By Peter Galvin / 10.11.13 - Scientists around the world have reached a consensus that, at current emission rates, we have less than 30 years to completely stop generating greenhouse gases if we are to avoid facing major threats to our civilization. In some places collapse will come much sooner. To put it another way, scientists now agree that we are emitting greenhouse gases at such a fast rate that, absent drastic change, we will end up emitting almost as much in the next 30 years as we have emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and that such an emissions level will push us over the edge of the climate that has prevailed on the planet for millions of years.
Once I got over my shock at how deep a hole we’ve managed to dig ourselves, I found that I was having trouble getting my head around the practical implications of these findings. After all, progress has been made in increasing the awareness of the public and the business community, and actions are underway in the private sector and at all levels of government.
This blog is my initial attempt to explain just what these findings mean, and what needs to happen next. Corrections, questions, suggestions for further blogs on these findings, and other comments would be most welcome. Please send them to email@example.com and let me know if you’d like them posted on the RI Sierra web site.
Part A -- Six facts that are now beyond doubt:
The scientific findings come in a new report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC science policy document), and a recent report from a research group drawing on more or less the same information (Nature). I have extracted six key points.
1) We are already feeling the effects of increased greenhouse gases put into our atmosphere and our oceans over the last century.
2) The effects from the greenhouse gases we have already released will escalate once a substantial part of that amount, now hidden in the ocean in the form of heat (where it is causing increased acidity and sea level rise) begins moving into the atmosphere. In other words, we have “locked in” some serious problems we don’t yet observe but which it is too late to stop. Each year, as we emit more of these gases, more change gets locked in.
3) At our current rate of use of fossil fuel energy, we will have dumped enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the next 30 years to eventually cause an increase in temperature of more than 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the level at which scientists and policymakers agree (and countries have pledged to avoid) that we’re likely to run into real problems. I need to do some more reading about just what they considered to be a “real problem” in determining how many degrees of warming we can take, but for the moment I presume they base their conclusions on when changes will lead to major food and water shortages, killer heat waves, floods, storms, superbugs, and so forth.
4) We don’t know how to get rid of greenhouse gases once they are released. More trees apparently won’t do the job. As temperatures increase, they will stay that way for thousands of years.
5) To avoid these problems, we need to keep total carbon emissions in the next 30 years at somewhat less than half a trillion tons – and keep the remaining carbon in the ground for the forseeable future. (The scientists are going to be giving consideration over the next few years to whether “geoengineering” can slow things down temporarily, perhaps giving humans and animals more time to adjust, but that is a last ditch resort that will at most give us a few more years.)
6) As research continues, we may have to significantly tighten the IPCC carbon budget to steer clear of such disaster. For one thing, the potential release of methane from melting permafrost wasn’t included in the budget, and is being closely watched. Also, many scientists think the really bad effects will start showing up once temperatures increase only 1.5 degrees Celsius, in which case we will need to chop about 25% off the half trillion ton carbon budget recommended by the IPCC. Worse, the carbon budget and 30 year timeframe for the world as a whole fails to take into account that major populations close to the equator are going to feel serious effects from warming almost a decade earlier than elsewhere. By 2037, for example, Mexico’s coldest day is likely to be warmer than the hottest day it experienced during the entire period from 1860 to 2005. (New York Times, citing lead author of Nature paper) These countries are going to press hard for tighter timeframes for everybody else, and if we want to avoid massive migration we should take them seriously.
Part B -- Are we on track to beat the clock?
I haven’t been able to put this together yet, at least to my own satisfaction.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that to stay within our carbon emissions budget, we can’t wait before making some big greenhouse gas emission cuts. Each year we don’t significantly reduce emissions requires us to cut more in the remaining years to stay within our total limit. But right now, we don’t have a set of year by year emission limits for the world, or even the US, that will get us in safely under the limit. In fact, I’d love to see the experts develop some charts of possible scenarios to stay within our carbon budget, to help test out various proposals to curb emissions.
I also think we need to all start using the same reference points. For example, President’s Obama’s climate change plan has promised to reduce US CO2 emissions by 17% from 2005 to 2020 (with some caveats), but what does that add up to in terms of a 30 year US carbon emissions budget and a world emissions budget expressed in tons? The same goes for organizations that continue to set goals in terms of keeping atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases below x parts per million – for example, 350.org. Just how does this translate into tons of emissions? We’re not going to make any progress if we’re all speaking a different language.
Part C -- Key Upcoming Decision Points
In 2014, we’re going to get more reports from the IPCC on what they believe needs to be done to cut emissions to the necessary levels, and long term adaptation strategies. Moreover early in the year, we should have the President’s decision on whether to deny the KXL pipeline permit to take tar sands out of the ground. Scientists in the US will continue to finish critical studies of methane and CO2 releases from US gas fracking sites, in an attempt to find out whether we can use this gas as a temporary bridge to renewables, a bet already being made across this country -- although we need to keep in mind that even if the wellhead releases can be controlled, burning gas generates much more CO2 than renewables. Meanwhile, Europe will continue to buy and burn coal from the US to tide it over as it turns to renewables, under strict new rules that make fracking a rarity (and not cost competitive). In the US, 2014 is once again an election year, in which I see a real opportunity to persuade the US business community (for its own selfish reasons) to help turn some climate doubters out of office.
In 2015, we have a last opportunity to consider climate legislation while this President is in office. Meanwhile, the governments of the world are scheduled to get together again to consider a new climate change treaty. According to news reports I’ve read, many countries remain highly skeptical of agreeing to their own carbon budgets because they think the US will try to stick it to them while being unable to commit to a strong response at home, let alone whether the US will sign ANY treaty. It’s also the year Presidential candidates in the US start up their official campaigns. And EPA rules on new power plant emissions are likely to be finalized and challenged in court. Moreover, this is the year EPA will put into effect rules they have already issued requiring all gas fracking sites to monitor emissions.
In 2016, the EPA will finish up its rules on existing power plant emissions (and promptly be sued), and then we elect a new President. Forget about action on a new climate treaty or legislation this year. Beyond that, it is anybody’s guess.
Part D -- What we all need to do.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last decade. Transportation emissions are headed down, major emission sites like Brayton Point are closing down, renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, and the general public and the business community are becoming more aware every day of the reality of climate change. For example, USA Today, which reaches people all across the country and abroad, has been running a wonderful series on climate change, including recent stories about permafrost melting under Alaskan houses, and farm crop changes in North Dakota. Major changes in the flood insurance program are starting to bring the message home to states like Rhode Island, and insurance rate increases to cover storm and fire losses may soon hammer home the message the millions of others.
But until I see strong evidence that we’re going to dodge a bullet, I think we’re all going to have to double down. A number of civilizations before ours have disappeared into history because they were unable to cope with environmental changes; we are close to the cliff and want to stop as far from it as we can manage.
So join us; we need your support. Take a look at some of the campaigns with which you can help on our Issues page. Join a march when one takes place, and talk to your family. And help us come up with some new ways to help the public understand the bottom line of all this well-documented but technical scientific information -- that we're in big trouble and have little time to avoid going over the edge. For example, how about every college campus in the country build its own version of a “global carbon coffin” to represent the total IPCC budget, fill it to current levels with some object, and then add to it each year as we get new information (no sno-globes, please…let’s keep it serious). Put a picture in your alumni magazine, and send one to your trustees, local papers, and your legislators.