“Where have all the glaciers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the glaciers gone?
Long time ago.”
“Glacier mass loss has past the point of no return and we cannot prevent the continued melting of the world’s glaciers this century, even if we were to stop all emissions right this moment,” writes Dahr Jamail in The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption (The New Press, 2019).
“Even if all carbon dioxide and methane emissions stopped today, the planet is already warm enough that more than a third of all the glaciers outside Greenland and Antarctica will melt. Clearly we are looking at the end of most of Earth’s non-polar ice in far less than just one hundred years from now.”
The “Roof of the World” is a plateau in Asia ringed by high altitude mountains and covering an area greater than western Europe. It includes the Pamirs, the Himalayas, the Tibet, the Tian Shan and the Altai Mountains. Millions of people depend on it for water.
With some 37,000 glaciers on the Chinese side alone, the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains holds the largest volume of ice outside the polar regions. It is the source of the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges rivers and their ecosystems in Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam. Upwards of two billion people’s lives – a third of the world’s population – are affected and the ice is vanishing.
The Tibetan Plateau is heating up twice as fast as the global average over the past century. This warming is destroying the glaciers, which are especially sensitive to shifts in climate. But it’s not just happening here. All over the world, glaciers are melting with dire consequences for fresh water sources, food production, sea-levels, shoreline cities, and millions of migrants who will become refugees seeking salvation elsewhere.
In 2017, journalist and author David Wallace-Wells published an apocalyptic article in New York Magazine portraying a world of drought, plague, famine, acidified oceans, the rebirth of dormant diseases, cross-border conflict, economic collapse, and worse. His new book The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Allen Lane, 2019) corroborates all that Dahr Jamail has to say and more.
Are these writers simply being alarmist? Are they lying? No. It’s not if, but when; a question of survival; a matter of setting aside politics and economics in favour of aggressive action and a worldwide sharing of resources.
Dahr Jamail, for one, is still optimistic:
“For decades, many of us have turned a blind eye to what is happening to the planet. But now, given that Earth may well be dying, we may be ready to stand up to protect what we love. An extraordinary alchemy can take place when people follow their inner directives to stand up and face squarely the dire odds of biosphere survival. These actions involve extraordinary outer and inner courage, which can nurture a profound activism.”
Unfortunately, we cannot just wait and see. We have to decide now how to act and to set up schemes and contingencies that will not stop climate change, but may slow it down; that will not prevent the worst disasters, but may help alleviate suffering; that will not kick in for decades, but may leave the world a better place for our grandchildren. Climate change: How unselfish can we get?