2 Degrees Of Global Warming Might Be Too Much

An excellent look, by Justin Gillis at the New York Times, at how the world decided that it should try to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade, and how that target might not actually be the right target:

Yet even as the 2C target has become a touchstone for the climate talks, scientific theory and real-world observations have begun to raise serious questions about whether the target is stringent enough.

For starters, the world has already warmed by almost one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. That may sound modest, but as a global average, it is actually a substantial number. For any amount of global warming, the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface and absorbs considerable heat, will pull down the average. But the warming over land tends to be much greater, and the warming in some polar regions greater still.

The warming that has already occurred is provoking enormous damage all over the planet, from dying forests to collapsing sea ice to savage heat wavesto torrential rains. And scientists are realizing they may have underestimated the vulnerability of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Those ice sheets now appear to be in the early stages of breaking up. For instance, Greenland’s glaciers have lately been spitting icebergs into the sea at an accelerated pace, and scientific papers published this year warned that the melting in parts of Antarctica may already be unstoppable.

The 2 degree target always had a significant degree of uncertainty attached to it (though it was useful to focus attention on some target). To consider it a threshold below which we would somehow remain “safe” was the wrong way to look at it. Yes, 2 degrees might be a threshold beyond which certain irreversible catastrophes would follow (melting ice sheets). But there is plenty of catastrophe below the 2 degrees threshold, as well, as we are already seeing (most notably, the acidification of the oceans). It has always been the case that a lot less warming would be a lot better for the planet.

This is a challenge to global climate policy, and as Gillis notes:

So, even as the world’s climate policy diplomats work on a plan that incorporates the 2C goal, they have enlisted scientists in a major review of whether it is strict enough. Results are due this summer, and if the reviewers recommend a lower target, that could add a contentious dimension to the climate negotiations in Paris next year.

Barring a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime, it is not at all clear how a lower target could be met.

Actually, it is not at all clear how the 2 degrees target will be met, either. The point is that “a technological miracle, or a mobilization of society on a scale unprecedented in peacetime” is what is needed regardless of the target. And the sooner political leaders (and the media, and then the public) come to that realization, the better off we will all be.

Climate change is an unprecedented challenge, so there is an obvious case to be made for an unprecedented mobilization of societies and technologists. We may be in “peacetime”–and therefore relatively complacent– according to conventional definitions of peace and war.  But we are facing an existential threat that is arguably greater than any threat of war experienced in human history (and orders of magnitude greater than the threat posed by Islamic extremism and ISIL, to which we devote inordinate and inexplicable amounts of attention and resources). That should count for something.

 

The Graphic Reality Of Extinction

The journal Nature sums up the threat of the Sixth Great Extinction in one mindblowing graphic (click here, or on graphic for zoomable  version):

Here’s the data and thinking that are behind the graphic:

Studies that try to tally the number of species of animals, plants and fungi alive right now produce estimates that swing from less than 2 million to more than 50 million. The problem is that researchers have so far sampled only a sliver of Earth’s biodiversity, and most of the unknown groups inhabit small regions of the world, often in habitats that are rapidly being destroyed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the uncertainty in the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species, which was released in November. The report evaluated more than 76,000 species, a big increase over earlier editions. But that is just 4% of the more than 1.7 million species that have been described by scientists, making it impossible to offer any reliable threat level for groups that have not been adequately assessed, such as fish, reptiles and insects.

Recognizing these caveats, Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

Looking forward, the picture gets less certain. The effects of climate change, which are hard to forecast in terms of pace and pattern, will probably accelerate extinctions in as-yet unknown ways. One simple way to project into the future would be to assume that the rate of extinction will be constant; it is currently estimated to range from 0.01% to 0.7% of all existing species a year. “There is a huge uncertainty in projecting future extinction rates,” says Henrique Pereira, an ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig.

At the upper rate, thousands of species are disappearing each year. If that trend continues, it could lead to a mass extinction — defined as a loss of 75% of species — over the next few centuries.

I find it hard to believe that this is not screaming headline news every day. The media, like the public, simply doesn’t know what to do with the catastrophic implications of climate change and human impact on the planet. That is not good.

(H/T The Dodo–very appropriate, no?)

Major Misperception On Climate

Perceived contribution (gray bars) versus actual contribution (red dots) of different industries to global carbon emissions.

 

This has puzzled me for years:

The general public has a major lack of understanding of how eating meat and dairy contributes to climate change, according to a survey of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa by the market research organization Ipsos MORI. Although meat and dairy production accounts for roughly 15 percent of total global carbon emissions — equal to exhaust emissions from the international transportation sector — less than 30 percent of survey respondents identified meat and dairy production as a major contributor to climate change. More than twice as many — 64 percent — said transportation was a major contributor.

Interestingly, many people are aware that deforestation contributes to global warming, but don’t apparently don’t connect deforestation to clearing land to run livestock.

I guess the meat and dairy industry has a better PR team than the oil and gas companies.

Climate And Revolution (“Put down that donut!” Edition)

Elizabeth Kolbert adds more perspective to the gap between policy and reality, with a look at the recent US-China emission agreement:

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely.

Well, Americans do love fad diets, though it is true that not many of them work, and some of them are dangerous. The real solution is to put a stiff tax on donuts, I mean carbon. The politics of doing that are of beyond comprehension at the moment. Still, understanding that pricing carbon is the single most important and indispensable policy step required to fight climate change would be a good first step.

Climate And Revolution (Cont.)

In a review of Naomi Klein’s new book. “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert doubts Americans are ready for the reality of addressing climate change (h/t Daily Dish):

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

And Kolbert doesn’t even include “not eating meat” to her list. I’m surprised Kolbert didn’t title her review “This Changes Nothing.”

Kolbert’s probably right, but this gets back to the problem that the media (and as a result political leaders) are completely failing to explain the scale and danger of the problem. When I want to imagine how we should be thinking about, and talking about, the threat of climate change I always go back to the thought experiment of imagining how the media, politicians, and the public would respond if ISIL had a master plan to warm the planet, melt the ice caps, flood our cities, and cause a mass extinction. Now that really would change everything.

End note: In her review Kolbert mentions an interesting study that examines how much energy each person on the planet should use, and how much they actually use. This also dramatizes how revolutionary real solutions to global warming would be:

What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The study doesn’t really take into account the fact that new energy technologies could and should allow us to consume more energy with fewer emissions. But it is still a wake-up slap to realize that for the average American the combination of reduced consumption and more efficient energy technologies needs to achieve an 83% reduction in per capita carbon emission. See what I mean about a revolution?

 

This Is What Climate Change Adaptation Looks Like

“Sure, it sorta works. But it used to be a lot easier to walk around.”

 

When the river rises to cover your farm, farm on the river:

From July to October the waters can rise at least 10 feet. The trunks of trees more than 30 feet away from the dry season riverbed show watermarks waist high. When the fields flood, the village’s farmers have no work.

“There is water all around,” said Hafiza Khatun, 25, a mother of two whose family income used to vanish for six months of the year when her farm laborer husband had nothing to do. “There was no happiness.”

But three years ago, Ms. Khatun was trained by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization, to tend an unusual source of food and income: a floating farm with a duck coop, fish enclosures and vegetable garden moored by rope to the riverbank.

Calculating A Global Carbon Budget

If humanity wants to mitigate climate change, it must calculate a global carbon budget and then allocate that budget among regions or countries. Put aside, for a moment, your (justified) skepticism that governments around the world (especially ours in the US) will ever face up to this fact (because it would inevitably lead to limits that would require, um, sacrifice by the SUV- and meat-worshipping American public, not to mention a complete eradication of all wrong-headed Tea Party beliefs). Because it is a mental exercise that is worth exploring on the off-chance that the effects of climate change start to get bad enough that publics and political leaders wake up.

Calculating how much carbon we can emit before warming the atmosphere beyond the 2 degree Centigrade target that has, rightly or wrongly, become the consensus target is not easy. So many subjective variables. But different scientists and working groups have calculated a range of estimates, and journalist Fred Pearce has an excellent article at Environment 360, explaining those estimates:

The IPCC’s first analysis was included in its fifth scientific assessment of climate change, published in September 2013 and reiterated in the synthesis report released last Sunday. It suggested that a two-thirds chance of keeping warming below two degrees required the world to limit its total carbon emissions since 1860 to no more than a trillion tons of carbon. Of this grand all-time total, 515 billion tons had already been emitted by 2011. So, according to the IPCC, we have just under 500 billion tons of our budget left. Then we have to stop. Totally.

The synthesis report said that fossil-fuel power generation would have to be “phased out almost entirely by 2100″ — unless the largely untried technology of capturing CO2 emissions and burying them out of harm’s way could be deployed on a massive scale. Without a drastic slowdown in emissions within the next decade, the phase-out date could happen much earlier, probably before 2050.

The arithmetic seemed straightforward enough. But carbon budget numbers since quoted by other sources do not all follow this IPCC bottom-line figure. They reveal a bewildering array of different estimates for our remaining budget. Among environmental groups, the World Resources Institute (WRI) sticks with the IPCC estimate that we have 485 billion tons left. But other environment groups quote other numbers. For instance, Greenpeace and WWF say 350 billion tons.

Scientists are even less coordinated. A big study in Nature Climate Changein September by Michael Raupach of the Australian National University in Canberra and others, quotes 381 billion tons. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a think tank based in Laxenberg, Austria, and the Global Carbon Project says we have 327 billion tons to go. While the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, an international research consortium based in Sweden, say 250 billion tons.

To confuse things further, another blue-chip study, published last December by Jim Hansen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and others, argued that we could emit a further 350 billion tons and still keep below 1.5 degrees of warming.

Simple, right? Okay, not really. But you have to start somewhere. Even more difficult is the question of how yo allocate whatever carbon budget you have left among advanced and developing countries. The fair way to do it would be to include historical emissions, so countries that pumped lots of carbon into the atmosphere while achieving great wealth (like the US), would have to figure out how to sharply curtail emissions while developing countries would have more leeway to emit carbon as they grow their economies further. Or rich, developed countries could buy carbon permits from developing countries who have lots of carbon budget left, which would help those countries reduce poverty and achieve more stable, productive economies. But you can imagine how that idea would play in the US Congress.

I don’t have much faith that the United States and other developed nations will pursue limits that are either sufficient or fair (though I will continue to support and vote for any politician who takes climate change seriously). But I am interested in trying to calculate what an individual carbon budget would look like if we did in fact set global limits that were fair and meaningful. And then exploring what it would take to get my budget down to that level. That would give anyone who wants to stop being part of the problem, who wants to be an Earthist, a target they can aim for. Should be fun, er interesting.

Maybe Climate Change Will Be Taken More Seriously On Video?

Since no one reads anymore, the IPCC has produced a video summary of their dire warnings about climate change and the dramatic cuts to carbon required.

I can’t call it scintillating (hey, what would you expect from a UN intergovernmental panel of scientists?). But the facts, no matter how they are delivered, are scary enough….

The Bird Holocaust (Cont.): -400 Million

“Don’t be scared. By 2014 there will hardly be any left.”

It’s not just Albanian hunters who are wiping out lots of Europe’s birds. The rest of us are, too:

The researchers calculate that there are now 421 million fewer birds across 25 European countries than there were at the start of the 1980s — a change the study attributes to human-caused environmental degradation.

The scale of decline, in the words of the study just out in the journal Ecology Letters, is “alarming.” The research finds that out of the 144 most common species, there were about 2.06 billion birds in Europe in 1980, and just 1.64 billion in 2009 (the last year considered in the study). Thus, the loss of 421 million represents more than a 20 percent decrease.

“90 percent of that decline can be attributed to the 36 most common species,” says lead study author Richard Inger, from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. According to Inger, the top five species experiencing stark declines are the house sparrow, the common starling, the Eurasian skylark, the willow warbler, and the Eurasian tree sparrow.

I guess if someone was to remake Hitchcock’s horror classic, The Birds, the scary part about it would be vast and empty skies. The study is here.

Threat Assessment Gone (Very, Very) Wrong

 

So, we are filling our oceans with plastic:

I have just returned with a team of scientists from six weeks at sea conducting research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — one of five major garbage patches drifting in the oceans north and south of the Equator at the latitude of our great terrestrial deserts. Although it was my 10th voyage to the area, I was utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009. Plastics of every description, from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end. We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.

And we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases:

Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.