Science, Tech & Environment

Global Forecast: Stormy Weather

When you do what I do, the news about climate change comes rather like snowflakes in a blizzard–from all directions at once, and accumulating in such overwhelming amounts and impact that it can be hard to know where to start digging out.   But as global negotiators pack their bags for the latest UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa later this month, here are a few of the more sobering bits of recent news:

-At the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists last month in Miami, the chair of the University of Miami's Geography department, Harold Wanless, told a packed auditorium that "we should think about putting things we don't want to lose–like national archives–safely away from the coast."

We've put so much CO2 in the atmosphere, Wanless said, that "we're probably looking at sea level rise of 20-40-60 feet before the climate equilibrates. And it's happening faster than we thought it would. It's possible that we're already seeing the beginnings of it now, with rapidly accelerating ice loss in Antarctica and Greenland."

Four years ago, the 194-nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast sea level rise of at least six inches to two feet by the year 2100, but Wanless believes we may instead see "rapid pulses of the 1-10 meter range"–that's 3.3 to 33 feet–in this century."

-Wanless's warnings, and those of veteran climate researchers like NASA's Jim Hansen, are based on the excess carbon dioxide that's already been emitted into the atmosphere and projections for future emissions. But reports in the last two weeks from the International Energy agency and the US Department of Energy both found that global emissions of CO2, the most important greenhouse pollutant, continue to defy projections, and reached record levels in 2010. The head of the DOE's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center told the Associated Press that the latest figures put global emissions higher than the worst case projections from the IPCC just four years ago."

The IEA report suggests that given the lack of progress in controlling greenhouse emissions so far, the world has just six years in which to take drastic action to reduce greenhouse emissions sufficiently to avoid a rise of at least 2 ° C, the upper limit of what's considered "safe". The report found that 80% of the total energy-related CO2 emissions that would lead to that temperature rise are already "locked in," and that with the rapid economic growth of the developing world the other 20% will be locked in by 2017. That means any further emissions after 2017 put us over the edge into the danger zone.   (Of course many researchers argue that the threshold for dangerous warming is actually much lower.)

-A draft summary of the IPCC's latest major report obtained by Agence France Press states that the impact of climate change on weather events and rising sea levels are already measurable and "very likely"–that is a probability of 90% or greater –to become worse or even intolerable. The same report forecasts a rise in average global temperatures of up to 5 ° C (9 ° F) by 2100. Taken together, what's emerging from this and other news is a new and extremely scary understanding of what we're doing to the global climate. Climate change isn't something that's going to happen mostly in some far distant future–it's happening now. It's not something that will happen gradually and smoothly–it's going to unfold in dramatic fits and starts. And it's not something we have the luxury of time to deal with later–the window of opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change could be closed well before the end of this decade.

And yet the only global mechanism for doing anything about this real and present danger–the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, often referred to as the Kyoto process–has virtually ground to a halt, with little more than face-saving agreements coming out of the last two summits in Copenhagen and Cancun, and little hope for anything more at the upcoming Durban meeting, largely because the world's top two greenhouse polluters–the US and China–have been unable to come to grips internally with the challenge. The political system in the US is gridlocked on the issue, and despite huge investments in solar and other renewable energy technologies, China shows no signs of being able to dampen its ever-growing appetite for coal.

Until the governments in Washington and Beijing can muster the political will to make extremely tough domestic decisions, and agree to move ahead together in making a quick transition from fossil fuels, no part of the above outlook will change significantly. And for that to happen, it might just have to get a lot hotter and stormier.

Peter Thomson is the The World's Environment Editor