Socialist View, No.14, Spring 2005

Environmental destruction, another warning sign -

Global Dimming

MOST OF US have heard of global warming and the dangers that it holds for the human race and the planet. However, far fewer are aware of a process called global dimming which also threatens the lives of billions of people and paints an even darker picture of the damage capitalism is doing to our world.

By Daniel Waldron

Global dimming means that the amount of light energy reaching the earth's surface is decreasing, and decreasing rapidly, the evidence suggests. Until recently, it was largely rejected as a theory by the scientific community. If our planet is getting warmer, as we know it is, how can less energy from the Sun be getting into our atmosphere? However, concrete evidence produced independently by scientists across the globe has forced most cynics to accept that global dimming is a real process with serious climatic consequences. Research carried out by measuring the rate of evaporation of water has showed that between the 1950s and 1990s, the level of light energy reaching the planet's surface had dropped by 10% in the USA, 16% in Britain and Ireland and almost 30% in Russia. This dramatic global trend could not be denied. It then became vital to find out what was causing this change.

Professor Veerabhadran Ramana-than had become aware of the decrease in sunlight reaching the Earth's surface in the mid-90s. For him there was one obvious potential culprit behind this change - pollution. He decided that the Maldives was the ideal place to find out. This chain of islands in the Indian Ocean seems unpolluted, but while the south of the country receives pure, uncontaminated air from the Antarctic, the northern islands receive a stream of air from India full of visible particles of pollution, such as soot and sulphur. He set up Project INDOEX, which became a multinational effort, to see if the different levels of air pollution in the Maldives would correspond with varying levels of sunlight penetrating the atmosphere. The results were conclusive. The area of the Maldives in the stream of polluted air received 10% less light energy from the sun than the unpolluted south.

Through this research, scientists became aware that visible airborne pollutants such as ash, soot and sulphur dioxide were responsible for global dimming because of their effect on cloud formation. Clouds form when moisture in the air condenses around visible particles, normally pollen grains or sea salt. However, man-made air pollution means that there are now far more of these particles for moisture to condense around. This means that clouds in polluted air are made up of many more, much smaller droplets of water than would naturally be the case. The droplets in the clouds thus have a larger surface area overall, causing them to reflect much more light energy from the sun away from earth.

Global dimming has the potential to radically change the planet's rainfall patterns. It contributed to the horrific famine in Ethiopia in 1984, which took the lives of over a million people. Ethiopia lies in the sub-Saharan region of Africa known as the Sahel. This area is dry for most of the year. Agriculture is reliant upon the summer monsoon, which occurs when the sun warms the oceans to the north of the equator, drawing with it a belt of rain. However, air pollution over the Sahel carried from Europe and America prevented this from happening. For 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s, the rain belt moved southwards rather than into the Sahel, leading to huge human suffering.

Scientists fear that, if allowed to continue, global dimming could have even more dire consequences. An area of Asia with a population of 3.6 billion is also dependent on the same seasonal monsoons. If these were affected over a period of time, billions of lives could be lost.

Fortunately, visible air pollution can be easily and relatively cheaply tackled. Due to public pressure, some small steps towards doing so have been taken by governments in Europe. It means fitting scrubbers in power stations, catalytic converters in cars and using fuels with a low sulphur content. However, these measures on their own can potentially do more harm than good. Despite the threat to life on our planet that global dimming posed, it has actually been slowing the rate of global warming. The large increase in reflection of the sun's energy means that less heat energy is being trapped in the earth's atmosphere than would otherwise be the case. Thus, tackling global dimming without significantly decreasing carbon dioxide emissions could in fact speed up climate change. This was shown in the summer of 2003, with forest fires in Portugal, glaciers melting in the Alps and people dying in their thousands in France.

Dr. David Travis got a glimpse of how rapidly global warming could take hold without the counterweight of global dimming. Based in Wisconsin, USA, he noticed a strange change in the weather in the three days after the September 11th attacks. During this period, all air travel was grounded inside the US. There were no contrails of planes crossing the sky. For these three days, the sky was unusually clear and the days unusually warm. Dr. Travis gathered data from weather station across the United States. He noticed that the days were warmer and the nights were cooler. Comparing the temperature range during these three days with that of the previous three, there was a leap of 1 degree centigrade. While this doesn't sound like much, it represents the biggest temperature swing in the last thirty years. This shows what unrestrained global warming will mean for our world - a move to a climate of extremes. Obviously, what we have to do is tackle both global warming and global dimming in tandem by rapidly cutting emissions of both carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as well as visible particles such as soot and sulphur dioxide. However, despite huge public pressure, governments are much less willing to seriously combat the causes of global warming than of global dimming. To do so would require a huge reduction in the use of fossil fuels, such as oil, and developing an energy supply based on alternative, renewable energy sources. The opulent capitalists who control the world's oil reserves don't want their "black gold" to lose its huge value and profitability. They have used their wealth and economic influence to pressurise governments to hold back environmental measures aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions. They have also stunted the development of the use of renewable energy.

The Kyoto Agreement that some governments around the world signed up to in 2001 commits them to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 1-3% on 1990 levels by 2012. This will have little to no effect, as most serious environmental experts suggest we need to cut the emissions by 60-80%. However, even this derisory target was too much for Bush to agree to.

The Bush administration has frequently denied that global warming is taking place, despite the ever-growing mountain of evidence, and has suggested that if global warming is taking place, perhaps it isn't a bad thing. It seems that common sense is a rare commodity in the White House. It is no coincidence that Bush's biggest financial backers by far are oil barons who have a symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party. The United States produces 25% of the world's carbon dioxide with only 5.5% of its population. Without their participation and that of China, the world's fastest growing economy, no agreement on carbon dioxide emissions could ever be enough to save our planet. Even at the current level of global dimming, by 2030 the ice caps could begin to melt, leading to a rise in sea levels of around 8 metres over a long period of time, causing huge flooding. The drying of the Amazon Basin would make the rainforests susceptible to fire. This huge release of carbon dioxide would speed up global warming even further. In a century, the world could be 10 degrees hotter. Ireland would have a climate similar to that of North Africa today. Countries that are already hot would become virtually uninhabitable. Some scientists believe it would result in the greatest mass extinction since the evolution of life and that five billion people could die.

This is a nightmarish scenario for the future of our world. However, global warming is only one symptom of capitalism's disregard for our environment. Thousands of species across the world are endangered by the destruction of their environment in the name of profit. Large sections of the Amazon rainforest have been "slashed and burned" to provide land for cattle ranches, with the meat produced often being supplied to huge corporations like McDonald's. This method removes huge amounts of nutrients from the earth, making the land infertile, robbing many unique species of their environments, destroying plants with potential medical properties and, of course, decreasing the planet's capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is currently a huge depopulation going on in our seas due to over-fishing and marine pollution. For example, it is estimated that the humpback whale population is only 20,000. It stood at around 1.5 million in 1800. This depopulation has serious direct consequences for humanity, since around 70% of the world's population is reliant upon seafood as its primary source of nutrition.

Capitalism's over-riding driving factor is profit. This system will bring our planet to the brink of destruction and destroy the lives of billions if allowed to continue. We need a socialist solution to these problems. With the world's resources taken into democratic public ownership on the basis of a planned economy, people's needs can be met, technology advanced and the quality of life of the mass of humanity vastly improved, without destroying our environment. For example, on the basis of socialism, renewable energy infrastructure could be rapidly developed, eventually replacing fossil fuels completely, without threatening the livelihoods of working class people. However, this future has to be fought for and the fight must start now.