Why we need to worry about global warming, now

With climate-related changes occurring faster than expected, scientists say we have 10 years to slash carbon fuel use — or else

In 1995, a panel of the world’s leading climate scientists declared that unless humanity cuts its use of coal and oil by 70 percent toward the end of this century, the world will suffer significant disruptions from global warming toward the end of this century.

Just six years later, that same body, the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), declared that the warming had “already affected physical and biological systems” in many areas of the world — a finding which “should sound alarm bells in every national capital and every local community,” according to the UN’s top environmental official.

Today, all bets are off.

In January, the famed British ecologist James Lovelock declared that we have already passed the “point of no return.” Others, including NASA’S James Hansen, one of the world’s pre-eminent climate scientists, think we still have about a 10 year grace period in which to make major changes.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, also sees a 10-year timeline and says dramatic cuts in carbon fuel use must be made “if humanity is to survive.” Added British climate expert Peter Cox: “The scientific agenda has moved from improving predictions to thinking about . . . the chances of something awful happening.”

By contrast, the current Kyoto Protocol, which was essentially rendered comatose by the Bush Administration two years ago, calls for emissions cuts of a mere 8 percent by industrial countries by 2012.

What’s truly alarming — aside from the totally unexpected speed of these changes — is the fact that most leaders are just beginning to accept the reality of global warming. Most still think we have far more time to begin to wean the world off oil and coal. Those groups include not only the Bush administration, but also the mainstream media. For years, the press has cast the issue of global warming as a debate — thanks to the public relations experts of big coal and big oil who insisted journalists “balance” the findings of the IPCC with pronouncements of a handful of dissident researchers, most of whom were on the payroll of the fossil fuel industry.

As a result, the press accorded the same weight to the industry-sponsored naysayers as they did to the IPCC — which represents the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Today the calculus is changing; some press titans like Time magazine and ABC News are taking note of scientists’ new urgency. Time’s recent cover on global warming warned: “Be worried. Be very worried.” But that warning seems to have been ignored by America’s political leaders.

Instead, the President followed his recent call to overcome our “addiction to oil” by promoting auto efficiency standards which would amount to less than 2 miles a gallon for certain light trucks over the next five years — and exempt nearly 80 percent of all SUV’s and small trucks from stricter standards altogether.

Even environmental groups are unwilling to sound the alarm clearly — in good part because they work in Washington, where most change is a matter of slow negotiation — but also because they’re afraid of being marginalized. It is, after all, hard to tell Americans just how much change is needed when they’re only now understanding that change is needed at all.

Why the new urgency? Planetary changes which were supposed to occure toward the end of the century, according to scientific computer models, are actually happening today. Dr. Paul Epstein, a leading climate researcher at Harvard Medical School, citing the rapid intensification of storms around the world, said: “We are seeing [storm] impacts today that were previously projected to occur in 2080.”

Other examples include:

* The Greenland ice sheet, one of the largest glaciers on the planet, is melting from above and losing its stability as meltwater from the surface trickles down and lubricates the bedrock on which the ice sheet sits. Should that ice sheet slide into the ocean, it would raise sea levels on the order of 20 feet. The rate of sea level rise has already doubled in the last decade as a result of melting glaciers and the thermal expansion of warming oceans.

* The proportion of severely destructive hurricanes that have reached category 4 and 5 intensity has doubled in the past thirty years, fueled by rising surface water temperatures.

* Oceans are becoming acidified from the fallout of our fossil fuel emissions. The ph level of the world’s oceans has changed more in the last 100 years than it did in the previous 10,000 years.

Those troubling signals are made all the more disturbing by the fact that climate change does not necessarily follow a linear, incremental trajectory. As the climate system crosses invisible thresholds, it is capable of large-scale, unpredictable leaps.

“[T]here are tipping points out there that could be passed before we’re halfway through the century,” said Tim Lenton, an earth systems modeller at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

That reality is compounded by the fact that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years. Some of the impacts that are surfacing today were likely triggered by carbon emitted in the 1980s, before the recent burst of carbon-powered development in China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and other developing countries.

And then there is the problem of “feedback loops,” which means that small changes caused by warming can trigger other much larger changes.

For example, the Siberian and Alaskan tundras, which for centuries absorbed carbon dioxide and methane, are now thawing and releasing those gases back into the atmosphere. A rapid release of greenhouse gases from these regions could trigger a spike in warming.

Scientists recently detected a weakening of the flow of ocean currents in the Atlantic basin because of an infusion of freshwater from melting sea ice and glaciers. At a certain point, they say, the change in salinity and water density could change the direction of ocean currents, leading to much more bitter and severe winters in northern Europe and North America.

In the face of these changes, the press remains largely in denial. The environmental movement seems to have gone into hibernation. And the Bush Administration has turned its back on the challenge. We are, as the British paper, The Independent, put it, “sleepwalking into an Apocalypse.”

President Bush has been especially antagonistic toward the climate issue. Shortly after taking office, the President reneged on his campaign promise to cut emissions from power plants. He then called for the construction of 1,900 new power plants, most of them coal-fired. The President withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto talks in 2001 and two years later the White House ordered the EPA to remove all references to the dangers of climate change from its website. At the end of 2004, the U.S. used its diplomatic leverage to prevent delegates to the Kyoto talks from formulating any action plans. (The delegates were forced to limit the talks to “informational seminars.”) Most recently, the Bush Administration tried to silence NASA’s Hansen — and now requires all contacts between government climate scientists and the press to be monitored by government “minders.”

For their part, many large environmental groups tell members they can help by, among other things, buying compact fluorescent bulbs, carpooling more, keeping tires properly inflated, using stingier showerheads and turning down home thermostats by one or two degrees.

But unlike many other environmental problems, climate change cannot be solved by lifestyle changes. Even if we all sat in the dark and rode bicycles, it would not stop global warming. Efficiencies can cut emissions by up to 30 percent — not 70 percent.

Even those groups that promote more large-scale changes — capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and burying it underground, for instance — fail to acknowledge the limitation of those measures. These piecemeal measures may reduce U.S. carbon emissions to 1990 levels during the next decade. That is far short of the 70 percent reduction required by nature to keep this earth hospitable to civilization.

Even the mainstream press also seems reluctant to put the true magnitude of the challenge squarely in front of readers and viewers. (It might help if the media made the connection between global warming and the escalating number of flood, droughts and severe storms that occupy ever larger portions of news budgets. Every time the press covers an extreme weather event it should insert a line saying, “Scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” That would likely mobilize the public around the issue in a very short time).

By contrast, European media coverage of climate change has been far less qualified. As a result, Holland is now cutting its emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years. Tony Blair has committed the UK to cuts of 60 percent in 50 years. Germany has vowed to cut its emissions by 50 percent in the next 50 years. And French President Jacques Chirac recently called on the entire industrial world to cut emissions by 75 percent in 45 years.

What is needed — yesterday — is a coordinated worldwide effort to transform the world’s energy diet from oil and coal to a mix of wind, solar, tidal power, small-scale hydro and, eventually, clean hydrogen fuels.

There are solutions — but they require unprecedented global coordination to address this problem.

One such plan was conceived by the author and refined by a group of energy company executives, economists and energy policy specialists who met several years ago at Harvard Medical School. It would cut emissions by the 70 percent required by nature while simultaneously creating millions of jobs around the world.

That plan would:

* Redirect energy subsidies in industrial nations. The United States spends more than $20 billion a year to subsidize coal and oil; industrial countries overall spend about $200 billion. If those subsidies were withdrawn from carbon fuels and put behind renewable energy sources, oil companies would follow the money and use it to retool and retrain their workers to become aggressive developers of fuel cells, wind farms, and solar systems.

* Create a fund of about $300 billion a year to transfer clean energy to poor countries. Virtually all developing countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it. China is home to some of the most air-polluted cities in the world. Others include Bangkok, Thailand, Santiago, Chile and Mexico City. * The fund could be financed by a small tax on international currency transactions, which total more than $1.5 trillion every day. A tax of a quarter-penny-per-dollar on those transactions would yield about $300 billion a year for windfarms in India, solar assemblies in El Salvador, fuel cell factories in South Africa, and vast solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East. Alternatively, financing could come from a carbon tax in industrial countries or a tax on international airline travel.

* Establish a mandatory fossil fuel efficiency standard that rises 5 percent per year. Starting at its current baseline, each country would produce the same amount of goods next year with 5 percent less carbon fuel or produce 5 percent more with the same amount of carbon fuel — until the 70 percent reduction was attained.

Nations would initially meet the goal through low-cost efficiency measures. When those efficiencies were exhausted, countries would meet the rising efficiency goal by drawing more and more energy from non-carbon sources. That would create the mass markets for renewables that would lower their costs and make them economically competitive with coal and oil.

This plan is one model. There may be better approaches. But we no longer have the luxury of thinking in terms of nationalism. The global climate does not recognize man-made boundaries. The countries of the world need to join together in a project to rewire the world with clean energy as quickly as humanly possible. Otherwise, our history as a civilized species will soon be truncated by the momentum of runaway climate change.

Look out the window. Time’s up.

© Ross Gelbspan
Ross Gelbspan, a 30-year-journalist, is author of The Heat Is On (1998) and Boiling Point (2004) and maintains the website: www.heatisonline.org. He wrote this article for Perspective.