An outstanding Four Corners show last night dealt with the melting of the summer pack ice in the Arctic as a consequence of global heating. The reality of a 'north west passage' could become a reality by 2013 as the Arctic becomes ice free during the summer months. The US, Soviet Union and Canada are engaged in a scramble for oil and other resources that will become accessible as a consequence of this climate change - the use of these resources will of course worsen the problem. Shipping companies and fishery businesses are likewise scrambling for business in the newly opened up areas.
More seriously, the possibility of positive climatic feedbacks from reduced ice cover - less reflection of heat energy back into space and the possible melting of the northern permafrost - raises the realistic prospect of a climate change catastrophe that might impact on people currently living. This would markedly increase world average temperatures and substantially increase sea levels.
Severe temperature increases in turn might lead to drought in the Amazon and fires there than would release huge amounts of carbon and destroy 15% of the world's carbon absorption capacity. The Greenland ice sheet and the ice cover in parts of the Antarctic also become vulnerable. It is an apocalytic scenario that would make an enjoyable feature film were it not so plausible and potentially destructive for our children.
The show reinforced views in the Stern Review which is excellent on these same issues and was one of the first policy oriented-documents to account seriously for the prospect of catastrophic change.
The issues raised have immense consequences for dealing urgently with global heating issues. Indeed one view is that we may have already gone too far. The dates at which the summer pack ice was forecast to disappear has progressively shifted back from 2100 to 2070 to 2050 to 2013 ominously suggesting that the prospect of substantial damage is coming more keenly into focus.
An incidental observation - the photography in this show was superb.