We have a serious global problem. If we continue burning fossil fuels as we are, and if the fossil fuel industry continues to grow along its projected path, the world will see a catastrophic rate of warming between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius above 1880s values by the end of this Century. So much warming would likely mean a very bad end. A bad end for much of global civilization as we know it. A bad end for many of the innocent living creatures who inhabit our world. And a bad end for many of our children — those now being born today who will face the climate troubles we are locking in.
As the Pope succinctly noted in a recent statement seen here in Rueters:
“I am not sure, but I can say to you ‘now or never.’ Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”
And suicide may seem a rather mild word compared to the reality we would face. So much warming would result in entire forests — tropical, temperate and Arctic lands — burned in great conflagrations, in the destruction of vast agricultural regions, in turning much of the world ocean into a great dead zone, in drowned cities, and in extreme weather related mass casualty events with the destructive ability to take down entire megalopolises. To call such warming simply catastrophic may well be a mild misnomer. Because the world on which we live — planet Earth — has never seen so much warming happen so rapidly. Not at any time. Not even during the great Permian Extinction event of 250 million years ago.
Whether we admit it or not, that’s what the world comes together to address at Paris’s COP 21 Climate Conference. We’re literally meeting to commit to saving the world or to ending it. And there is no sign, as yet, that we’re going to be doing anywhere near enough.
The Great Carbon Gap
The problem, as it stands, is a great failure to communicate the current severity of the global atmospheric heating crisis. Part of this failure involves an inability or unwillingness to translate current Earth System climate sensitivity findings into language relevant to present global policy and then report on it broadly. If global mainstream media were on the ball, they’d be reporting on the findings of UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap Report. They’d also be paying more attention to the recently related speeches and presentations by Dr. Kevin Anderson addressing this critical issue.
(Kevin Anderson’s excellent presentation showing why we’re not yet anywhere near up to the challenge of missing the dreaded 2 C warming mark before the end of this Century.)
If we, as a global community, were taking this matter seriously, we’d be pouring over this report, and taking in the very relevant related statements by Dr. Anderson.
We would also be taking a very serious look at climate sensitivity in the context of past global greenhouse gas concentrations and overall levels of warming. We’d be talking about it broadly and incessantly in the global media. And we’d be comparing our best understandings of past climate contexts with current model based climate sensitivity estimates for warming during the 21st Century (Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity or ECS).
If we did this, we would find that model ECS levels of warming estimated for this Century are about half the amount of warming that is locked in long term. And since the world has already warmed by about 1 C above 1880s levels — which puts us at halfway to hitting the UN’s 2 C level already — it appears that for purposes of considering warming beyond this Century, we’ve already emitted enough greenhouse gasses to easily break the 2 C limit (and possibly hit as high as 4 C) over the course of about 500 years.
Global greenhouse gasses are already in the range of 400 parts per million CO2 and 485 parts per million CO2e. These thresholds, if maintained, are enough (if our understanding of Pliocene climate is correct) to warm the world by 2-3 C long term in the case of CO2 alone and by 4 C, in the case of CO2e, over the same 500+ year period. If the slow feedbacks (rate of ice sheet response, carbon store response, ocean response etc) remain slow, then this level of greenhouse gasses translates to roughly 1.4 to 1.7 C warming this Century (Hansen climate sensitivity) if CO2 levels merely remain stable and about 2 C worth of warming this Century if all other atmospheric greenhouse gasses (methane, ozone, CFCs, nitrous oxides, etc) merely remain stable and do not continue to increase.
If this paleoclimate and ECS based hybrid context is correct, then commitments now need to be for a very rapid drop to zero and then net negative carbon emissions if we are to have any reasonable hope of missing the 2 C threshold this Century. We should also recognize that preventing a rise above the 2 C threshold long term is an even greater challenge.
UNEP provides a slightly more optimistic assessment of the situation. The authors of this report note that peaking global greenhouse gas emissions near current levels globally by 2020 and then reducing them to less than half of current levels through 2050 has about a 66 percent chance of limiting warming this Century to below 2 C (hitting around 1.8 C by 2100). But this assessment may be rather optimistic considering that we will still hit in the range of 450 ppm CO2 and 550 ppm CO2e by mid Century which would be enough, according to our understanding of paleoclimate sensitivities, to hit between 1.9 and 2.2 C from CO2 warming alone and between 2.5 and 3 C from the total warming effect of all CO2 equivalent gasses.
(According to UNEP’s most recent Emission’s Gap report, the world is currently on track to warm by a catastrophic 3-7 degrees Celsius above 1880s levels through 2100. The most aggressive current policy commitments on the books, if implemented, would drop that warming to a still catastrophic range of 3-4 C this Century. Clearly, we need to be far more aggressive if we want to have any hope of avoiding 2 C warming this Century. Image source: UNEP — Emissions Gap.)
Unfortunately, regardless of which climate sensitivity estimation ends up being correct, current carbon emission reduction commitments by countries around the globe (called INDCs for Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) will almost certainly result in overall increasing rates of carbon burning through at least 2030. According to UNEP, even the present most aggressive carbon burning reduction commitments will increase global CO2e emissions from the present level of 52.7 billion tons per year to between 54 and 59 billion tons per year by 2030. Such an emissions rate would result in atmospheric CO2 levels at around 435 parts per million by 2030 and 530 parts per million CO2e by the same time. This would, in the paleoclimate based sensitivity context we use, lock in 1.8 to 2.1 C warming by the end of this Century under CO2 forced warming alone. The CO2e levels by 2030 imply warming this Century in the range of 2.25 C.
What we read from this is that the currently most aggressive INDCs will almost certainly lock in a catastrophic rate of 2 C warming by the end of this Century as early as 2030. Through 2100, the UN’s own report is not at all sanguine:
Full implementation of unconditional INDC results in emission level estimates in 2030 that are most consistent with scenarios that limit global average temperature increase to below 3.5 °C until 2100 with a greater than 66 per cent chance. INDC estimates do, however, come with uncertainty ranges. When taking this into account the 3.5 °C value could decrease to 3 °C or increase towards 4 °C for the low and high unconditional INDC estimates, respectively. When including the full implementation of conditional INDCs, the emissions level estimates become most consistent with long-term scenarios that limit global average temperature increase to 3-3.5 °C by the end of the century with a greater than 66 per cent chance.
In other words, according to UNEP, we’re on a path to hitting around 600 to 750 ppm CO2e by 2100 even under the most aggressive current policies and an extraordinarily catastrophic 6-7 C+ long term warming of the global climate.
A Base Refusal to Respond Rapidly Enough
Why are global commitments falling so far short of what needs to be done? It’s true that the challenge is extraordinary. But considering the amazing danger involved it is absolutely amoral to fail to respond.
From the policy standpoint it boils down to the fact that we are still institutionally committed to burning fossil fuels and to using those fuels as a mechanism to increase rates of economic growth. It’s a failed assumption based on the fact that at some point fossil fuel driven growth implodes the planetary life support and kinder, gentler climate systems upon which all economies essentially rely. But since this old way of growing economies has worked for centuries, and since that old growth regime has generated a number of extraordinarily wealthy and well entrenched power bases, many policy makers are unable to look beyond what amounts a vastly amoral growth paradigm based on carbon emissions.
Many nations, including the most developed nations of the world still plan to build new coal, gas and diesel electric power plants. Many nations still favor fossil fuel based vehicular transportation over the more easily electrified and converted to renewable mass transit. Many nations have lackadaisical policies when it comes to transforming vehicular transportation to electricity and other non fossil fuels. And many nations are politically paralyzed due to a portion of their leadership being controlled or strongly influenced by fossil fuel based corporate interests.
It’s a crisis of leadership and one that’s manifest in the weakness of COP 21’s carbon emission reduction commitments. For though COP 21 will likely see some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction policy measures ever put in place, as we have noted above, those policies will not be anywhere nearly aggressive enough to meet the global community’s stated goal of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius this Century.
As case in point to the essential disconnect, a comment submitted by dnem (a regular poster here) to the Diane Rehm show, which recently hosted Joe Romm of Climate Progress in a discussion focusing on the Paris Climate talks, raised this key question:
Call me cynical, but it appears that these talks have been ‘pre-engineered’ to achieve a very modest and in all likelihood inadequate accord. They will not collapse in failure like the previous meeting in Copenhagen, but they will not come close to achieving what needs to be done. As long as we remain addicted to economic growth as the world’s primary organizing principle, we will not be serious about addressing our essential problems.
According to dnem, Joe Romm’s response — “absolutely correct” — as well as the second sentence highlighted above fell to the cutting room floor before the show aired. However, the question of how we reconcile current understandings of economic growth with the absolute necessity of responding to climate change is an essential one. The question being, that we will need to all (especially the wealthiest among us) make sacrifices in order to reduce the impact of a disaster of global scale. One possibly never before seen on the face of the Earth. We may need to think, not in terms of wealth accumulation and traditional growth, but in terms of lives saved and quality of life preserved. And many of those among us who see the world through the context of only what goes up and down on the global stock markets appear to be amazingly ill-prepared to make this all-too-necessary cognitive leap.
The sacrifices, instead, are now not just being measured in dollars and cents, but in nations under threat of collapse, by an expanding number of people displaced or at risk of falling into poverty, in lives lost and species going extinct, in the future anguish and struggles of the still unborn and of those children now being born today. By those poor creatures who will be forced to attempt to survive in a world we’re in the process of ruining. And by those of us unfortunate enough to live beyond the next 1-2 decades and to start to see some of the worst effects of the horrific climate change we are now committing ourselves to.
Hat tip to dnem
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to DT Lange