Two Degrees of Separation

Not much in terms of effective policy came out of the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, or COP15. In fact, the best that can probably be said is that nations agreed to disagree; poor ones unwilling to take on carbon emission reductions that would stunt their industrial growth, and rich ones unwilling to take the blame for emissions that have, to date, caused most of the problems and benefited rich nations most of all.

To highlight this ambivalence, on January 26 Yvo de Boer, United Nation’s senior climate change official, noted that governments could either comply with proposed emissions limits by the deadline, or later if they preferred – a paradox that has led many to ask what the purpose of the deadline was?

One figure, though, came to the forefront of most greenhouse-gas reduction conversations at COP15, and that is two degrees. Two degrees, most reputable scientists agree, is the maximum rise in temperature that we can allow, after which the climate change associated with global warming becomes potentially catastrophic.

six degrees The figure caught my eye, and it occurred to me that another, equally integral relationship is also measured in degrees. They call it ‘six degrees of separation’, and social theorists estimate that every person on the planet is six degrees (or six relational steps) away from every other person.

Once those two measures are taken, a third concatenation can be arrived at which suggests that everyone on earth is exactly three degrees away from interacting with at least one other person, at least in terms of climate change. Another thing that can be extrapolated: these interactions will largely be unpleasant, as the displaced, starving, sickly third world insists on its right to live – in the developed world if nowhere else – while the inhabitants of this richer world cling to their luxuries as if blessed by an unnamed God.

Two degrees; the number approved as an upper limit to warning by the G8 Summit, held in L’Aquila, Italy on July 8, 2009, and also the number that COP15 was aiming for. As climate change experts Jonathan G. Koomey and Florentin Krause note, setting a warming limit implies instituting a greenhouse gas budget, which can be used to maintain emissions below a threshold over the next half-century or 100 years, which will prevent triggering catastrophe.

But it’s such a small number, and most greenhouse gas budget schemes, whether cap and trade or tax, are fraught with so many loopholes that they invite the larcenous to cheat. Tax schemes may be better, if only because controlling emissions works better when their ultimate cost (to people, and the planet) is known. But this implies knowing the precise costs, and these have never been quantified in our forge-ahead, head-in-the-sand Western capitalist culture.

Recognizing that, how will we meet the goals of such a perishingly small number as two degrees? As Koomey and Krause note, the limit is not only demanding, but implies that industrialization will need to be dramatically curbed, with reductions of at least 50 percent in emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels (and even larger reductions after that).

little red hen Who will do this? Who will willingly give up the SUV in favor of the bike, seven rooms in favor of three, meat in favor of rice or pasta and vegetables? Who? “Not I,” said the pig, and so the little red hen of carbon emissions reduction goes about her business. But if you remember the end of that story (The Little Red Hen), you will note that the little red hen shared equally.

In terms of carbon reduction, by any method, a viable solution is made even more difficult when nations like Saudi Arabia, and individuals like James Inhofe (R-OK) argue against anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, or debate whether such warming even exists – denials that are hard to counter in view of the recent cold spell in North America and Europe.

Not to mention a leaked string of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in Nov. of 2009 that threatened to topple the mountain of scientific evidence for global warming like a poorly constructed house of cards (a leak that was more revealing of personality defects than any failure of anthropogenic global warming theory, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story).

Two degrees is a small number, but it may still be too large to prevent disaster. As climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf notes, at two degrees the odds of catastrophic impacts may still exceed one in six. And one of these impacts is sea level rise, which may exceed nine meters, or 29.5 feet, given current Arctic melting and extrapolating from sea level changes during the last interglacial period.  

In the U.S., this would mean the loss of parts of the East and West Coasts, most of Florida and all of New Orleans. In Venice (Italy), Bangladesh, and the Netherlands, for example, it would mean the loss of entire cities and countries.  

Experts agree that climate change (in the form of rising seas, changing rainfall, drought and deluge, and all the evils associated with these effects) will set developing countries back half a century, in terms of agricultural and infrastructural improvements. This means increasing displacement, starvation, sickness and disease for roughly 660 million people around the world. In fact, we can already see this happening in many places.  

Of course, some will survive. But where will these survivors go? As in the case of Haiti (a natural disaster, not related to climate change), they will go to developed nations. They will settle down in your neighborhood, or mine. And thus, suddenly, the two degrees of global warming we failed to prevent, aligned with six degrees of separation, becomes three degrees between a viable planet and a crowded planet where enough space for all must be found on fewer landmasses, enough food for all must be grown on the remaining arable acres, and enough water for all found in the remaining, unpolluted water supplies.

mapCan we manage it? As James Hansen notes in his new book, Storms of My Grandchildren, a melting Arctic, acidic oceans, and drought are only the preliminary symptoms of a planetary sickness that will “remake the map of the world” (and the capacity of human beings to survive on it).

Read more stories on Celsias:

Storms of My Grandchildren

The Knights Carbonic

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  • Posted on Feb. 2, 2010. Listed in:

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