You may have read or heard that the shrinkage of the Arctic sea ice recently smashed the previous 2007 record low. You may not have heard of a new study that says we might, just, still have a chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. You may or may not have heard that some prominent climate scientists, including James Hansen, think 2°C is too high, and we need to keep warming below 1.5°C or even 1°C.
All this means we might still have a chance of avoiding “dangerous” global warming, but the chance is already small, and diminishing very rapidly. It also means we are not doing nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even though there is a great deal more we can do at quite modest cost to our economies.
A federal carbon cap-and-trade program is dead for the foreseeable future. So is a once promising national clean energy standard.
With climate policy paralyzed in Washington, a number of leading U.S. corporations are going it alone, squeezing big reductions of climate-changing emissions from their operations and supply chains. With stakeholder criticism and other pressures building, more and more are also releasing rigorous climate data in their financial reports and enlisting third-party firms to make sure it is accurate.
Climate negotiators in Durban have agreed to a “roadmap” that would leave the world at high risk of severe or catastrophic global warming. They have belatedly agreed to discuss adopting outdated targets that would not come into force until 2020, far too late by current climate criteria.
Recent studies require greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced much faster than previously proposed, to give us even a moderate chance of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius (2°C). Meanwhile the climate science now says the threshold of “dangerous” warming is only 1°C.
[This is a draft. Over the next week or so I will be revising, adding links and making other versions to send to any news outlet that might take them.]
Here is the climate news. The real climate news.
So far the world has warmed about 0.6°C. If currently advised reductions of greenhouse gas emissions were realised there would still be a 90% chance global warming will exceed two degrees Celsius (2°C). 2°C used to be regarded as the threshold of “dangerous” climate change, but new science has shifted that threshold to only 1°C. 2°C is now regarded as the threshold of “extremely dangerous” climate change. At that level, global warming effects would be widespread and severe.
However, somewhere between about 2°C and 4°C lurks a tipping point, beyond which global warming will run beyond human control, driven by natural feedback mechanisms that drive temperatures higher, perhaps to 6°C or 8°C, no-one knows. 4°C would already be “incompatible with an organised global community”. Higher temperatures could result in the extinction half or more of the world’s species and much of the human population.
It is characteristic of some past societies that their highest accomplishments occurred just before a precipitous decline in their fortunes, according to Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. It is less common that a society’s trajectory comprises a slow rise, a plateau and a slow decline. Diamond does cite some societies that were able to shift their strategy and successfully negotiate a crisis, so a crash is not inevitable.
The former pattern, accelerating into a crash, is a signature of a society oblivious to imminent peril. At least, the leadership of the society is oblivious to warning signs of a crisis, and they just keep on doing what they have always done. Or perhaps they become more and more dissolute, like the later rulers of ancient Rome.
There is an eerie sense of unreality in Australian public life. The things our leaders argue about, and the evidence they pay attention to, are largely irrelevant to our real situation, which is one of rising multiple crises. The longer the crises continue unattended, the worse will be the consequences.
[A short version was published by the Canberra Times, 2 Feb, as “Evidence Points to Catastrophic Climate Change”. A longer version was posted on On Line Opinion, 8 Feb.]
In a new scientific paper (pdf, 600kb) prominent climate scientist James Hansen and his colleague Makiko Sato argue that the Earth is now at least as warm as it was between earlier ice ages, and further warming by even one degree celsius could result in sea level rising by anything from 5 to 25 meters, with perhaps 5 meters rise by the end of this century.
[This article was published by the Canberra Times 14 January, p. 19, under the title “Carbon price, wealth creation are critical issues this year”.]
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has declared that 2011 will be a year of accomplishment for her Government. However many people are deeply frustrated that mainstream politics seems oblivious to new and dangerous issues, as global warming tightens its grip and the verities of old ideologies are found wanting. There is a huge chasm between politics as usual and the issues we really should be addressing.
As the national election campaign approaches its climax, with global warming all but ignored by the major parties, the Australian Academy of Sciences has issued a report summarising the current state of climate change science. Its conclusions are clear and concerning. Global warming continues to occur, and the evidence is now strong that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause. The evidence supporting supporting climate sceptics is melting like the Arctic snow.
The most telling part of the Rudd Governments deferral of efforts to reduce Australias greenhouse emissions is that it wont even look at the issue again until 2012. In other words, it is unlikely Labor will actually do anything in its next term, even though it leaves open the suggestion it might do something in 2013.