Published on Tuesday, November 25, 2008 by The Guardian/UK
One Shot Left
The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation.
George Bush is behaving like a furious defaulter whose home is about to be repossessed. Smashing the porcelain, ripping the doors off their hinges, he is determined that there will be nothing worth owning by the time the bastards kick him out. His midnight regulations, opening America's wilderness to logging and mining, trashing pollution controls, tearing up conservation laws, will do almost as much damage in the last 60 days of his presidency as he achieved in the foregoing 3000(1).
His backers – among them the nastiest pollutocrats in
If it is now too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Bush team must carry much of the blame. His wilful trashing of the Middle Climate – the interlude of benign temperatures which allowed human civilisation to flourish – makes the mass murder he engineered in
Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that - almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have begun(2).
Just a year ago the Intergovernmental Panel warned that the
Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us. As the ice disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the extra warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500km inland, covering almost the entire region of continuous permafrost(4). Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere(5). It remains safe for as long as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in Arctic lakes, through the winter(6).
The effects of melting permafrost are not incorporated into any global climate models. Runaway warming in the
Barack Obama's speech to the
A paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that if we are to give ourselves a roughly even chance(8,9) of preventing more than two degrees of warming, global emissions from energy must peak by 2015 and decline by between six and eight per cent per year from 2020 to 2040, leading to a complete decarbonisation of the global economy soon after 2050(10). Even this programme would work only if some optimistic assumptions about the response of the biosphere hold true. Delivering a high chance of preventing two degrees of warming would mean cutting global emissions by over 8% a year.
Is this possible? Is this acceptable? The Tyndall paper points out that annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only with economic recession or upheaval." When the
The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the
This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world's energy infrastructure involves "an enormous front-load of fossil fuels", which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest(13). This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people "to make short term, radical sacrifices", cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological assistance, in five years. There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system - even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.
She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk's proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological solution I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.
Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No we can't.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
1. Suzanne Goldenberg, 20th November 2008. President for 60 more days, Bush tearing apart protection for
2. Public Interest Research Centre, 25th November 2008. Climate Safety. www.pirc.info 
3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I. Technical Summary, p73. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/
4. David M. Lawrence et al., 2008. Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation
during rapid sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 35, 11506.
5. Edward A. G. Schuur et al, September 2008. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience, Vol. 58, No. 8, pp.
6. United Nations Environment Project, 4 June 2007. Melting Ice - a Hot Topic? Press
8. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138
Anderson and Bows state that "The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2 degrees C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2 degrees C." This estimate is given in the following paper:
9. Malte Meinshausen, 2006. What Does a 2°C Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates. In Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Ed in Chief). Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change.
10. This is for stabilisation at 450 ppmv CO2e - well above the level that James Hansen and other climate scientists are now calling for.
11. Anderson and Bows note that stabilising atmospheric concentrations even at 650 ppmv CO2e requires that global emissions peak by 2020, followed by global cuts of 3-4% a year. This means that OECD nations will have to cut emissions by even more than this to prevent concentrations from rising above 650. Meinshausen estimates that stabilisation at 650ppmv CO2e gives a 40% chance of exceeding 4 degrees C.
12. CNBC.com, 17th November 2008. Financial Crisis Tab Already In The Trillions.
13. Sharon Astyk, 11th November 2008. A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change. http://sharonastyk.com/2008/
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs