June 21, 2007

More Alarmism, Please

Many of the articles in the New Left Review are either over my head or nonsense—I can't decide which. Consider this, from the latest issue: "Jane Bennett presents a case for seeing matter as actant inside and alongside humankind, able to exert influence on moods, dispositions, decisions." Hmm? I don't even know what that could mean. Maybe it's tripe. Or maybe it's brilliant and I'm the philistine.

But NLR still has good stuff. This month, Clive Hamilton and George Monbiot have a lively debate about how to deal with global climate change. Hamilton gets points for conjuring up an image of Texans cranking up their A/C in order to enjoy a log fire in the summertime, by way of illustrating how insane our current energy consumption patterns are. But the key part is Monbiot's overview of why the world needs to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 to prevent an additional 2 degrees of warming:
Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. ... A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle [which would release methane, leading to more warming, and so on].

For this and other reasons—including the die-back of tropical forest, the accelerating metabolism of soil bacteria, a reduction of the earth’s reflectivity as ice melts—two degrees of manmade warming could cause a total impact of three degrees; and three degrees could lead inexorably to four. In other words, if two degrees of warming takes place, the problem is snatched from our hands. The biosphere becomes a major source of greenhouse gases, and there will be little we can do to prevent further climate change. Two degrees is the only target worth setting. ...

A paper published recently in the journal Climatic Change shows that in order to obtain a 50 per cent chance of preventing the global average temperature from rising by 2° above its pre-industrial level, we require a global cut of 80 per cent by 2050.
That seems right: Last month, NASA's James Hansen and 46 other climate scientists published a new paper (PDF) arguing that once carbon concentrations in the atmosphere reach around 450 parts per million (we're currently at 384), the earth will hit a tipping point. And while scientists don't know exactly how high sea levels could then rise, climate records show that, during previous eras in which CO2 was between 350 and 450 ppm, the earth was ice-free and sea levels were 81 feet higher than present. It's a big fucking deal.

RealClimate recently had a nice post about how Hansen's models from the 1980s have held up extremely well over time. (Granted, that didn't stop Pat Michaels of the Cato Institute from misrepresenting Hansen's work during a congressional hearing in 1998, but what can you do.) In any case, it would take a brave soul to seriously suggest that we should just sit around and wait to see for ourselves if Hansen and Monbiot are right about the 2°/450 ppm tipping point.

That means the United States has less than a decade to halt its emissions growth and get on track to slash greenhouse emissions some 80 percent by 2050, in addition to bringing China and India on board. You'd think that timeframe would induce a bit of panic in the political classes, but it hasn't really sunk in yet. Oh, sure, the Democratic presidential candidates all have position papers discussing an 80 percent reduction, but most of the actual talk on the campaign trail is about health care and so forth. I'm all for universal health care, but on the list of urgent concerns, it's definitely a second-tier one at best. I do like Bill Richardson's list of priorities:
The first day [in office], I would get us of Iraq with diplomacy. The second day, I would plan a huge initiative on making America energy independent with an Apollo-like program to become more reliant on renewable fuels. I'd ask the American people to sacrifice in so doing. Third, I would have a major initiative on climate change. Ninety percent .. .. reduce emissions by 2050. The fourth day I would take off.
Whether he truly means it or not, I do wish every Democratic candidate would take this tack. Monbiot's right, I think—all other concerns can wait. Is that too "alarmist"? It should be.
-- Brad Plumer 9:45 AM || ||