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Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing the Planet - Part 4

Transcript for the following video on changing our diet to save our planet:

As we’ve seen, animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming.

And the global warming situation is already critical

– this is a NASA satellite image which shows Greenland's massive ice sheet is shrinking rapidly – in fact global warming and melting of  Arctic ice is accelerating much more quickly than previously anticipated 

In 2006, scientists projected that the Arctic sea ice was melting so rapidly that it could disappear entirely by the summer of 2040.

But 2007 shattered records for  Arctic melt, with a greatly accelerated pace of ice melt.

From 7 million square km of ice in 1980, there is now only 3.5 million square km left. Normally, a certain amount of Arctic ice melts during the summer months, and then builds up again during the winter months, but with every passing year, the ice loss in summer has been greater, and the build up in winter has been smaller, resulting in less and less overall ice coverage.  This is a very serious problem, because arctic sea ice is important in reflecting the sun’s rays – with less ice coverage, more rays enter the sea, warming up the sea and causing further ice to melt. The problem becomes exponential.

Now,   NASA scientists predict that "At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions.

Even more worryingly, ice shelves attached to the massive Antarctic peninsula and the Western Antarctic ice sheet are now melting.

So you see the problem of global warming and melting of the polar ice caps is accelerating much faster than previously predicted or expected – we don’t have the time that we thought we had a few years ago…

The average global sea level is forecast to rise between 0.8 and 1.5 metres by the end of the century*.  A rise of close to only one metre will threaten huge areas of low lying coastal land as well as major cities such as New York, Tokyo and London. Many coastal cities and small island nations will become submerged – millions of people will be displaced from their homes – ‘environmental refugees’ as a result of sea level rise. More than half the world’s population lives near coastline areas – sea level rise will inevitably create a situation of mass migration.

We are already seeing some island nations being submerged – the Maldives (pic) have already lost several islands under water, Indonesia has lost many small islands already. The South Pacific island of Tuvalu will be submerged. The islands of Kiribati (pic) will be submerged – entire nations are going to be lost under water.

According to President Tong of Kiribati, “Climate change is not an issue of economic development, it is an issue of human survival,” “ If the world community, the different countries don’t kick the carbon habits, there’ll be other countries next on the line.”   We are in no position to believe that we are safe from the effects of climate change, in our country. Many of us will be directly affected by sea level rise, and even if we are not, then we will still need to accommodate the millions who have been directly affected and who will be seeking new housing, work and food.

The gradual sea level rise that is usually quoted,  is based on climate change models which do not take into account certain positive feedback mechanisms – these are certain changes in our environment, such as Arctic ice melt, which cause what is known as a tipping point, with an accelerated rise in temperature over a relatively short space of time, causing much more dramatic changes than have so far been predicted, for example with sea level rise.

There are a number of tipping points, some reversible and some irreversible, which have been clearly described by some leading scientists such as Dr James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The reason why most climate change models to date suggest we have more time, is because these tipping points have not been taken into account. In fact when they are put into the picture, the situation becomes much more urgent. The reaching and passing of these tipping points could potentially create a very different picture of the effects of global warming, and in a much shorter time frame, than is currently believed by most people, with potentially massive and even possibly catastrophic changes that may be experienced in our lifetimes and in our children’s lifetimes. This rapid, or ‘abrupt climate change’, has happened before, with temperatures changing by several degrees within only a decade – this is a catastrophic change that could potentially create another Ice Age in some parts of the globe, with intense warming in other parts.

….regarding the tipping point of the Arctic ice melt, there is a sinister aspect that could potentially lead to abrupt climate change…

You see, buried under the massive ice sheets is something, that if unearthed by the melting ice, could wreak devastation such as we have not known in the recent history of this planet.

Below the ice lie the remnants of billions of tons of animal and plant life, that once inhabited the land before the Ice Age. As ice melt continues to occur, this immense area of frozen soil, or ‘permafrost’, will thaw, and upon thawing, it will release methane gas. Vast amounts of methane gas. It is estimated that there are some 400 GIGATONS, that is, 400 billion tons, of methane gas which has been trapped under the ice sheets for tens of thousands of years. There is also a huge reservoir of solid methane hydrate beneath the ocean floor – this solid methane exists in the form of methane hydrate crystals, or ‘methane clathrate’. These deposits of methane clathrate are stable and harmless in cold temperatures, however as the ocean warms, the crystals become unstable and methane begins to be released. This melting of the permafrost and release of methane gas has been termed a ‘ticking time bomb’.

In fact melting of the permafrost has already begun – methane gas is already being released, but not yet in large enough quantities to endanger most people.

But scientists have warned that once methane continues to be released in greater and greater quantities, there will come a tipping point, when an uncontrollable feedback effect is created, causing a dramatic increase in temperature,

remember that methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming our atmosphere – this increase in temperature would in turn warm up the land, lakes and seas, further melting the permafrost and releasing more methane. In effect, a vicious circle is created, and once the tipping point is reached, there will be nothing that humans can do. It will result in a chain reaction and runaway global warming with resulting catastrophic effects on a planetary scale, the likes of which can only be described as apocalyptic.

The predicted effects on human civilization, if this massive release of methane were to occur, would be shocking to the extreme, even to think about. In fact human civilization, as we know it, would no longer exist.

The title of this talk therefore, is somewhat misleading – because it is not actually the survival of this planet that is at stake here – it is our own. This planet will continue to survive in some form, it’s just that it would not be habitable by humans.

This disaster of massive proportion has happened before on our planet – 250 million years ago, there occurred an event which came close to wiping out all life on Earth – The Great Dying, it’s called by paleontologists. Over 90% marine life and over 70% land life was wiped out. There have been several suggested causes for The Great Dying, with many scientists now rejecting some of the common theories such as the asteroid theory. A series of methane eruptions, however,  is considered by some as the most likely event that almost brought life on our planet to an end.

We would naturally prefer to believe that these changes will not  occur in our lifetimes. But you know scientists are often cautious about what they predict, and many have been shaken themselves, by the sheer pace of change, especially in the last couple of  years.

You see climatologists, geophysicists and scientists working in the Climate Change field already know all of this – they have been shouting about it for years. As far back as 1992, over 1600 of the world’s leading scientists, issued a warning to humanity of what lies ahead for us. They predicted ‘vast human misery’ if we did not bring our environmentally damaging activities under control.

This same huge union of scientists repeated their warning in 1997, with a Call for Action.

But their grave message does not seem to be reaching our ears.  The message we are hearing is that we have time. We have time to develop research tools to reduce emissions, we have time to strategise about global warming over the next 10 to 20 years. But the facts speak differently. The facts say that we don’t have time.

Considering the evidence we have, it looks as though we need to be making dramatic changes, including in our personal lifestyles, in order to effect the positive change that is needed, if we are to have any chance of preserving our planet, and protecting our children and their future.

We don’t have much time left to talk. We certainly don’t have time to debate. We only have time to act .

The call for urgent action is coming from all scientific quarters, including from the UN Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook report , which stresses  the need to take drastic steps to reduce emissions. This report states:

“The need couldn’t be more urgent and the time couldn’t be more opportune ……..  to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations.”


Dr Aryan practices as a Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine in the Hutt Valley, New Zealand.  Dr Aryan is also interested in the many-fold and far-reaching effects of our diets, and particularly how our diet affects the environment. She has written and spoken widely about this topic and has presented her talk, Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing Our Planet? in many venues around New Zealand. She has been interviewed about the link between diet and climate change by both local and national radio and newspapers.

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