Johann Hari: The WMD that really should be worrying us

If al-Qa'ida was unleashing this weather of mass destruction, we 
would do anything to stop them

Monday, 4 August 2008

Imagine if tomorrow the CIA and MI6 discover that Osama bin Laden has 
invented an incredible new weapon. This machine - stashed away in 
some dusty Afghan cave - doubles the intensity of hurricanes, causing 
them to drown a US city and kill nearly 2,000 people. It turns Spain 
and Australia dry in the worst droughts on record. It makes the 
oceans acidic, killing essential parts of the food chain. It is 
causes these acidic seas to rise and wash away whole nations like 
Bangladesh and Tuvalu. And if the machine is left switched on for too 
long, it will drown London and New York and Lagos and Kinshasa too.

This machine exists. It is called global warming - and we are our own 
Bin Laden. The world's scientists say our greenhouse gas emissions 
are causing this planetary cooking as surely as HIV causes Aids or 
smoking causes lung cancer.

If al-Qa'ida was unleashing this weather of mass destruction, we 
would do anything - anything - to stop them. But because the enemy is 
inside each one of us, we stagger on, building more airports and coal 
power stations and shrieking for cheaper oil. We are suffering from 
what psychologists call an "external context problem": this is so far 
outside anything we have experienced before, it instinctively seems 
it cannot possibly be true, no matter how much evidence washes at our 

This week, a small band of the sane is gathering to try to shake us 
awake. In the English countryside of Kent, thousands of ordinary 
people have set up camp to demand the British Government cancel its 
plans to build a new coal power station, with six others to follow. 
Coal is the worst warming-weapon, responsible for half of all the 
greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere. It is twice 
as warming as the next worst fossil fuel - natural gas - and more 
than a hundred times worse than wind power. The Climate Camp 
protesters are refusing to be part of Generation Zzzzzzzz, drugged by 
celebrity and consumption. Armed only with the science, they are 
urging us to be rational, now, while we still can.

To grasp the urgency of the situation, let's look at one aspect of 
global warming that has been widely overlooked. As you lie on a beach 
this summer and stare at the ocean, you should be aware it is 
becoming rapidly more acidic - because of your emissions.

The oceans are the greatest carbon sink we have. They have inhaled a 
third of the carbon dioxide pumped by us into the atmosphere and 
buried it on the ocean floor. But there is a price. When CO2 combines 
with water, it creates a fizzy carbonic acid. You taste this acid on 
your tongue every day in your can of Coke. The more carbon the ocean 
soaks up, the more acid it produces. Since the start of the 
Industrial Revolution, the acidity of the seas has soared by 30 
percent, and by the end of my life, it will have increased by 150 
percent - unless we reverse course fast. "A change of that magnitude 
is more than we have seen in 20 million years," says Richard Feely of 
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

Turning the seas acidic sets off a series of disasters, only some of 
which can be predicted in advance. Disaster one: The collapse of the 
oceanic food chain. At the turn of the century, the US, Japanese and 
German governments were so impressed by the capacity of the oceans to 
mop up CO2 that they proposed compressing emissions from power plants 
and pumping the goo into the sea. So a series of tank-experiments 
were set up to see what would happen. Once the water became strongly 
acidic, the shells of dozens of sea creatures - from sea urchins to 
molluscs - simply dissolved, and they died. The food chain collapsed; 
almost everything else in the experiment died too.

One of the creatures that is killed by acidity is the pteropod, a 
tiny little sea snail. That doesn't sound like a big deal - until you 
realise pteropods are the major food source for salmon, herring, cod 
and pollack. If they die, so does the staple food of hundreds of 
millions of humans. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Disaster two: the death of coral. Acidic oceans dissolve coral like a 
fizzing paracetamol in a glass. So the coral reefs - the rainforests 
of the ocean, home to a quarter of all sea life - are dying at a rate 
that has staggered the scientists who study them. And the Reefer 
Madness gets worse: atolls like the Maldives and Tuvalu have 
foundations made of coral, so they will dissolve and collapse, if 
rising sea levels don't get them first.

Disaster three: the seas will lose their ability to soak up carbon 
dioxide. The creatures that currently "eat" carbon dioxide and sink 
to the bottom of the ocean - shelled plankton - are killed by 
acidity. The result? A sharp acceleration in global warming up here. 
There is even a fear the vast amounts of methane stored in the oceans 
will be destabilised and rise to the surface. The last time this 
happened, 55 million years ago, it caused warming so rapid most life 
on earth died. Think of it as the fart at the end of the world. 
That's why the biological oceanographer Professor David Hutchins 
says: "Frankly, ocean acidification is apocalyptic in its impact."

But remember: these are only some of the effects on the oceans - and 
the oceans are only one dimension of global warming. Suddenly the 
analogy with the al-Qa'ida psychosis doesn't seem so extreme. As the 
environmental writer Mark Lynas notes: "If we had wanted to destroy 
as much of life on earth as possible, there would have been no better 
way of doing it than to dig up and burn as much fossil hydrocarbon as 
we possible could."

We need a sea change before the seas change irreversibly. That's why 
I will be going to the Climate Camp. Where will you say you were when 
the carbon bomb was fired into the atmosphere?

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