Climate: Time is Short, #2

Two days ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third of four reports this year on the current state of global heating. This one, as distinct from the other two, also included an overview of the solutions to this civilizational crisis.

It was good that, once again, the work of the IPCC was in the news. The solutions they put forward were generally sound. And it was good that, although they put forward nuclear power as possibly in the mix, they also said, in the understated language of science, that “safety, weapons proliferation and waste remain as constraints.”

But it was disturbing to read in an Associated Press article that this report projected a range of between 450 to 650 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as the target range for the eventual stabilization of our climate in coming decades. It was disturbing because accepting anything higher than 400 ppm as an ultimate goal means accepting an unacceptably high level of risk of runaway global heating. And when I printed out and studied the IPCC’s 35 page “Summary for Policymakers,” it was even more disturbing to find “445 to 710” used as the figure, and several places where it was implied that “490-540” or “550” ppm are OK as targets.

George Monbiot, in a May 1st column, “Giving Up On Two Degrees,” in the Guardian newspaper, blew the whistle on what was going on, and, as usual, he didn’t mince words:

“The rich nations seeking to cut climate change have this in common: they lie. . . The governments making genuine efforts to tackle global warming are using figures they know to be false. The British government, the European Union and the United Nations all claim to be trying to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. . . [and] there is a broad consensus about what this word means: two degrees [C; 3.6 degrees F] above pre-industrial levels. It is dangerous because of its direct impacts on people and places (it could, for example, trigger the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the collapse of the Amazon rainforest) and because it is likely to stimulate further warming, as it encourages the world’s natural systems to start releasing greenhouse gases. . .

“A paper published last year by the climatologist Malte Meinshausen suggests that if greenhouse gases reach a concentration of 550 ppm, there is a 63-99% chance (with an average value of 82%) that global warming will exceed two degrees. At 475 parts the average likelihood is 64%. Only if concentrations are stabilized at 400 parts or below is there a low chance (an average of 28%) that temperatures will rise over two degrees. . .

“You begin to understand the scale of the challenge when you discover that the current level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (using the IPCC’s formula) is 459 ppm.”

It is important to keep in mind a couple of things about these IPCC reports. First, they are finalized through a process that involves both scientists and representatives of the world’s governments, including the United States. The U.S. was represented at that last week of revisions by Harlan Watson, a George Bush appointee whose role for years at international climate change conferences has been to try to obstruct and delay serious and effective action on this crisis.

The other thing is that the IPCC reports have limitations. A New York Times article of February 3rd of this year, for example, written by Andrew Revkin and Elisabeth Rosenthal, referring to this year’s first IPCC report, explained that “other scientists have recently reported evidence that the glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic could flow seaward far more quickly than estimated in the past, and they have proposed that the risks to coastal areas could be much more imminent. But the climate change panel is forbidden by its charter to enter into speculation, and so could not include such possible instabilities in its assessment.”

There is significant evidence that the pace of global heating is accelerating.

One of the most recent is a study that, according to a group of American researchers, arctic sea ice is melting faster than computer models of climate calculate and is about 30 years ahead of predictions made by the IPCC. Dr. Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado co-authored a study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, with other scientists from NSIDC and from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Dr. Scambos said that the ocean at the top of the world could be free or nearly free of summer sea ice by 2020—three decades sooner than the IPCC’s forecast of 2050.

Last fall a scientific study revealed that between 2004 and 2005 Arctic perennial sea ice, which is 10 or more feet thick and which normally survives the summer melting season, abruptly shrank by 14%.

An article in the August, 2006 issue of Science reported that the speed at which the Greenland ice sheet was melting had risen threefold in the past two years as compared with the previous five. If the Greenland ice sheet melts completely into the ocean, sea level worldwide will rise 20 or more feet.

A September 8, 2006 Associated Press story based on a study published in the journal Nature reported that methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (although much less longer lasting in the atmosphere), is being released from melting permafrost at a rate five times faster than previously thought.

And ice cores drilled in Antarctica show that, prior to recent times, the fastest increase of carbon dioxide was 30 ppm over a 1,000 year period. There has been a 30 ppm increase over the last 17 years.

We are in a planetary emergency, pure and simple.

It’s time for the climate movement in the United States—a movement that has grown tremendously in the last year—to act accordingly.

It was very positive that last month’s Step It Up actions were so widespread, in all 50 states, and involving so many people, 150,000 or more. But it was also critical that this April 14th mobilization targeted the federal government by its call for Congress to enact an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (I think it has to be much faster than that.)

We need to follow up and increase the pressure on Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike need to feel the heat of an aroused citizenry demanding immediate action to dramatically reduce emissions, enact a moratorium on any new coal plants and provide serious money, like $25 billion annually, for energy conservation, efficiencies and clean and safe renewables.

Those who will be involved in efforts to pressure candidates running for President or Congress need to do much more than ask the candidates what they will do if elected. We don’t have two years to wait for federal action. Candidates need to be put on the spot as to what they are specifically doing right now to get Congress THIS SUMMER OR FALL to enact strong climate legislation and, especially for Republican candidates, to get George Bush to sign it. Candidates who give lip service and little else on this issue should have their campaign headquarters flooded with phone calls and visitors who refuse to leave until they do the right thing.

Some of us have decided to take this issue directly to the Congress in Washington, D.C. when they come back into session after their August summer recess. Beginning in early September, if no substantial legislation has been passed by then, we will undertake a weeks-long Climate Fast on water only. We hope many others will join us, either in D.C. or in their home community or state capitol.

Some of us have decided that if it’s a planetary emergency, our actions need to match that reality.