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Racing Toward Climate Chaos

Report after report by large scientific bodies highlighted the serious risks of grave food shortages, the loss of islands and coastal areas to rising seas, and extreme heat waves, droughts and floods. The scientific truth has not stopped greenhouse gas emissions from continuing to rise twice as fast as before the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.

Last September's report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that if the world is to have any chance to keep global warming manageable, then humanity's future emissions of greenhouse gases must be less than what was already generated in the past 250 years of industrialization. That "carbon budget" means leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground.

In truth it was the third report which was quite contentious, as it dealt with mitigation, including such sensitive topics as how much to reduce emissions, how it can be done, and how much this would cost.

The meetings were intense, as participants grappled with how best to portray the complexities of so many aspects to one of the world's most pressing problems, and the atmosphere was tense, as governments fought on ways to explain who and what were to blame for the crisis, and how to share the burden of reducing emissions in the future.

The facts in the 33-page Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) were stark indeed, including that:
Half of all carbon dioxide emissions from 1750 to 2010 occurred in the last 40 years. Cumulative carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, cement production and flaring by 1970 (since 1750) reached 420 giga tonne but this had tripled to 1,300 giga tonne in 2010, showing the tremendous increase in the past 40 years. (One giga tonne is equivalent to one billion tonne);

Greenhouse gas annual emission was about  39  giga tonne  of carbon  dioxide equivalent in 2000, but this grew about 1 giga tonne per year to reach a high of 49 giga tonne by 2010;

Without additional mitigation action to reduce emissions, the concentration of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, driven by growth in population and economic activities, is expected to jump from 430 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011 to 450 ppm by 2030 and 750-1,300 ppm by 2100;

This growth of emissions and concentration of greenhouse gases is projected to raise the global mean surface temperature in 2100 by 3.7 to 4.8 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial levels. (The present temperature is about 0.8 degree above pre-industrial levels; a rise by over 2 degree is considered disastrous while a 4 degree rise would be catastrophic);

To keep global warming below 2 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels, the concentration of Greenhouse gases should not exceed 450 ppm of CO2 equivalent. To attain this concentration (and not higher), this implies global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 should be 40-70% below the 2010 level, and near zero or below in 2100;

Governments have to do more in mitigation action than what they have pledged so far (at Cancun in 2010) as those pledges, if implemented, would only keep global temperature rise below 3 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels, which would have catastrophic effects since a level of 2 degrees or above is already disastrous.

The UN negotiations two months later focused instead on disagreements about money, plus some isolated cuts in emissions or encouragement for renewable energy. Similarly, the Obama administration has enacted a few regulations like increased fuel mileage for cars and trucks and restrictions on coal-fired power plants-which is more than any preceding administration accomplished. Yet no mainstream politician in the US or any other large producer of fossil fuels dares to get behind an actual carbon budget. Consequently, while the movement and some scientists have articulated the need to place whole categories of fuels-including coal, tar sands oil, and fracked oil and gas-off-limits, governments blithely state emissions targets with no credible plan to achieve them. Exxon Mobil confidently stated that "the scenario where governments restrict hydrocarbon production in a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% [by 2040] is highly unlikely.

On the contrary, Canada and the US have conspired to maximize tar sands production, including with the Keystone XL pipeline. Saudi Arabia, China and Brazil tried to keep the "carbon budget" point out of the IPCC report. And in the most recent report, the US excised from the Executive Summary an estimate that poor countries will need $100 billion a year to cope with climate change. Getting stuck with a portion of the bill for the effects of industrialization seems to be a more pressing problem than mitigating and dealing with those effects.

Apparent emission reductions in Europe and the US are largely due to exporting emissions. As transnational industries based in the US and Europe have shifted production to countries like China with low wages and little environmental regulation, emissions increased due to longer shipping and China's reliance on coal, but that counts against China, now the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Compounding this, as US coal consumption falls, the US, Canada and Australia have rushed to supply coal and tar sands oil to China and other "emerging market" countries.

Indigenous groups from across the US and Canada have pledged to use direct action to resist Keystone XL if President Obama approves the pipeline.

A society that fails to maintain its infrastructure, that throws away the creative abilities of working-age people, that drifts toward genocide and war, that normalizes extreme anti-human thought, that races toward destruction of its environmental basis, is a society that no longer believes in its future.

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 45, May 18 -24, 2014