LIMA, Peru — United Nations climate experts have published a new report warning that time is rapidly running out to avert global catastrophe.
The study, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released Sunday to guide the climate and energy policies of nearly 200 countries, makes for scary reading.
But it also offers hope: Tough action now to slash greenhouse gases doesn’t need to derail the global economy. Here, GlobalPost takes a look at some key climate change numbers.
The Jaenschwalde power plant is one of the biggest single producers of CO2 gas in Europe. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
That would be the loss in annual world economic growth, according to Sunday’s report (page 18), caused by the cost of slashing carbon emissions to prevent temperatures from rising by more than a dangerous 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The IPCC looks at consumption rates as a measure of growth. This figure, however, does not include likely savings — such as lower health care costs thanks to less air pollution from burning fossil fuels. It also leaves out potential economic benefits of ramping up the green economy, including more investment in renewable energy. A small price to pay to avert planetary catastrophe, you might think.
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49 billion metric tons
Exhaust from cars is among the top air polluters. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
This is the amount of carbon pollution humans pumped into the atmosphere in 2010 (see page 5). The figure for 1970 was under half that, at 27 billion metric tons. Humans first started emitting carbon in significant quantities in the mid-18th century, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Yet the rate of emissions has accelerated rapidly in the last four decades, when we actually emitted twice as much greenhouse gas as in the previous two centuries. Nearly 80 percent of the emissions today come from using fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, to generate electricity, and from industry. Transport is the third largest producer.
An extreme storm brought two tornadoes to Manhattan Sept. 8, 2012. (Lisa Bettany/Flickr Commons)
Without prompt additional measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the rise in average global temperatures by 2100 will likely fall in this range (see page 8). The report actually gives the figures in Celsius, predicting mercury increases by between 3.7 C to 4.8 C (6.7 F to 8.6 F). That might sound lovely if you live in, say, Alaska, but in a SoCal summer, not so much. It’s also worth remembering that the change will not be uniform or steady, and that there will be all kinds of deadly extreme weather, from storms and flooding to droughts and heat waves. In some places and at some times, the mercury will actually drop.
A heat wave charbroiled this beach last August in Brighton, England. Better cover up, mates. (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
That’s how many people are already dying each year as a result of climate change, according to the World Health Organization. The figure includes fatalities from extreme weather events, as well as from the spread of tropical diseases like malaria — problems that scientists say climate change is making worse. The statistic also factors in malnutrition thanks to falling agricultural production. The deaths occur mainly in the developing world: Africa, Asia and Latin America, with southern and eastern Africa bearing the brunt. Few dare to predict climate change’s future death toll, although there are studies that suggest heat waves alone will kill thousands in northern climes.
Michele Bachmann once said, "We need to have carbon dioxide as part of the fundamental lifecycle of Earth." Glenn Beck is accused of claiming snowstorms prove climate change isn't real. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Although some politicians and commentators still argue about whether climate change even exists, among the experts — scientists specializing in climate related fields — that argument is now well and truly over. This survey of nearly 12,000 climate science papers published between 1991 and 2011 found that 97 percent of those that expressed an opinion concluded that climate change is caused by humans. Unfortunately, the media also often fail to reflect that crushing research consensus, giving climate skeptics, frequently with no relevant scientific qualifications, equal weight to the genuine experts. Remember how until his death in 2008, Michael Crichton — famous for writing science fiction — was one of the United States’ most quoted climate change deniers? It’s not just US media, either. The BBC has also been criticized for creating a “false balance” that gives viewers the wrong impression that scientists still question global warming in meaningful numbers.