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Melting icecap puts Europe’s woes in perspective

My Italian instructor, Simona, put the European crisis in fine perspective a while ago, as Italy tripped headlong into another recession and its hapless Mediterranean colleagues, Greece and Spain, redecorated their economies in stunning Titanic motif.

"We've seen worse," she said, pausing for dramatic effect. "The fourth century was pretty bad."

Historically speaking, the crisis (formerly the "debt crisis") is a bump on the road, a pea under the mattress. Somehow, Europe and its people will survive. Simona decided instead to worry about remodelling her apartment. Me? I worried about climate change. My worry wins.

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Climate change was always one of those amorphous blob concepts, vaguely threatening, but only vaguely, because you could not stick your head out the window and see it. For most people, at least for those in the wealthy parts of the world, where food comes from supermarkets and air conditioning means bursting thermometers can be ignored, climate change was someone else's problem.

Not any more. Extreme weather has gone from rare to almost normal. Munich Re, the reinsurance giant, reports that weather-related disasters have tripled since 1980. The record heat wave in the United States in the early summer brought relentless drought and fire. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average U.S. temperature in June was 71.2 degrees Fahrenheit (21.7 C). That was 2 degrees higher than the 20th century average.

More horrific news was to come. The Arctic icecap is disappearing at shock and awe rates, far faster than the vast majority of climate scientists predicted only a few years ago. Some of the early forecasts said the Arctic would be free of ice in the summer by 2100. Then it was 2050, then 2020. Even that date may be optimistic as the atmosphere is used as a free dumping ground for ever rising carbon dioxide emissions. Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Oceans Physics Group at Cambridge University, has predicted the outright collapse of summer Arctic sea ice within four years, according to The Guardian.

While the forecasts for the arrival of the first ice-free Arctic summer vary considerably, thanks in part to the limitations of computer modelling, there is no doubt the Arctic is reshaping itself at a speed that will have potentially severe global ecological and economic implications. The danger is that humans, plants, animals and the seas will no be able to adapt quickly to the disappearance of the "earth's air conditioner," as it has been called.

The apparent low point for Arctic ice coverage this year was reached on Sept. 16, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center of the United States (which brings together environmental scientists from University of Colorado Boulder with NASA). Satellite records showed that the extent of the sea ice had fallen to 3.41 million square kilometres, a record low representing 24 per cent of the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The previous low was 29 per cent, set in 2007. There has been no bigger ice melt since 1979, when the first satellite scans were made.

The fear is that Greenland's ice cap could be the next melt victim as "feedback loops," in which small amounts of warming trigger more warming, gain momentum. Less ice means more dark spots – the ocean – which absorb more heat than do the bright ice packs. As more heat is absorbed, the Arctic warms up. Not only is the ice disappearing, but also the snowpack on land. Canadian scientists have warned that the snow is vanishing evening faster than the ice in some Arctic areas.

Scientists, environmentalists and agronomists are busy studying the fallout of the diminished Arctic ice. It could have dramatic effects on ocean salinity, ocean currents, sea levels, global weather patterns, rainfall, wind intensities and species migration and reproduction. All of which translates into a changing economy, and not necessarily for the better.

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A new report published this week titled "Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet," is one of the first studies that delves into climate change's effect on global gross domestic product. It was commissioned by DARA, a non-profit group that monitors aid programs, and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and was written by more than 50 scientists, economists and policy strategists commissioned by 20 governments.

Its findings are bleak: Climate change is already costing $1.2-trillion (U.S.) a year and is reducing global GDP by 1.6 per cent. It is contributing to the deaths of almost 400,000 people a year. The effect in developing countries is particularly harsh, because farming productivity can plummet as temperatures rise. The U.S. drought in the summer raised food prices, especially corn, and weird monsoon patterns in India, which may have been due to climate change, damaged agricultural output.

Climate change skeptics, from the ultra-conservative think tanks to oil company executives, have spent years attacking climate change scientists and politicians who dared to believe that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions were accelerating global warming. The scientists were pilloried if they got the slightest thing wrong. Guess what? The scientists did get one huge thing wrong – they vastly underestimated the rate of the Arctic ice melt.

The economic effects are still largely unknown, but evidence is building that it will not be sweet. Makes you wonder why so much energy and money is being devoted to far lesser crises.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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