Sunday, February 11, 2007

Catastrophic Climate Change may be Inevitible unless Drastic Steps are Taken

A report by Friends of the Earth Australia warns that catastrophic climate change may be inevitable unless dramatic steps are taken to reduce emissions. While the scientific community have finally consensed that human induced climate change is an unequivical reality with the release of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report on 2 February 2007, the survey of recent scientific research by FOE(Australia) indicates the IPCC climate change models may be very conservative and underestimate feedback effects of climate change.

The report was prepared by the Carbon Equity Project, and surveys climate data released by scientists in the last couple of years. Examining the risks and probabilities of catastrophic changes to the climate, the report concludes that annual greenhouse gas reductions of 4 to 5% a year must begin by the end of the decade if we are to have a reasonable chance of preventing disaster.


“This report is frightening. It looks at the latest scientific data released this year that shows many key climate changing events are happening more rapidly or sooner than expected. The earth’s capacity to absorb carbon is decreasing and feedback mechanisms are accelerating. It means we have to do more sooner to cut emissions” said Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth Australia.

David Spratt, the report author, said “Even current proposals for significantly reducing emissions, such as those in the Stern Report, may not be enough to prevent catastrophe. We can’t let the planet warm any further or we face a very real chance of runaway climate change." According to Spratt the IPCC report "does not include much of the recent science reviewed in this report. It also downplays the risk as it represents a consensus of all scientists, many whom are influenced by their governments,” he said.

“The debate over the existence and cause of climate change is over. The danger is that we now fail to recognise how much danger we are in and how little time we have. A plan for reducing emissions that does not match the science is of no help, in fact it is flirting with catastrophe”, concluded Cam Walker.

According to the report, the world is anually producing double the atmospheric carbon that the earth's carbon sinks can absorb. If emissions continue at the present rate, by 2030 the world will be producing five times the biosphere's carbon sinks capacity and catastrophic climate change will be unavoidable.

James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and one of the world's most eminent climate scientists, says that "we must close that gap (between the science and the policy-makers) and begin to move our energy systems in a fundamentally different direction within about a decade, or we will have pushed the planet past a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid far-ranging undesirable consequences". He warns that Global warming of two to three degrees would produce a planet without Arctic sea ice, a catastrophic sea level rise in the pipeline of around 25 metres, and a super-drought in the American west, southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa. "Such a scenario threatens even greater calamity, because it could unleash positive feedbacks such as melting of frozen methane in the Arctic, as occurred 55 million years ago, when more than ninety per cent of species on Earth went extinct"

With a current world population of 6.2 billion people, global atmospheric carbon emissions average 1.27 tonnes per capita, with the eath's capacity to absorb carbon currently at 0.62 tonnes per capita, decreasing to 0.32 tonnes per capita by 2030. The report concludes that radical programs need to be introduced by Governments to greatly reduce per capita carbon emissions below the ability for earth to absorb atmospheric carbon.

== Stern Report presents a Conservative assessment ==

The report summarises Sir Nicholas Stern's key messages from his Review on the Economics of Climate Change prepared for the British Government and published October 2006 and assesses that "these impact assessments appear to be conservative.":

"Climate change threatens the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food, health, and use of land and the environment. On current trends, average global temperatures could rise by 2–3°C within the next fifty years or so, leading to many severe impacts, often mediated by water, including more frequent droughts and floods.

• Melting glaciers will increase flood risk during the wet season and strongly reduce dry-season water supplies to one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China, and the Andes in South America.
• Declining crop yields, especially in Africa, are likely to leave hundreds of millions without the ability to produce or purchase sufficient food – particularly if the carbon fertilisation effect is weaker than previously thought, as some recent studies suggest. At mid to high latitudes, crop yields may increase for moderate temperature rises (2 – 3°C), but then decline with greater amounts of warming.
• Ocean acidification, a direct result of rising carbon dioxide levels, will have major effects on marine ecosystems, with possible adverse consequences on fish stocks.
• Rising sea levels will result in tens to hundreds of millions more people flooded each year with a warming of 3 or 4°C. There will be serious risks and increasing pressures for coastal protection in South East Asia (Bangladesh and Vietnam), small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and large coastal cities, such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Calcutta, Karachi, Buenos Aires, St Petersburg, New York, Miami and London.
• Climate change will increase worldwide deaths from malnutrition and heat stress. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever could become more widespread if effective control measures are not in place. In higher latitudes, cold-related deaths will decrease.
• By the middle of the century, 200 million more people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, heavier floods, and more intense droughts, according to one estimate.
• Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15 – 40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming. Strong drying over the Amazon, as predicted by some climate models, would result in dieback of the forest with the highest biodiversity on the planet.
• The consequences of climate change will become disproportionately more damaging with increased warming. Higher temperatures will increase the chance of triggering abrupt and large-scale changes that lead to regional disruption, migration and conflict.
• Warming may induce sudden shifts in regional weather patterns like the monsoons or the El NiƱo. Such changes would have severe consequences for water availability and flooding in tropical regions and threaten the livelihoods of billions.
• Melting or collapse of ice sheets would raise sea levels and eventually threaten at least 4 million Km2 of land, which today is home to 5% of the world’s population."

The Friends of the Earth report says that "these impact assessments appear to be conservative. More recent research on positive feedback mechanisms suggests that the greatest effect may be changes in the long-term functioning of the carbon cycle: diminishing carbon sinks (both soil and ocean), increased CO2 production and the release of long-stored greenhouse gases (permafrost methane) may combine to increase global temperatures at a rising rate."

==Ice Sheet Melting and Sea Level Rises ==

One of the significant events talked about repeatedly in the report is the triggering of the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Aleady there is increased seismic activity in the Greenland ice sheet and evidence the ice sheet is starting to melt at a much increased rate. The report warns that we may face sea level rises of 7 metres from Greenland, possibly at the speed of a metre every 20 years.

James Hansen notes that "Ice sheet disintegration starts slowly but multiple positive feedbacks can lead to rapid non-linear collapse" and than "equilibrium sea level rise for ~3°C warming (25±10 m = 80 feet) implies the potential for us to lose control" because "we cannot tie a rope around a collapsing ice sheet"

The report quotes a draft 2007 paper by Hansen and fellow researchers warning: "We foresee the gravest threat from the possibility of surface melt on West Antarctica, and interaction among positive feedbacks leading to catastrophic ice loss."

The Greenland ice sheet melting would also start to float the Antarctic ice sheets off their base. Even a one metre of sea level rise from Greenland melt would be devastating.

== Salt Water Threat from Rising Sea Levels ==

The report states that the 2006 Conference of the International Association of Hydrogeologists concluded that rising sea levels will also lead to the inundation by salt water of the aquifers used by cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima.

"The water supplies of dozens of major cities around the world are at risk from a previously ignored aspect of global warming. Within the next few decades rising sea levels will pollute underground water reserves with salt... Long before the rising tides flood coastal cities, salt water will invade the porous rocks that hold fresh water... The problem will be compounded by sinking water tables due to low rainfall, also caused by climate change, and rising water usage by the world's growing and increasingly urbanised population." (Pearce 2006)

Other issues raised by the report include:

* melting permafrost releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2.
* Increased mobilisation of Organic Carbon
* Increasing Ocean Acidity
* Algae extinction, loss of ocean biodiversity and reduction of the ocean as a CO2 sink and disruption to the algae production of dimethyl sulphide and its impact on cloud cover

== Worst Case Scenario ==

A worst case nightmare scenario is painted of a temperature rise of 8℃ above pre-industrial levels, which would result in the planet being habitable only from the latitude of Melbourne south to the south pole, and northern Europe, Asia and Canada to the north pole. Everything in between would be desert and uninhabitable, billions of people would not be able to survive.

The report concludes that "we cannot wait decades for promised new solutions such as clean coal, and measures adopted at the Kyoto rate are simply too little, too late. Painless voluntary reductions, the drip-by-drip implementation of more efficient and renewable technologies and carbon trading will not do enough, soon enough. Constraining carbon emissions requires major economic structural adjustment: state regulation for low-carbon policies and practices, the virtual elimination of high-carbon luxury goods, and wholesale redevelopment of housing and transport."

But rather than end on this, David Spratt has looked in depth at the path Britain is taking in combatting climate change.

The British Environment minister David Miliband says "the challenge we face is not about the science or the economic ... it is about politics". Carbon credits, he says, "limit the carbon emissions by end users based on the science, and then use financial incentives to drive efficiency and innovation" and are necessary because "essentially, by 2050 we need all activities outside agriculture to be near zero carbon emitting if we are to stop carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere growing".

While reports are being prepared for the British government on how carbon rationing might be implemented, the Blair Government is continuing with airport extensions and extensive road building, activities which actively promote carbon emissions.

How soon First World Governments regulate carbon emissions and restructure for a low carbon emission economy will ultimately determine the extent of the looming climate catastrophe. While they dither with whether to develop a nuclear power industry such as in Australia, or on developing clean coal technology (also Australia), valuable time is lost on development of low impact renewable energy production, transport alternatives, curtailing carbon emissions by business and eliminating third world poverty who will bear the effects of climate change disproportionately.

The 27 page report, 'Avoiding Catastrophe', is available from www.carbonequity.info or www.foe.org.au