Requiem for a Species
Prepared by Michael Marien, Director, Global Foresight Books
Facing up to the truth is sometimes too hard. Around the world, only a few have truly faced the facts about global warming. “Over the past five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on a path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it.” This century will bring about a radically transformed world—it is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon, but what will happen. Environmental warnings have often taken on an apocalyptic tone, and the public greets them with weariness. Yet climate change is unique because, until very recently, its risks have been systematically understated by most scientists.
“Accepting the reality of climate change does not mean we should do nothing. Cutting global emissions quickly and deeply can at least delay some of the worst effects of warming. But sooner or later we must face up to the truth and try to understand why we have allowed the situation that now confronts us.” After a decade of little real action, “catastrophic climate change is now virtually certain.” Within the next several years, enough warming will be locked into the system to set in train feedback processes that will overwhelm any attempts to cut back on carbon emissions. “Humans will enter a long struggle just to survive.””
Topics discussed include the traditional caution of scientists that leads them to understate risks (moreover, the IPCC consensus process favors conservatism), expected melting of the Greenland ice sheet after a temperature rise of 1oC to 3oC (resulting in the world’s oceans rising by about 7 meters), the “virtually zero” chances of stopping warming at 2oC above pre-industrial levels (in that chances of keeping the concentration of greenhouse gases below 450ppm are nil—they already reached 463ppm in 2007—and we are on a path to reach 650ppm), the stabilization myth and the adaptation myth (both are key assumptions on which international negotiations are founded), the growth fetish that measures progress by GDP, the questionable faith in technology, the 2008 film WALL-E as an allegory of American consumerism, consumption trends (e.g., the growing size of new houses), the UK’s Stern report on the economics of climate change, the backlash led by Yale economist William Nordhaus, the seductive message of green consumerism (in practice, it has failed to induce significant inroads in consumption, and “is unlikely ever to do so”), greenwashing by corporate producers, the questionable new frugality induced by the Great Recession, growth of consumption in China and other developing countries, our disconnection from nature, and limits to the “three big technological sources of hope” (carbon capture and storage, renewable energy and nuclear power, and geoengineering)
Chapter 4 focuses on Many Forms of Denial: cognitive dissonance, climate skepticism and the neo-conservatives, left-wing skepticism, maladaptive coping strategies (e.g. long-term policy goals such as cutting emissions by 60-80% by 2050 are at best meaningless, while at worst they substitute for immediate measures, but they allow governments and their publics to feel good), “hairy-chested denialism” (rediculing environmentalism and celebrating escapism), blame-shifting to deny guilt (a form of moral disengagement), God as responsible (divine retribution for human sins, as viewed by some fundamentalist Christians), and unrealistic optimism that leads us to predict our preferences (“healthy illusion is becoming unhealthy delusion”).
Chapter 7, The Four-Degree World, reports on a Sept 2009 meeting at the U of Oxford of some 100 leading climate scientists. Titled “4 Degrees and Beyond,” it considered the implications of global temperature rising well past 4oC. When the conference was first planned 12-18 months earlier, this scenario was at the end of the probability distribution. By the time of the conference, “based on all of the evidence, an extreme scenario had become the most likely one.” Alarmist or realistic? “The official target of 2 degrees above the pre-industrial average [is now seen as] optimistic verging on unattainable. Now, expecting 3 to 4 degrees is regarded as realistic, 5 to 6 degrees pessimistic, and 7 to 8 degrees alarmist.” A planet 4 degrees warmer would be hotter than any time in the past 25 million years, when the world was virtually ice-free. Moreover, “a global average warming of 4 degrees means an average of 5 to 6 degrees across land surfaces, and 7 to 8 degrees in the more northerly latitudes.”
In his keynote address at the Oxford meeting, Prof. Hans Schellnhuber (director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) noted that when the world warms by 2 degrees, we will lose all coral reefs. “A planet 2.5 degrees warmer means most of the ice eventually melts, leaving the oceans 50 meters higher than they are today.” Without summer runoff from the Himalayan glaciers, a billion people will be without water. “The really big giant is the methane trapped in the permafrost of Siberia and northern Canada, estimated to be equivalent to twice the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. If this is ever released, we will be toast.”
Presentations at the Oxford meeting emphasized “two numbers on which the future of humanity rests: the year in which global emissions peak and the rate of reduction of emissions thereafter.” If developed country emissions peak in 2015 and decline by 3%/year thereafter, and developing-country emissions peak in 2030 and also decline by 3%/year thereafter, “the world has a 50:50 chance of limiting warming to 4 degrees.” But rich country peaking in 2015 or even 2020 seems impossible. “Without some unforeseeable stroke of luck, a warming of 4 degrees and more appears very likely. The best estimate is that we will reach that level in the 2070s or 2080s, although if things go badly it could be as soon as the 2060s.”
Overall, a warmer world will be more humid, with rainfall increasing by perhaps 25%. But precipitation changes will be highly variable: higher rainfall will be concentrated in the northerly latitudes, with large parts of the world nearer the tropics suffering a severe decline. Australia, southern Europe, and western and central-southern US will see precipitation declines of 10-30% in a 4 degree world. Declines of 40-50% are expected in North Africa. Models indicate that 15% of land now used for cultivation will become unsuitable, while in cold regions (Siberia and Canada) the area suitable for cultivation increases by 20%. Mere adaptation is now “a dangerous delusion.” Rather, we must shift to “a strategy of continuous transformation, one that accounts for the biggest impacts, plans for the long-term, and takes a systemwide approach.”
Anyone concerned with global affairs, facing up to climate change, and long-term futures should read this book, especially Chapter 7 on “The Four-Degree World.” Obviously depressing, but it is well-written, non-polemical, backed up by 43 pages of notes, and based on the latest thinking about future climate. Yet, even as climatologists take a markedly more bleak view of the future in the past year or so, public opinion has moved in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker, 12 April 2010, 21-22) cites a March 2010 Gallup poll finding 48% of respondents believing the threat of global warming to be “generally exaggerated,” up from 35% just two years ago. The same poll found 52% of Americans agreeing that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring,” down from 65% in 2008. A New York Times feature (25 May 2010, p1) reports a Feb 2010 BBC poll finding that only 26% of Britons believed that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,” down from 41% in Nov 2009, and also notes the finding of Der Spiegel that 42% of Germans fear global warming, down from 62% four years earlier.