January 27, 2005

2 degC or Bust?

Filed under: Adaptation

A quick look out the window reveals that International Climate Change Taskforce recommendations for limiting global temperature rise to 2ºC are overly cautious.

Here’s a test. Look out the window and describe all the changes that have been caused by a long-term rise in global temperatures. Here in Piedmont Virginia, you’d be hard pressed to find a single thing—the ground is covered by a snowy mess. The pond is frozen over save for a small hole where the ducks are frantically paddling in a circle to keep open a bit of water. The trees and flowers are in their state of winter dormancy. A few cold-weather birds are poking around the ice-crusted ground looking for something to eat. Around town, folks have their coat collars pulled up to their ears and their hands dug deeply in their pockets. It is winter in the mid-Atlantic.

If we were creative, perhaps we could come up with a few things with a global warming tie-in. Perhaps the flowers may bloom and the trees may leaf out a few days earlier this spring. The frigid low temperatures of the past couple of nights may have been a few degrees higher than they would have been without an enhanced greenhouse effect. Maybe some of the sleet that just fell should have been snow. But we can’t be sure about any of that.

The truth is, it’s been plenty cold enough around here of late. Two degrees warmer? Still cold. So we are a bit stumped on how to square these observations with the recent headlines hyping a climate change report by a group headed by U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and U.K. Member of Parliament Stephen Byers. The team they lead calls itself the International Climate Change Taskforce, and their warnings are dour indeed: “Global warming has hit the danger mark.” “Global warming meltdown just 10 years away.” “Global warming: Time is running out.”

The timing of the report’s release coincides with what they call a “year when the UK holds the presidencies of the G8 and the EU” and “the year in which the Kyoto Protocol comes into force.”

The task force’s primary recommendation is that “a long-term objective be established to prevent global average temperature from rising more than 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the pre-industrial level, to limit the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts.” They explain that “beyond the 2ºC level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly.”

This is why we introduce the look-out-the-window test. The world has already warmed by about 0.8ºC (1.4ºF) since pre-industrial times, or nearly half-way to the dreaded 2ºC. You would think if we were halfway to some catastrophe, we should be seeing some signs. Instead, things look pretty much as usual.

But what if we were somewhere else looking out the window, you may ask, such as southern California? Well, then we would recently have seen plentiful rain at low elevations and copious snows in the mountains—storing water for the year (or years) to come despite what we have been recently told about global warming reducing winter precipitation and mountain snowpack.

How about the along the shores of Indonesia? There, we would have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of a 30- to 50-foot rise of the ocean level in a matter of minutes. That’s enough to make us realize the manageability of the few inches of sea-level rise that have occurred as a result of a warmer world.

How about in other less well-off countries? Well, in such locations the population does constant battle with the many faces of poverty, faces that include starvation, disease and lack of adequate shelter. Though climate and climate change may play some role in these issues, other forces are by far the dominant factors. Suffice it so say that climate change is not what landed these folks in the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves. Nor is attempting to maintain the climate at near its present state the answer to helping them to improve their living conditions.

When the United Nations reports that globally there are 852 million people who are undernourished and about 1.2 billion people living in abject poverty, it seems a bit presumptive for the task force to state that “climate change represents one of the most serious and far-reaching challenges facing humankind in the twenty-first century.”

During the past century, in the United States, life span has doubled, and agricultural yields have more than tripled. These changes have not been caused by an enhanced greenhouse effect (except for some of the boost in agriculture), but they have certainly not been prevented by it.

Given all of the above, the International Climate Change Taskforce’s conclusion that “there is a clear need for governments to build public support for climate policies that will enable the world to meet the objective of limiting global average temperatures rise to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels” seems to fall a bit flat. It is little wonder, therefore, that the task force found that “public awareness of climate change, and its solutions, is worryingly low.” Apparently, the rest of us have more pressing things to be aware of (like how to stay warm in frigid temperatures), so we’ll leave the worrying to them.

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