For the last two decades, scientists and government officials have been saying that if we can just keep global warming under 2°C/3.6°F that we can avoid planetary catastrophe. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), the International Energy Agency, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, and others have all trumpeted this imperative.
Unfortunately, they got it wrong.
NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a new study in December 2011 that examined exactly when climate change will become dangerous. NASA scientists and climatologists studied the Earth’s paleoclimate history through cores drilled into the polar ice sheets and deep ocean sediments. They found that the planet is much more sensitive to climate change than many had believed.
According to their data, the Eemian period of Earth history, which began approximately 130,000 years ago and lasted 15,000 years, had surface temperatures that were less than 1°C/3.6°F warmer than they are today. Sea levels then were 4 to 6 meters/13 to 19.7 feet higher than now.
Thus, a 2°C/3.6°F rise in temperature over pre-industrial times “would be a prescription for disaster,” claims James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
With a 2°C/3.6°F rise, not only can we expect a significant loss of our ice sheets and a concomitant rise in sea levels, much greater than 4 to 6 meters/13 to 19.7 feet, a great deal of our permafrost will melt, releasing massive levels of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is between 20 to 72 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. That methane will accelerate global warming even more.
A 2°C/3.6°F rise in temperature will send invasive plant, animal, and insect species into ecosystems, and agricultural areas, unable to fend them off. We can expect catastrophic losses of plant and animal species, many of which feed humans. Many of our fresh water resources will collapse. Major parts of the world are already struggling with water shortages.
According to the International Energy Agency, we have only until 2017 to keep the planet’s surface temperature from reaching that disastrous 2°C/3.6°F rise in temperature.
Meanwhile, at the November/December 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa participants from nearly 200 countries agreed to a new international agreement, one intended to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But that agreement only established a group to create a new legally-binding protocol . . . by 2015. And that new protocol won’t go into effect until 2020.
The representatives did, however, agree to keep the Kyoto Protocol in effect beyond 2012. The bad news? Human-generated greenhouse gas emissions have risen 28 percent since the Kyoto Protocol was enacted, primarily because the United States was not a signatory on the Protocol and its emissions have kept growing, as have the emissions from China, India, and other developing countries which were not obligated under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions. Those industrialized countries that were bound by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions—by a whopping 5 percent—are on target to keep their commitments by 2012.
The problem is that few countries, including powerhouses like the United States and China, are willing to take the radical actions necessary today to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, even as the world hurtles toward catastrophic climate and planetary changes.
The Big Three—the US, China, and India—did agree in Durban to set and meet voluntary greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for themselves until the new protocol takes effect in 2020. But those commitments are not legally binding, nor enforceable, and if the last decade is anything to go on, politics will soon turn those targets into mincemeat.
Originally, scientists predicted that if we were unable to reverse global climate change, or at least slow it down, the planet’s surface temperature would rise by 4 to 6°C/7.2 to 10.8°F by 2100.
Now, many scientists are revising those estimates. They say temperatures could rise by 10°C to 12°C/18°F to 21°F over the next ninety years.
Today’s 2°C/3.6°F imperative will seem like Nirvana by then.