Researchers in western Siberia have confirmed that an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres - (an area of equivalent size to France and Germany combined) is melting.
Big deal, right! Well, this section of permafrost has been frozen since the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. Worse still, it is the world's largest frozen peat bog. So, it is estimated that as it thaws it will release billions of tonnes of methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. According to Larry Smith (University of California) the west Siberian peat bog could hold some 70bn tonnes of methane, a quarter of all of the methane stored in the ground.
Some scientists fear that this thaw constitutes a "tipping point" - the level at which a small rise in the Earth's temperature could cause a dramatic change in the environment which would massively increase in global temperatures. One of the researchers, Dr Kirpotin, has called the thaw "an ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming".
David Viner (a senior scientist at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia) stated "This is a big deal because you can't put the permafrost back once it's gone. The causal effect is human activity and it will ramp up temperatures even more than our emissions are doing."
The 2001 'intergovernmental panel on climate change' predicted a rise in temperature of 1.4C-5.8C between 1990 and 2100, but the estimate only takes account of global warming driven by known greenhouse gas emissions. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies confirmed that the five hottest years on record (since records began in 1880) have all been in the last seven years.
This thaw means that our estimates on the pace of global warming are probably far too conservative, and we may be closer to the severe and irreversible climactic change that ecologists have been warned of.
The temperature in Western Siberia has risen by 3C in the past 40 years, but as the hard permafrost thaws, bare ground is revealed which warms up much faster, sending the area into a spiral of increasing temperatures. It is estimated that even if the methane is released slowly over 100 years, it would still add about 700m tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere every year. This is equivalent to the amount of carbon released by agricultural land and wetlands, and a 10% to 25% increase in global warming.
The deal came after Tony Blair struggled at the G8 summit to get the US president, George Bush, to commit to any concerted action on climate change and has been heavily criticised for setting no targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In July, some of the world's worst air polluters (including the US and Australia) announced a partnership to cut greenhouse gas emissions through the use of new technologies. The US has insisted that the pact over clean energy technologies with other five countries was not a threat to the Kyoto emissions treaty, but the pact (which was apparently the result of secret talks over the last year), is not binding and sets no targets for reducing pollution (unlike the Kyoto treaty). It encourages new clean technology, but does nothing to hinder the old dirty technologies which are causing the damage.
The US (who cause 25% of the world's greenhouse gases), and Australia are the only developed countries that have refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, prompting George Monbiot to call it "a deliberate attempt to subvert and undermine the Kyoto protocol".
The Australian foreign minister, Robert Zoellick, claims that the pact does not detract from the Kyoto protocol but actually strengthened it. How precisely? Japan signed the pact, but they also signed Kyoto, and have made it clear they intend to stick to both agreements. Fair enough, but the US and Australia are still refusing to commit to any reduction. Now they have their pact, they seem to think they don't have to.
Interestingly, Blair and Co were not informed about the pact, and reacted with surprise to its announcements. Bush certainly made it clear that there was no 'quid pro quo' with the UK after our slavish support for his military escapades, but poor Tony must be hurt by this further proof that there is no 'special relationship'. Despite much argument, all Bush would agree at the G8 was that global warming was a "serious and long-term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the globe". They agreed the issue was urgent, then agreed to talk about it later!
The US and Australia still argue that ratifying Kyoto would harm their economies by raising energy prices (has anyone else noticed that the oil price is soaring, and that as it is a finite resource it is likely to get worse rather than better) and would cost 5m jobs in the US alone (unlike global warming which apparently will not hurt any American economically or environmentally). They also complain that only industrial countries (and not in developing nations such as India and China) have signed the treaty. Quite frankly that kind of attitude is what will kill our planet. If we all sit around waiting for someone else to sort out our mess, we won't have much of a world to live in pretty soon.
It is fair to say that China and India cause a great deal of pollution, but the fact remains that the worst culprit is still the US. Furthermore, this situation has been partly created by US foreign policy. They have pushed the application of capitalism (and all of its greed for growth powered by coal, gas and oil) in every corner of the globe. They pursue wars to get their grubby little fingers on the resources of foreign countries so that they may continue to pollute at a greater rate that everyone else, and Bush is still trying to talk congress into letting him drill for oil in Alaska. Furthermore, the US subsidises fuel costs to protect the American consumer, and produces fuel guzzling cars for them to use.
The sad fact is that unless they take positive action, we are all screwed.