We’re not just living on a finite planet; we’re living on a melting one.
I wish. Today, a report presented at COP18 – Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost, for the curious – detailed the rapid and large-scale thawing of permafrost in the Arctic and what that means for the climate.
Permafrost, for the uninitiated, is a layer of soil that has remained at 0 degrees Celsius for a period of 2 years or more. Active permafrost thaws seasonally in the summers, only to freeze again in the colder months. Permafrost also stores carbon, often in the form of peat and methane.
And therein lies the problem. Greenhouse gas emissions have now warmed the global temperature to the point that methane gas has begun leaking from the permafrost. And according to the report, “while human emissions can be measured in hundreds of millions of tonnes, the Arctic’s stores are measured in tens of billions” – presenting a huge problem when it comes to the creation of a positive feedback loop in which climate change becomes an uncontrollable force.
The report goes on to detail that at current rates, permafrost thawing could account for more greenhouse gas emissions than those of the US and the European Union’s combined total emissions over the last year. With rates like this, the world is now on the fast track to 2 degrees and beyond.
It used to be that permafrost thaw was thought to happen so slowly that it would never really account for much. This report details that permafrost emissions may account for 39% of total emissions…and it’s starting to emit them right now.
To look at this differently; I have a friend who told me a story of living in Northern Canada. His family, as they had for generations, traditionally dug holes in the frozen ground to store fish over the winter and into the spring. A few years ago, this tradition began to come to an end, as they could no longer dig holes deep enough for the fish to remain preserved over the winter – when his family returned over the course of the winter months, they returned to find rotten fish in their storage spaces.
We should never depend on isolated, traditional communities to become the canary in the coal mine for the rest of our society, and yet that is precisely what we have been doing over the past years – as negotiators sit and make trite remarks about why climate change is not their responsibility and it’s up to someone else to save the day, Indigenous communities around the world have been shouldering the burden of their inaction.
Only now that white, settler societies have begun to experience the effects of climate change themselves are we seeing an emergence in tough words and calls to action – and even then, often only for a sound bite or media plug. It’s too little, too late and as this report indicates, things are happening much faster than predicted.
Now, as we begin seeing the effects of this permafrost melt coupled with international inaction to address even human produced emissions, we are being confronted with the consequences of a capitalist, colonialist society and we have no where to run and hide from those cold, hard, and thawing facts.