The world has less than a decade to change course to avoid irreversible ecological catastrophe, the UN warned today.The stark warning from the UN's Human Development report came just ahead of next month's climate summit in Bali, Indonesia, to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto protocol.... "The world lacks neither the financial resources nor the technological capabilities to act," the UN report said. "What is missing is a sense of urgency, human solidarity and collective interest." - GuardianTomorrow, the mission-critical Bali Summit begins. In the lead-up to this event, there have been several key reports released that spell out in no uncertain terms that we now stand at a crossroads like no other in human history.
The latest release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has come to be called 'The Synthesis Report', as it brings together all the elements of previous IPCC reports into one coherent policy-relevant document. Hopefully the world's leaders (the word 'leader' being used here in the fully optimistic sense) have given the information more than just a fleeting glance at 30,000 feet on their way to Indonesia. Unfortunately, this document, despite its apocalyptic predictions, is already regarded as being two years out of date due to the time involved in the peer-review process of filtering scientific data.
With so many scientists involved, each paragraph has been argued over and scrutinised intensely. Only points that were considered indisputable survived this process and made it to the final draft. The result is a document which is profoundly dependable albeit inevitably conservative. - Political Corruption of the IPCC Report? (PDF) (emphasis ours)
The report itself hinted at this, admitting that climate change effects ”are projected to be larger or to occur at lower increases in temperature” than previously stated. In addition, as you can guess from the title of the PDF just referenced, there are also accusations that even the scientific consensus reached in the IPCC's draft report has been still further watered down - by an additional step, of political correctness (which translates to industry correctness), something we wrote about back in April.
Interestingly enough, climate change naysayers keep bringing forth the charge that the IPCC report is a work of government-sponsored fiction - an effort to gain greater power and control over the world - but they fail to notice the reality, that almost every government on the planet has been doing their best to ignore climate change, as they are too busy in a tug-of-war (even war in the literal sense), fighting over dwindling resources and trying to appease global-warming-inducing industry and the clamor for increased profits, to pause to deal with investing in our future. George Monbiot put it well when he wrote about the "story endlessly repeated in the right-wing press: that the IPCC, in collusion with governments, is conspiring to exaggerate the science. No one explains why governments should seek to amplify their own failures".
The last year in particular has seen startling evidence of feedback mechanisms in action - like escalating arctic ice melt (less light reflected, water warms faster), melting tundra (release of methane), drying of tropical forests (less moisture recycling, more fires), drought (less plant-based mitigation, more energy expended in survival), reduced effectiveness of carbon sinks (like the oceans which are absorbing less CO2 than previously), etc. Scientists are witnessing that climate is very much non-linear - that the world cannot expect rising global temperatures to simply be 'accommodated' within the biosphere - but that natural systems are even now entering a dangerous era of flux.
The report the speaker above (David Wasdell of the Meridian Program) refers to is Bali and Beyond, Feedback Dynamics and the Acceleration of Climate Change, "The Westminster Briefing". Its central theme is to reinforce a non-linear understanding of global warming, and builds a case for how we may already be entering a dangerous era of climate change feedback loops. The key thought to take from this report is that the later we act, the less likely we'll have any valuable impact on returning the earth to its natural state. Conversely, the most effective, and, ultimately, least costly approach, is to take a decided change of course immediately - to take maximum advantage of the almost closed window of opportunity before us. This is the same message we recieved from James Hansen, the Head of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, back in June.
Of significance in the contention of how to deal with climate change has been our semi-arbitrary target of aiming to keep temperatures from rising more than 2°C. Using computer models IPCC scientists have proposed this degree of warming as the final threshold before which irreversible feedback dynamics would likely take over and push us into an unlivable climate condition. Although it's difficult to extrapolate, scientist's best guess have tied this 2°C warming with a CO2-equivalent concentration of around 450ppm (parts per million). It is understood that we are now at a little over 380ppm and rising, but that we may already be locked into a rise to this 450ppm red zone over the coming decades because of greenhouse gases we've already emitted.
Other reports include an examination of this 2°C 'target', one that we may already be committed to, also believing that it is based on a too-linear understanding of the inherently dynamic nature of climatic systems. This October, for example, a rather depressing report titled 'The Big Melt' was released - which essentially brought together the findings from this summer's dramatic ice-melt, an event that was well beyond the worst-case predictions of the IPCC, and concludes that if this kind of climate response can occur with only our present warming level of +0.74°C (+1.3°F) then it would be positively dangerous to aim for a 2°C target.
The 2°C warming cap was always a political compromise, but with the speed of change now in the climate system and the positive feedbacks that 2°C will trigger, it looms for perhaps billions of people and millions of species as a death sentence. - The Big Melt (900kb PDF)The makers of The Big Melt (Carbon Equity and The Greenleap Strategic Institute) have also just completed a follow-up document called 'Target Practice - where we should aim to prevent dangerous climate change'. They conclude that today's rapid ice melt in the arctic began at least two decades ago, when the world sat at about 0.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
So it seems reasonable, based on concern to maintain the solar reflector value of the Arctic sea ice, that we must keep temperatures to no more than 0.5ºC warming over the pre-industrial level. Furthermore, taking this as the maximum warming cap, we can determine using the 3ºC climate sensitivity standard that the longrun maximum level of CO2e needs to be no more than 320ppm.The "huge inertia in the economic system" is well summed up in our recent post featuring the World Energy Outlook 2007 report that forecasts a sizeable growth in emissions over the next few decades as developing nations reach for a western lifestyle.
The world is already 0.3 ºC warmer than our recommended maximum temperature cap and we are 50ppm CO2e over the maximum greenhouse gas cap....
Taking into account the further 0.6ºC warming in the pipeline from the current greenhouse gases in the air, the huge inertia in the economic system (driven by economic and population growth and the depletion of high quality physical resources), the increasing carbon intensity of global production, and the declining efficiency of the natural carbon sinks such that the natural system in a few decades could become a net source instead of a net sink for CO2, it is now clearly an extremely urgent priority to make the needed structural changes to the economy and our lifestyles. - Target Practice - where we should aim to prevent dangerous climate change (880kb PDF)
Finally, I will refer to a just-released United Nations 'Human Development Report 2007/2008'. This document opens with an out-of-context, but I think wholly apt quote from Martin Luther King Jr:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. We are faced now with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late…We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late.” - Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Where do we go from here: chaos or community'As an estimated 10,000 people make their way to Bali - politicians, demonstrators, reporters, even skeptics - most of us can only hold our breath and wait. The big question is will a mental framework of scientific reality be the strongest influence at the meeting, putting sustainability at the top of the agenda, or will short-term financial goals turn this summit into a farce - a politically correct token gesture that has little to do with science? In particular, the world needs to see some leadership from the attending U.S. delegation, representing the nation that has made the greatest contribution to global warming (in the emissions sense...).
Delivered in a sermon on social justice four decades ago, Martin Luther King’s words retain a powerful resonance. At the start of the 21st Century, we too are confronted with the “fierce urgency” of a crisis that links today and tomorrow. That crisis is climate change. It is still a preventable crisis—but only just. The world has less than a decade to change course. No issue merits more urgent attention—or more immediate action. - United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008 (12mb PDF)
It will be an interesting couple of weeks. Stay tuned, we'll post updates as we have them.