The climate change talks to be held in Paris this December (COP 21 in UN lingo) are all about how much risk to the livability of our planet we’re willing to accept.
And the dirty little secret is, we’re accepting a hell of a lot right now, and we’re imposing even more on our children and future generations.
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- The agreed upon target, 2 degrees C, is dangerously high and the pre-agreements going into Paris assure we won’t even meet that;
- The best case assumptions built into the IPCC’s carbon budgets designed to stay below 2C assume a 34% probability of failure;
- Most of the IPCC carbon budgets require our progeny to invent and build a massively expensive technology to clean up the carbon we’re releasing. The effort would dominate the economic activity of their entire society, choking off other economic activity; and
- Even if we manage to hold temperatures to 2 C, the carbon budgets will assure that we’ll acidify our oceans and usher in irreversible sea-level rise.
Let’s look at the facts.
2 degrees C is too high, and COP 21 isn’t on target to meet it in any case: The press accounts are referring to the 2 C limit as the “maximum safe level.” Scientists are more careful, referring to it as a “speed limit” or “guardrail,” and even this phrasing implies a level of protection that the 2C limit simply doesn’t afford.
Doubt that? So far, human actions have increased the temperature by .85 degrees C over pre-industrial levels, and look what that’s done. We’re experiencing record-setting droughts; widespread desertification, an explosion in the number and frequency of forest fires; increases in extreme weather events; mass extinctions; irreversible melting of the polar ice caps, Greenland and large parts of Antarctica, and the centuries of rising seas and costal inundation this will inevitably cause; and we’re seeing the bow wave of a massive migration of environmental refugees. Finally, we’re acidifying the oceans, turning them into giant jellyfish incubators in which edible seafood can’t survive.
If that’s what .85 C has done, imagine what 2C would do. Or, better yet, don’t imagine, look to the geologic record. As James Hansen and 16 co-authors note in their paper, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling and modern observations that 2C global warming is highly dangerous.”
Worse, the agreements countries have announced in preparation for the Conference (called “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs) clearly show that the Paris COP will fall far short of what’s needed to prevent us from exceeding even a 2 C temperature increase.
The IPCC’s Carbon Budgets –Playing Craps with the Planet: Settling on 2C as an acceptable limit is bad enough, but the way we are using carbon budgets borders on criminal negligence.
Carbon budgets are established to determine the amount of GHG we can emit, and for how long. The greater the probability of staying below 2C, the lower the carbon budget and the sooner we have to get off it. Similarly, if we wanted to limit warming to 1.5 C – something most scientists agree poses less danger to people, the planet and the oceans – then we’d have a lower carbon budget and we’d have to get off carbon sooner.
So, higher odds of success require lower carbon budgets, lower odds of success allow more carbon to be released.
The IPCC uses three scenarios based on the probability of staying below 2C. That’s appropriate, given the uncertainties inherent in forecasting a system as complex as the climate. But the probabilities it is using are a 66% chance of succeeding, a 50% chance and a 30% chance.
So, for example, if we wanted to have a 66% probability of staying below 1.5C, our total carbon budget would be 2250 tonnes of carbon dioxide. By the end of 2015, and the conclusion of the Paris talks, we will have burned through all but 200 billion tonnes of that budget. Since we are emitting about 40 billion tonnes per year (about 44 US tons), we will blow through the budget by 2020, the year in which the Paris agreements are to start being implemented. In other words, that ship will have sailed before any action is taken.