”The only way to prove with 100% certainty that humans are responsible for global warming would be to run an experiment with two identical Earths – one with human influence and one without. That obviously isn’t possible, and so most scientists are careful not to state human influence as an absolute certainty. Nonetheless, the evidence is now extremely strong.” The Guardian, December 2010.
Global warming, put simply, is the rise in temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, this temperature change has increased at an alarming rate. The majority of observed temperature increases since this time have been caused by an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases. It is commonly believed that this increase is a result of human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from the Earth’s surface is absorbed by greenhouse gases and is then radiated in all directions. As some of this radiation makes its way back towards the surface of the Earth, energy is transferred to the surface and the lower atmosphere. The result of this is an increase in temperature, higher than that if direct heating by solar radiation were the only warming mechanism. The major greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and ozone (O3).
Deforestation accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. During photosynthesis, trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere, releasing oxygen (O2) in its place. If there are less trees, quite simply, less CO2 is absorbed. Also, both the decay and burning of wood releases much of the stored CO2 back into the atmosphere. Forests once covered 50% of the worlds land mass, now they cover less than one tenth. According to a recent article in the Guardian online, even if we completely stopped emitting CO2 now, we are already committed to a rise of 1°C, lasting for at least the next 500 years.
Conducting research from assessments by the British government, artist Naomi Westlake discovered a frightening future. It was stated that by 2020 there will be a critical water shortage with predictions that Africa will be worst affected. Couple this with the fact that vast equatorial locations will suffer desertification and you have the potential for food and fuel shortages, riots and mass migration northwards into cooler climes. Panic and conflict will follow shortly. On interviewing an anonymous member of the British government Westlake was advised to move North, learn to shoot a gun and gain knowledge of the seasons in order to grow what is needed to survive.
Westlake’s work reads like a dystopian, post-apocalyptic disaster movie, but is this the image of our tomorrow?
The global consequences of anthropogenic global warming are many. Frequent droughts, new hurricane patterns and the melting of glaciers and polar ice-caps are just some of the factors occurring more frequently in many regions of the globe now, as compared to those recorded in the last century. This will continue to heighten throughout the coming years.
As we observe an increase in temperature over certain areas of the globe, we will see a migration of disease carrying insects and so, a spread of disease. With warmer waters comes more frequent and severe hurricanes as we have witnessed since the start of this century. One prominent example of this is hurricane Katrina in 2005 that devastated the city of New Orleans. These events go hand in hand with economic consequences; money is needed to treat disease and to repair the damage caused by a hurricane. Some estimates put the cost of Katrina alone at over $80 billion. Alongside this there is the increased probability of droughts and heat waves. If these damaging trends continue we could find ourselves in a desperate situation with an increased potential for conflict, which would further exacerbate the situation.
Currently, 5,773,000 cubic miles of water are held in the polar ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow. As we know, this is melting. This will result in a vast rise in sea level to the extent that low lying land such as the Maldives could disappear. The global ecosystem will be thrown out of balance; as the melting glaciers add more freshwater to the oceans it will desalinate them. This will create the possible shut down of the gulf stream. If this ocean current does ‘switch off’, the UK will lose its warmer ocean waters along the west coast and revert to a climate similar to that of Northern Canada. Marine life and animals that inhabit the world’s ice-caps and glaciers will be endangered. Also, the actual process of global warming could speed up. As the white ice caps reflect sunlight, they help to cool the Earth. If they melt, the only reflector is the ocean. As darker colors better absorb heat and sunlight, this will further warm the Earth.
Despite all of this, people fail to listen. Developed countries still pollute at an alarming rate. The population of Britain produces around 300 million gallons of sewage everyday, some of which is left untreated and pumped into the sea. The United States is the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and last year alone it was accountable for 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions.
Westlake’s work is a recording of the Earth after a global, climate affected disaster. It is an insight into what may await us. The images bring to mind a memory of what life was like before (what life is like now), before panic and mass migration took hold. The poignant images of train tracks and a forgotten article of clothing, trampled grass pathways created by fleeing feet, overgrown shrubbery suffocating telegraph poles with no-one left to maintain them and deserted car parks in city centres. A representation of the cause and effect is also present; the mindless stripping of trees from a forest, vast expanses of ocean and barren sandy deserts.
None of the photographs are staged, but instead are situations witnessed first hand by Westlake as she stumbled across them on her journey throughout North America. A number of the images are however, processed in Photoshop but this program was only utilized in order to edit out cars or other evidence of habitation. The artist states that she “strives to use the truest version of any image.”
Initially developed on a personal level as a means of processing her thoughts and fears upon reading the report and hearing these predictions, it has developed into something more ominous. My initial thoughts on seeing the collection of images were that it translated into a warning to us, the human race; act now or pay later.
Westlake is now based in London and continuing to expand her research and work on this topic.
Beckie Jones graduated from Aberystwyth University in 2009 with a joint honours degree in Fine Art and Art History. As a practicing artist, she uses art as a way of expressing her most personal feelings and beliefs in a physical medium. Over her years in art education, she has produced a number of projects that are gender-orientated and represent her outlook on life and her own personal experiences as a woman. She is currently the Online Events Coordinator for Studio HCE Virtual Gallery.