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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Our National Climate Target: A Worthy Discussion

By Carlos Rymer:

The U.S. climate movement is rapidly strengthening. Global warming is becoming one of the top issues for business, youth, labor, and other communities, and we hear calls for immediate action everywhere.

In the last two years alone, there has been a surge in public opinion and activism about this issue, including carbon neutral businesses and schools, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC report and other recent scientific studies, and commitments by other nations to fight global warming aggressively. All this has led to the U.S. movement to rally behind one simple call: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Clearly, this is an aggressive target, making many in Washington uncomfortable, but is it enough to save our society from climate tipping points? Let’s take a closer look.

According to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, global society should not allow the global average temperature to rise beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Going beyond this threshold could set in motion a series of tipping points that would accelerate temperature rise, loss of existing carbon repositories, and catastrophic weather events to a point of no return, where reversing the process is likely impossible. This could include the disintegration of Greenland and West Antarctica (raising sea level by more than 10 meters), the extinction of more than 50% of all species, and rapid loss of ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and large parts of agricultural production systems. Direct loss of human life through natural disasters, disease, and famine would only compound general disintegration of a global economy reliant on efficient trade, cheap commodity production, and stable civilizations.

One problem is that the world has already warmed about 0.6ºC on average, and there is at least 0.5ºC of warming ahead of us due to the current concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In order to prevent about 1ºC of further warming, scientists say that we should keep the total greenhouse gas concentration, expressed in CO2 equivalents, below 450 ppm.

Researchers at the Hadley Center in the UK have condensed the science up to 2005 to show the scale of greenhouse gas emission reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic tipping points. The current science shows that the natural sinks of CO2 – the oceans, soils, and forests – will lose much of their capacity to absorb CO2 by 2030. With these projections in mind, the world must reduce its total per capita greenhouse gas emissions to 0.33 tons of CO2 equivalents per person. This translates into a global reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions of 60% below 2005 levels by the year 2030, a much more ambitious target than what is currently being supported in the United States, which would have to reduce its emissions by around 95% by 2030 to meet the world’s target equitably.

One concern that climate activists and progressive politicians in the United States would have with this ambitious target is that it supposedly would not have any support in Washington. But it helps to think back in time.

In 1997, was there all-out support for the targets agreed-upon in the Kyoto Protocol? Today, cities and states all over the U.S. believe these are first steps and have set much more ambitious goals. Two years after the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005, the European Union has agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% by the year 2020, with Germany saying it will go for 40% reductions. California, New Jersey, and a couple of other states have agreed to cut their emissions by at least 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. These previously “unrealistic” goals today are taken as the minimum “science-based” goals allowed. Given these fast changes in the last few years, would calling for a climate neutral U.S. by 2030 be politically acceptable?

The most recent studies tell us that this year’s IPCC projections are likely underestimates of what’s really happening and what’s to come. Let’s take a look at a sample of these.
Shortly after the IPCC technical report was released, the National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that Arctic sea ice was being lost three times faster than thought. The IPCC concluded that, from 1953 to 2006, the average sea ice loss per decade was 2.5%, but recent data shows that the average was in fact about 7.8%, 30 years ahead of forecast. As a result, the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer by 2020, warming the planet much faster due to the vast open waters that will be absorbing heat (and melting Greenland, by the way). It has already reached a record low this year.

Also this year, Dr. James Hansen and a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies published a study showing that the Earth was at a “dangerous tipping point.” Hansen and his team pointed out that the CO2 limit of 450 ppm was likely dangerous due to the consequences we’ve seen with 0.6C of warming, and that the ceiling should probably be a lot lower. They warned that even moderate business-as-usual would lead to “global and regional disasters.”

Recently, the Brazilian government, alarmed by climate change effects in the Amazon, decided to reconsider climate policy. 2005 saw a major drought in the Amazon that killed crops and caused other major losses. 2006 and 2007 have also been drought years. Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Institute, together with Brazilian scientists, have shown that 3 years of continued drought leads the Amazon to a massive transformation, ending with much of it as a savannah. If 2008 turns out to be like this year, we may begin to see trees die in the Amazon, a huge tipping point that would elevate carbon emissions.

Since 2005, the frozen Siberian peat bog has been partly melting during the summer. This year, in particular, a vast area melted for the first time in recent human history. Scientists estimate that these peat bogs could release more than 70 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (by contrast, humans release about 25-30 billion tons of CO2 per year, so this would equal about 50 years of our current CO2 emissions).

Another study, this time near Antarctica, showed that the Southern Ocean is almost at capacity for holding CO2. The vast ocean served us well by taking up to 1/3 of all the carbon dioxide we released every year. But now, it will hold no more, so more of what we emit will stay in the atmosphere.

On the emissions side, new research shows that global CO2 emissions rose faster than the worst-case scenario used by the IPCC. The average in the last few years was 3.1%. This means that, if unchecked, we will likely see temperature rising above the worst-case scenario predicted by IPCC: 4.0C.

The fact is that the world needs a major energy transformation faster than previously thought if we are to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points. Before the U.S. climate movement allows the government to negotiate a new international treaty, it must make sure that the government understands the right target.

We, as climate activists, know that we have to work with what may currently be politically possible, but we shouldn’t be fools to think that we can’t change public opinion about targets and get politicians in government to agree to those targets. By 2009, the U.S. will likely begin negotiating a new global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If the U.S. does not go in demanding the right targets and that those targets are set equitably, we will see a treaty that may end up wasting a lot of financial resources in the name of failure, because the targets the world sets will likely not prevent tipping points.

Ultimately, it is up to climate activists who are leading the fight against global warming in the United States and elsewhere to make policymakers and the public aware of what the current observations and the science really calls for, not some consensus-based version that only considers what is certain and not what may be risky.

We must have a climate neutral nation within two decades or we’ll risk climate catastrophe. How to get there in two decades is a tricky question, and without the framework any targets have no meaning, but it is a question that will undoubtedly be answered if we make the climate neutral target mainstream. Climate activists: it is time to make your targets much more ambitious.


Anonymous said...

You'll do nothing. Your efforts so far have been ham-handed and hysterical. Your attempts to shut down scientific debate and use of smear tactics have completely polarized that small part of the electorate that have bothered to research this subject. This will be writ large sometime during the 2008 campaign. You have as much a chance of passing significant legislation as you do gun control. Your little hypothesis grows weaker each month because real scientists, not on some imaginary Big Oil payroll, continue to punch holes in it. The behavior of the Alarmists has been reprehensible and hypocritical. You have never acted as if a real crisis is at hand and you certainly don't have any viable solutions that wouldn't impoverish billions.

Anonymous said...

Mike - if somebody hasn't told you yet - the scientific debate is over.

Why the negativity? He's taken the time to research and write something. His point of view is clear and endorsed by many "real" scientists.

You, on the other hand, do not seem to have a point of view. You just belittle. And you do not seem to have a solution.