Recently, the IEA, one of the world’s premier energy watch-dogs, warned that if the world didn’t work to vastly curtail greenhouse gas emissions soon, then global warming would lead to “Miami in Boston.”
It’s important to take a step back and think about this notion for a moment.
First, the IEA is looking at world energy consumption. They see coal use going up. They see natural gas use going up. They’re looking at the volumes of CO2 produced. They’re looking at trend lines. And what they’re seeing is 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century.
The IEA isn’t stupid. They know that basic atmospheric physics tells us that 1000 ppm CO2 means that the world will end up warming by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit. And doing a little simple math, you end up with Miami-like temperatures in Boston.
It’s a simple analogy and it gives people a small sliver of the problem we’re facing in a bite-size, easy to understand, way. But there is a real problem with this analogy. And it is simply this: if temperatures rise by 11 degrees before the end of this century it is highly doubtful that either Miami or Boston will still exist as anything but hazards for maritime navigation. Such a rapid rise in temperature means an equally rapid rise in sea level that would likely wipe both cities off the map.
And this is not to blame the IEA. Were the IEA to make a claim that it is likely that Boston and Miami wouldn’t remain as viable cities by the end of this century it would probably lose a good degree of credibility. The possibility of an 11 degree temperature rise is an incredible enough notion to tangle with in itself. And a typically conservative body like the IEA is having to do severe contortions just to publish a factual assessment of the impacts of human greenhouse gas emissions. And so we get the Miami/Boston comparison instead.
But this doesn’t detract from the fact that the IEA and most other international bodies, including the IPCC, are soft pedaling the issue of climate change. And they couldn’t really do otherwise. The issue, itself, is so large, powerful, and complex, the forces involved so vast, that it is difficult for governing bodies to create context for managing expectation. In short, our entire context, should we continue on this path, will change in radical and unpredictable ways. And human beings, in general, don’t really know how to cope with this kind of severe disorientation.
Miami in Boston is difficult enough. Miami and Boston both under water before the end of this century, though more factually correct, is much more difficult a notion to swallow. And so the terrible nature of a future where fossil fuel emissions continue is cloaked.
The IEA is making the correct assertions when it comes to policy. To a certain extent, they can see the writing on the wall. But based on their statements, I don’t really think they’ve come to grips with the true nature of the problem that is global warming. 11 degrees is an abstract measure on paper. But, in the real world, it means radical change. It means oceans of water vapor in the air. It means mountains of ice melted. It means vastly expanded seas. It means much of the United States is the Sahara Desert.
And 1000 parts per million CO2 brings with it its own horrors. Not the least of which is an acidified ocean that places many ocean species at extreme risk of extinction.
And all these changes don’t begin to take into account the risk of runaway Global Warming that Hansen and others have warned of.
No. I don’t think the IEA got the context right. But who can blame them. It’s a tough context to grapple with. And they’ve got that immense elephant of fossil fuel special interests sitting on their chests, keeping them from speaking loudly enough for the rest of us to hear. If there’s anything that’s been illustrated over the past four years, it’s the egregious level of influence these special interest groups exert on governments and policy-makers around the world, to the detriment of us all. But that’s also a context problem. A context problem for the fossil fuel interests who are either ignorant or callous to the terrible future they’re foisting on the rest of us.
All that said, if we’re going to start dealing with this problem, we’ll need to start being more honest about it. It is just as terrible a threat as global nuclear war, perhaps worse. That’s what we’re dealing with and we really need to start telling the truth. Miami in Boston doesn’t even begin to cut it.