had teaching posts at Oxford, Stanford and Princeton University, Broome was one of 800 authors who contributed to the UN's latest blockbuster climate series. At his home near the southern English coast, he says that "the message that comes out of these reports, although very conservative, is actually rather frightening."
According to the UN, our planet is currently on track to warm by four degrees Celsius before the turn of this century. Such a temperature rise will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age.
Five years ago, world leaders vowed to restrict the warming of our planet to two degrees Celsius, concluding that this was the upper "safe limit". But, according to Broome, "there is no scientific basis for the 2C target. It was dreamt up a German climatologist in the 1990's, and it kind of caught on."
Citing James Hansen, NASA's former top climate scientist, Broome says that 2C of warming will lead to significant ice loss in both Greenland and Antarctica, ushering in a six meter sea level rise which would inundate major cities such as London, New York and Hong Kong.
His warning comes less than three months before world leaders gather in Paris to strike a make-or-break deal to pull our planet back from the brink of catastrophic climate change. Scientists say that the sum total of the bids tabled thus far will only postpone dangerous warming by a few years.
But, according to Broome, president Barack Obama's recent pledge to slash emissions from the energy sector by 32% by 2030 is some cause for optimism: "If the US does something strong, it may be that other countries will be persuaded to act as well."
Yet, at other times, he is more pessimistic: "The French appear to be more concerned about getting an agreement, than a worthwhile agreement. So, that may mean reaching for whatever agreement there is. And, what there is is the agreement between the United States and China."
Last November, Obama vowed that America will cut its carbon pollution by over a quarter over the next ten years. And, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping pledged that his nation's greenhouse gases will peak by 2030.
Although the world's second largest economy has been criticized for not going far enough, Broome says that as China is still developing, it is entitled to make emissions. It still has 100 million people living in chronic poverty, living on less than $400 a year:
"Moreover, China is making a lot of these emissions for the sake of other poeple. They're making emissions to build products for people in rich nations to consume. So, a better way of judging this is by looking at the goods that create the emissions, rather than the countries that are making the emissions."
According to Broome, as rich nations are historically responsible for the climate crisis, they have a moral duty to compensate poor nations already suffering at the hand of climate change. In his book, he cites the low rising Pacific islands of Tuvalu as an example:
"The Tavaluans have contributed virtually nothing to climate change. Yet, owing to rising sea levels, the islands may become uninhabitable within a few decades. But, the threat of homelessness has been visited on them by profligate rich nations far away."
And soon, innocent people all over the world will find their lives similarly threatened.
According to one report, climate change will cause one million deaths by 2030. And, "since the killing will continue for decades, tens of millions will be killed in total," says Broome.
In order to temper such a destructive fate, Broome adopts the UN line that all nations must emit zero emissions by 2100.
That means that the much celebrated G7 pledge to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century is "not ambitious enough:
"The G7 must have negative emissions by then, and be zero sometime before that. We are very very far from what needs to be done."
Negative emissions mean sucking some carbon dioxide up out of the atmosphere. This can involve fairly benign means such as planting vast forests of trees. But, it can also involve more nefarious measures such as spraying the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide in order to reflect the sun's rays back into space.
According to one report, this could usher in devastating regional effects which could condemn millions of people in the tropics to severe drought. Broome says:
"It sounds horrifying to me, and one of the worrying things is that it is really quite cheap. So, any country could just start doing this. I heard rumors that China has already started. But, you wouldn't actually know. It certainly wouldn't be announced."
According to Broome, what we urgently need is a carbon tax.
At present, anyone is allowed to pollute our "common" atmosphere for free. Instead, fossil fuel companies should be taxed for all the carbon that they take out of the ground. And, individuals should be taxed for all the carbon that their purchases contain: "This figure needs to be the monetary value of harm that is caused by emitting a tonne of carbon," says Broome.
And to make sure that everyone benefits, "the revenue that is raised can be used to reduce income tax." It can also be used to "buy off opposing political interests" like the fossil fuel companies:
"A just outcome involves vested interests losing to people they have been harming all this time. But, I don't think that is obtainable. So, I think that we'll have to pay them off. It's the only way that we're actually going to get anything done about climate change."