By Stephen Leahy*
Apr 1 (IPS) –Our fingers are glued to the global thermostat, pushing it ever higher, and climate catastrophe has already begun to reshape human civilisation.
Drought. Flood. Heat wave. Tornado and hurricane. Once sole products of natural forces, all are now amplified by the massive amounts of additional heat trapped in the atmosphere because of burning fossil fuels, scientists warn.
[ *This story is part one of a four-part examination of the psychological and behavioural changes needed to dial down the temperature on our global greenhouse. Part two: Climate River in Full Flood Part three: CLIMATE CHANGE: A Vision Worth Fighting For Part four: CLIMATE CHANGE: A Game With Too Many Free Riders ]
Such calamities are no longer distant in time or space. Tens of millions have already been impacted by unnaturally extreme and violent weather for at least the past two decades.
Annual emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) are three times higher today than in the 1990s. Even if the impossible could be done — cease all CO2 emissions today — the average global temperature will continue to increase from the present 0.8 degrees C above normal to 1.6 – 1.8C, data shows. And that new global average temperature would remain higher than normal for the next 500 years because of the time it will take for the warming oceans to cool.
To prevent Earth from heating further than 2.0 C, a potentially catastrophic tipping point, carbon dioxide emissions would need to be completely eliminated and soon, say researchers in a new study published in March in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Just as an iron skillet will stay hot and keep cooking after the stove’s burners are turned off, heat held in the oceans will keep the climate warm even as the heating effect of greenhouse gases diminishes. Adding more greenhouse gases, even at a rate lower than today, would worsen the situation and the effects would persist for centuries, they report.
But the rate of fossil fuel use is skyrocketing. Last fall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the current growth trend, led by new coal-burning power plants, will drive the global average temperature up 3.0 degrees by 2030 and it could ultimately climb to 6.0 degrees C in the following decades.
“What if we were to discover tomorrow that a climate catastrophe was imminent if our planet warmed any further? To reduce emissions enough to avoid this catastrophe, we would have to cut them close to zero — and right away,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate researcher at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University and co-author of the report.
But we still couldn’t reach zero in a year even if failure meant Earth would turn into a giant fireball.
Climate feedbacks allow things to happen very fast, noted Ted Scambos, senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado.
Ten years ago, the Arctic was a vast ice- and snow-covered cap on the globe. In less than a decade, it will be a dark and open ocean spotted with floating white ice during the summer and fall.
In Antarctica, a 414-square-kilometre chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf broke off late this winter due to global warming, said scientists from the British Antarctic Survey.
“We will see big changes throughout the globe. That’s scary to me,” Scambos told IPS.
For full story see CLIMATE CHANGE: The Future Is Now