The option to avoid 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) of global warming – our goal for more than 10 years – is out of reach: we have emitted too many greenhouse gases and are on a much warmer trajectory. In 2000, we had many choices regarding global warming, but instead of reducing emissions in various ways, we elected to accelerate. Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased in all but one year since 2000, and those compounding emissions increases have dramatically diminished our choices.
By exceeding 3.6 degrees F, we will have caused “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. If we allow warming to reach, say, 7.2 degrees F (4 degrees C) of warming, we will likely have created a chaotic world, i.e. a world with an unstable environment (The World Bank Report, 2012).
Without large reductions in emissions soon, we will have much more warming – 10.8 degrees F (6 degrees C) by 2100 (PriceWaterhouseCoopers 11/5/12). The CIA is a funder for a report that says “climate events will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of affected societies or (the) global system to manage…” (National Research Council 2013).
Those organizations’ and others’ warnings reflect the hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies that form the basis for current concerns.
Today, the global community faces a critical decision: reduce emissions, or accept planetary heating which is likely to make our world unrecognizable.
The critical nature and timing of this decision has been poorly communicated. As a nation, we are very poorly informed about global warming. Because of this ignorance, Americans still seem unlikely to demand and adopt policies to significantly reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, China, India and other countries say they will continue increasing emissions until about 2025 or 30. In the absence of an effective global treaty, emissions, and hence global warming, will continue to increase.
Repeated attempts to limit and reduce global emissions have become predictable failures – the recent Doha meetings postponed drafting a new emissions reduction treaty until 2015, and postponed a date for initial limits on emissions to 2020. The long history of emissions agreements failures suggests that the 2020 target date for actual global reductions in emissions will likely be missed.
Cap-and-trade to reduce carbon emissions has not worked – not in the EU, not in the Northeast US – not anywhere. Emissions have been reduced in the few cases where carbon taxes have been imposed (in some EU nations, Australia, and Costa Rica). However, in practical terms, there are no global controls on greenhouse gas emissions: neither the US nor any global body has adopted policies or treaties to effectively reduce emissions.
Globally, carbon emissions are out of control, and so is the climate. It is the tragedy of the commons writ large.
Suppose we do nothing in the near future to substantially and progressively reduce emissions. That will likely bring 7.2 degrees F of warming by 2060, and that would be a planetary average warming, but it would be much less over oceans (70% of the planet) and much more over land. Cities at high latitudes and all large cities would be a lot warmer; eastern North American urban temperatures could be 18 degrees F warmer than today’s already hot summer temperatures (100 – 110). Temperatures of 118 to 128 degrees F are literally deadly summertime temperatures for many folks.
Today’s agricultural areas could be warmed by 9 – 14 degrees F, leading to large reductions in productivity; many existing agricultural operations will need to repeatedly relocate to areas with more favorable conditions of temperature, sunlight, moisture and soils.
A 7.2 degrees F degree warmer world “is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation, with many of those risks spread unequally” (World Bank Report 2012). Fertile well-watered lands today may become semi-arid. Water supply for irrigation, mediated now by snow and/or ice, could diminish as ice melts and snow fails to accumulate. Climate refugees, in large numbers, would likely try to relocate, creating chaos. Valuable assets today (grazing lands, recreation areas, forests, farms, some towns and cities) could become much less valuable – or worthless. In hotter and more arid forests, widespread fires could be common, and species will change; in areas of the PNW, the climate will likely be moving northward about 3 miles a year or more.
Some global agricultural/ecological systems are likely to collapse. Permafrost melting, releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in large quantities could radically accelerate warming. Changes could evolve from incremental to transformative; change could be unprecedented. There is no evidence that a 7.2 degrees F warmer world would be stable; there are no paleoclimatic precedents for such a rapid, mammoth ecological transformation as 7.2 degrees F of warming could bring.
The present atmospheric CO2 concentration (392 ppm) is higher than climatic and geologic evidence from prehistoric eras indicates has occurred at any time in the past 15 million years.
In the absence of new, significant emissions reductions, we could have 7.2 degrees F of warming by 2060, just 47 years from now.
In my view, the primary obstacles to reducing emissions are three-fold. First, vast profits are made from fossil fuels. (Some of those profits are funneled into phony position papers used to cast doubt on the science.) Second, the depictions of the future under 1) more global warming or 2) without warming but with much less energy, do not seem real to many – they seem incomprehensible; impossible; dystopian. Third, our culture supports views hostile to inquiry, science and reason – views often rooted in communal nostalgic love for an imagined idealized history.
Since governments won’t act, change is likely to come, if at all, from grassroots activists.
Some such groups have convinced their towns to turn to renewable sources and to provide electricity themselves, essentially seceding from the hydrocarbon grid. Your city can do this as well, if you pressure its city council to put in solar panels and wind turbines.
Coal plants are major polluters and almost all are in violation of the Clean Air Act. The Sierra Club has been successfully suing some of the worst offenders, leading to plant closures and resort to cleaner natural gas or renewables instead. Activists should pull out all the stops to close the coal plants.
Here are some things (among many) you can do to respond to this crisis.
In many cases, it is possible to simply use less energy. Move closer to work or relocate to cities with good public transit, When you can bike to your destination, try doing so (this is also better for your health). Make sure your home is insulated.
Second, be aware that there is almost no momentum for change, and enormous momentum to continue the fossil-fuel-using status quo. Turn that awareness into action. Transform your life by investing your energy into forcing our government to really address warming. Break the taboo: get your neighbors to join you in collective action to get the US to do the right thing by adopting real emissions reductions.
Third, recent ideas about what is “sustainable” and “green” behavior are grossly inadequate. They have not worked. Emissions continue to rise. Our circumstances require radical change.
Global warming and diminished energy availability are not about a distant future – the consequences of unchecked warming and scarce energy will dramatically degrade the lives of our children and spawn a far more chaotic world.
Tom Giesen is a summer adjunct instructor and research associate at the University of Oregon, and will teach Global Warming Preparedness (PPPM 399) this summer.