a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Still fiddling while the planet burns

Posted by Thomas Nephew on July 11th, 2009

On Thursday the G-8 group announced goals of no more than a 2 degree Celsius global warming, and an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. But as the Los Angeles Times’s Jim Tankersley and Christi Parsons reported,

Leaders of the most developed nations again declined to commit themselves to any specific actions now or in the immediate future to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming — actions that would require increasing energy prices, raising taxes or imposing other unpopular economic measures on their people. […]

China, India and other major developing countries, which pressed for action in the next decade by the G-8 countries, reacted by rejecting the package.

Meanwhile, Senate Environment Committee chair Barbara Boxer has reportedly pushed back her deadline to complete the Senate counterpart to the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security” (ACES) 1200 page bill that passed by just 219-212 in late June.  Senator Boxer now no longer hopes to report a bill out of committee before the August recess, and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid hopes to “get to” a vote by October.

In addition to the delay, it’s likely the Senate will, if anything, weaken the bill; E&ETV’s Darryl Samuelsohn said earlier this week, “I don’t think that as the Senate bill starts to move forward you can expect those bills to get more aggressive on that front.”

Yet the ACES target of a 17 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 is considered inadequate by many environmentalists and climate scientists.  Were ACES goals met and continued at the same pace through 2050, the US would be on track for about a 60 to 65% annual carbon dioxide emissions reduction; while that seems impressive (assuming it’s actually accomplished), the odds are it would not be enough.  Writing as a group, the climate scientists of the blog “RealClimate” summarize two recent studies concluding that

…unless humankind puts on the brakes very quickly and aggressively (i.e. global reductions of 80% by 2050), we face a high probability of driving climate beyond a 2°C threshold taken by both studies as a “danger limit”. […]

Moreover, the graph to the right (from the same article) displays the authors’ best estimates that even an 80 percent emissions reduction among developed countries by 2050 would give our grandchildren not quite even odds of avoiding a two degree global warming by 2100 — and that the odds could be as poor as one in four.  To complete the “Paul Revere” quality of the post, they note that even a “mere” two degrees of global warming “stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations” — to say nothing of sea level rises that may exceed 1 meter by 2100.

And we’re already more than halfway to that two degree rise in global temperatures.  Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New York Times that “temperatures had already risen by 0.8 degree and would probably rise by another 0.6 degree based only on pollution already in the air, meaning that embracing that goal would require that major steps be taken almost immediately.”

At the G-8 summit, President Obama said, “I know that in the past, the United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities,” he said. “So let me be clear: Those days are over.”

Not by just saying so they aren’t.  It’s certainly to be welcomed that Obama, Boxer, and others are not denying the importance of global and national solutions to global warming.  But what they and other leadership have on tap is already late and getting later, and may well be insufficient to the challenges we face.  We’re heading off a cliff; it’s good our driver is finally awake, but it’s bad our “Stop the Bus” Committees are still dickering and hesitating about when and how hard to apply the brakes.

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