No 1321 Posted by fw, April 28, 2015
“In the lead up to the forthcoming Paris talks, policy makers through their willful neglect of the evidence are in effect normalizing a 2.5–3°C global warming target. It’s time to “do the math” again. Effective policy making can only be based on recognizing that climate change is already dangerous, and we have no carbon budget left to divide up. Big tipping-point events irreversible on human time scales and large-scale positive feedbacks are already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. It is clear that 2°C of climate warming is not a safe cap. This evidence demonstrates that action is necessary at a faster pace than most policy makers conceive is possible. Decades of procrastination mean there is no longer sufficient time for an incremental and non-disruptive reduction in emissions. Only a whole-of-society rescue plan, understood as action at emergency speed outside of the business-as-usual political mode, can provide hope of retaining a livable planet for ourselves and future generations.” —David Spratt
So writes Spratt in the concluding paragraph of his sobering, wake-up-world report. This report really does “change everything”.
Below is a reposting of the complete report by David Spratt: Recount: It’s time to ‘Do the math’ again. One or two minor revisions have been made to the original version. To access a downloadable version, click on the following linked title. Both versions include all 37 endnote citations, which are numbered in the body of the text.
FOREWORD IAN DUNLOP Former Chair, Australian Coal Association & CEO, Australian Institute of Company Directors For the last two decades global leaders have been guilty of willful denial regarding human-induced climate change, none more so than in Australia. Despite much rhetoric and endless negotiations, human carbon emissions continue to rise in line with a worst-case scenario. Nothing effective has been done to slow their increase, let alone reduce them.
As extreme events and the economic cost of climate change escalate, the world may be poised to take serious action at the Paris COP21 meeting in December 2015, albeit this is by no means guaranteed.
Unfortunately the years of procrastination have cut off options to solve the climate challenge with a graduated response – emergency action is now inevitable if potentially catastrophic and irreversible impacts are to be avoided.
Such views are dismissed as extremist by political and corporate incumbencies, and by most activist NGOs and investors. However, there has never been an honest official acknowledgment of the real climate challenge; as a result realistic solutions have never been forthcoming.
In the lead-up to Paris, the focus of attention is the need to limit temperature increase to the official 2°C target with a limited carbon budget, but these are not appropriate objectives. Climate change is happening faster and more extensively than officially acknowledged and sensible risk management requires far more stringent action. This paper explains why.
There is only one chance to solve this problem. NGOs and investors must not just go along with the official agenda, but demand that incumbencies develop the right solutions to the real challenge.
Climate policy making is based on the twin propositions that two degrees Celsius (2°C) of global warming is an appropriate policy target, and that there is a significant carbon budget and amount of “burnable carbon” allowable whilst meeting this target.
This survey concludes that the evidence does not support either of these propositions.
The catastrophic and irreversible consequences of 2°C of warming demand a strong risk-management approach, with a low rate of failure. We should not take risks with the climate that we would not take, for example, with civil infrastructure.
There is no carbon budget available:
At just 0.8°C of global warming, the world is already experiencing dangerous climate change. West Antarctic glaciers are now in “unstoppable” meltdown for 1–4 metres of sea-level rise. This event is “a game changer”, and a “tipping point that none of us thought would pass so quickly” according to one leading Australian scientist.
Arctic tipping points have been crossed for sea-ice-free summer conditions, with severe consequences for the future stability of permafrost and frozen methane stores, sea-level rises, as well as accelerated global warming as ice sheets retreat and the Earth’s reflectivity decreases.
In reality, 2°C is the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous climate change and 1°C warmer than human civilization has ever experienced.
McKibben’s “Do the Math” Rolling Stone calculations were based on 2 incorrect propositions, contends Stanford climate scientist among others
In his widely-read “Global warming’s terrifying new math” for Rolling Stone in 2012, 350.org founder Bill McKibben recognized that: So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius (°C), and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected… in fact, many scientists have come to think that 2°C is far too lenient a target. “Any number much above 1°C involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8°C, 2°C is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for 2°C of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a 2°C rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that 2°C would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.” 1
McKibben’s work has helped build the divestment campaign to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to popularize the notion that investment in fossil fuels is financially risky and immoral.
What people seem to most remember about the article are McKibben’s “three simple numbers”:
The number “350” (parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide) on which 350.org was founded does not appear in “Global warming’s terrifying new math”.
By the time of the “Do the math” speaking tour, the message front and centre was: “We can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming”. 2
This proposition has wide currency, including in the work of Naomi Klein and in a proposed sign-on statement in the lead up to the Paris climate talks published recently in The Guardian:
Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of these reserves is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2°C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of these reserves undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We will start negotiating a global budget for the extraction of fossil fuels from existing reserves, as well as a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. In line with the quantification of the fossil carbon that can be extracted without a high chance of exceeding 2°C of global warming, we will develop a timetable for annual reductions towards that budget. We will develop mechanisms for allocating production within this budget and for enforcement and monitoring. 3
This framing of an allowable “carbon budget” or “burnable carbon” is deeply troubling to Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira:
There are no such things as “allowable CO2 emissions.” There are only “damaging CO2 emissions” or “dangerous CO2 emissions.” Every CO2 emission causes additional damage and creates additional risk. Causing additional damage and creating additional risk with our CO2 emissions should not be allowed. If you look at how our politicians operate, if you tell them you have a budget of XYZ, they will spend XYZ. Politicians will reason: “If we’re not over budget, what’s to stop us spending? Let the guys down the road deal with it when the budget has been exceeded.” The CO2 emissions budget framing is a recipe for delaying concrete action now… the budget for “allowable CO2 emissions” should be zero.” 4
I agree. Now it’s time to “Do the math” again, and set out the scientific evidence showing that two key propositions — the existence of a sizeable carbon budget for 2°C of warming, and emphasis on the 2°C goal — are incorrect.
CARBON BUDGET RISK MANAGEMENT
Carbon budgets are framed in risk management terms. The more fossil fuel emissions are allowed in the carbon budget, the higher the risk of exceeding 2°C. The smaller the budget, the lower the risk of failure. Like drink driving: the more you drink, the more likely a crash.
For example, the IPCC’s most recent assessment says the carbon budget for 2°C is 385 billion tons of carbon (1420 billion tons of CO2) for a 66% risk of exceeding the target, but 275 billion tons of carbon (1000 billion tons of of CO2) for a 33% risk of exceeding the target. 5 What it doesn’t say is that for a lower – say 10% – risk of exceeding the target, there is no carbon budget available.
So what risk should we take? Is it reasonable to have a carbon budget that might lead to 3°C of warming? Of course, we would say no. But the fact is that the most frequently advocated carbon budget is for a 33% risk of exceeding 2°C and that budget has a range of outcomes between a low of 1°C but as high as 3.1°C (95% confidence range).
So if we really don’t want to exceed 2°C of warming, we have to adopt a budget with a low risk – for example less than 10% – of exceeding the target.
Catastrophic and irreversible consequences at 2°C of warming demand a strong risk management approach:
The IPCC’s published carbon budgets do not include significant events that are happening now, and which will accelerate in the near-term, significantly reducing the available budget. These events include “long-term” feedbacks, in which warming produces conditions that generate more warming. Examples are changes in the large polar ice sheets that alter the planet’s reflectivity and trigger the release of large permafrost carbon stores, and impact other carbon cycle components so that carbon sinks such as the oceans and forests become less efficient in storing carbon.
It is conventionally considered that these feedbacks operate on millennia timescales. But the rate at which human activity is changing the Earth’s energy balance is without precedent, and the rate of change in energy forcing is now so great that these “long-term” feedbacks are already occurring on short timeframes. For example, the Arctic is likely to be a carbon source, rather than sink, by the mid-2020’s. 7
In 2007 the IPCC said that “with feedbacks included, stabilizing at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e) correlates with cumulative emissions some 27 per cent lower than without feedbacks, over a 100-year period”. 8 One of the most significant research findings in 2014 was that the “tipping point’ has already passed for one of these “long-term” events. Scientists found that “the retreat of ice in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica was unstoppable, with major consequences – it will mean that sea levels will rise 1 metre worldwide… Its disappearance will likely trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea level rise of between 3–5 metres. Such an event will displace millions of people worldwide”. 9
What was also significant was the strong reaction to this news from the climate science community, because it represented a clear case of an event generally considered to be “long term” in nature having already occurred. Dr Malte Meinshausen called the evidence “a game changer”, and a “tipping point that none of us thought would pass so quickly”, noting that we are “committed already to a change in coastlines that is unprecedented for us humans”. 10
NO CARBON BUDGET REMAINS FOR 2ºC CAP
There is strong evidence that for a low risk of exceeding 2ºC, there is no carbon budget remaining.
[CO2e is carbon dioxide equivalent and includes the other greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide which have a much shorter life span than CO2].
Dr Michael E. Mann shows that to limit global warming to below 2°C forever, CO2 concentrations must be kept close to 450 ppm (for mid-range climate sensitivity). Ironically, he adds, if the world burns significantly less coal, that would lessen CO2 emissions but also reduce aerosols in the atmosphere that block the sun (such as sulphate particulates), so “nations will have to keep CO2 levels below 405 ppm”. 15 Yet we are just three years away from reaching the 405 ppm level!
It has also been demonstrated 16 that:
This is consistent with a 2006 paper which found: If “the probability of overshooting a 2°C climate target … shall not be increased above 30%, it seems necessary to peak CO2 equivalence concentrations around 475 ppm and return to lower levels after peaking (below 400 ppm).” 17 This is consistent with the Michael Mann result discussed above.
From this we can see that:
Given that CO2e levels today exceed 475 ppm, we can see that not only is there no carbon budget left for a 10% risk of exceeding the target, but there may also be no carbon budget remaining for up to a 30% risk of exceeding the target.
Multiple lines of evidence lead to the conclusion that the 2°C carbon budget has expired for the developed economies and for the fossil fuel sector, even for high probabilities of exceeding the target:
In addition, as far back as 2008, it was demonstrated that if the current greenhouse gas level was maintained over time, it was sufficient to produce 2.4°C of warming, without taking long-term feedbacks into account. 20
In summary, there is no carbon budget:
2ºC TARGET IS NOT SAFE
We have already crossed dangerous climate tipping points at just 0.8°C warming. In the words of former senior Obama advisor John Holdren in 2008: “the world is already experiencing ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system”. 21
There is also a variety of evidence that 2°C is not safe target for significant planetary systems:
In the first few months of 2015, new lines of evidence have been published suggesting that more elements of the system may be heading towards tipping points or experiencing qualitative change, including: the slowing of the Atlantic conveyor likely linked to climate change;29 accelerating ice mass loss from Antarctic ice shelves;30 the vulnerability of East Antarctica glaciers;31 declining carbon efficiency of the Amazon forests32 and other sinks;33 accelerated ice-mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet;34 rapid thinning of Arctic sea-ice;35 a new record low winter maximum for Arctic sea-ice extent;36 the vulnerability of Arctic permafrost;37 and the origins and possible proliferation of Siberian methane craters. In reality, 2°C is in fact the boundary between dangerous and very dangerous climate change, and 1°C warmer than human civilization has ever experienced.
In the lead up to the forthcoming Paris talks, policy makers through their willful neglect of the evidence are in effect normalizing a 2.5–3°C global warming target. It’s time to “do the math” again.
Effective policy making can only be based on recognizing that climate change is already dangerous, and we have no carbon budget left to divide up. Big tipping-point events irreversible on human time scales and large-scale positive feedbacks are already occurring at less than 1°C of warming. It is clear that 2°C of climate warming is not a safe cap.
This evidence demonstrates that action is necessary at a faster pace than most policy makers conceive is possible. Decades of procrastination mean there is no longer sufficient time for an incremental and non-disruptive reduction in emissions.
Only a whole-of-society rescue plan, understood as action at emergency speed outside of the business-as-usual political mode, can provide hope of retaining a livable planet for ourselves and future generations.
7 Schaefer, Zhang et al (2011) “Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming”, Tellus B 63:165–180
9 Rignot, Mouginot et al (2014) “Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica, from 1992 to 2011”, Geophysical Research Letters 41:3502–3509; http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/17/climate-change-antarctica-glaciers-melting-global-warming-nasa
10 “A climate game change”, video with Dr Malte Meinshausen, June 2014, http://vimeo.com/97926131
11 Rogelj, Hare et al (2011) “Emission pathways consistent with a 2 °C global temperature limit”, Nature Climate Change 1:413–418
12 Raupach (2013, unpublished), based on Raupach, Harman et al (2011) “Global climate goals for temperature, concentrations, emissions and cumulative emissions”; discussed at http://www.climatecodered.org/2014/05/the-real-budgetary-emergency-burnable.html
13 Arora, Scinocca et al (2011) “Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases”, Geophysical Research Letters 38: L05805
14 Anderson and Bows (2008) “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 366:3863–3882, quoting Meinshausen (2006) “What does a 2C target mean for greenhouse gas concentrations? A brief analysis based on multi-gas emission pathways and several climate sensitivity uncertainty estimates”, in Avoiding dangerous climate change (eds Schellnhuber, Cramer, et al), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
16 Meinshausen (2008) “The EU, the IPCC and the science of climate change: The 2°C target”, IES Autumn lecture series 8 October 2008, Brussels, http://www.ies.be/files/repo/Malte_Meinshausen 081008.pdf
17 Meinshausen, Hare et al (2006) “Multi-gas emissions pathways to meet climate targets”, Climatic Change 75:151–194
18 Anderson and Bows (2011) “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369:20–44
19 Anderson and Bows (2008) “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 366:3863–3882
20 Ramanathan and Feng (2008) “On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead”, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 105:14245–14250
21 Holdren, J. (2008) “Meeting the climate change challenge”, Eighth Annual John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment, Washington DC: National Council for Science and the Environment
22 Rignot, Mouginot et al. (2014) “Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica, from 1992 to 2011”, Geophysical Research Letters 41:3502–3509
23 Livina and Lenton (2013) “A recent tipping point in the Arctic sea-ice cover: abrupt and persistent increase in the seasonal cycle since 2007”, The Cryosphere 7:275-286; Maslowski, Kinney et al (2012) “The future of Arctic sea ice”, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 40:625–654
24 Tripati, Roberts et al (2009) “Coupling of CO2 and ice sheet stability over major climate transitions of the last 20 million years”, Science 326:1394–1397
25 Barreiro, Philander et al (2006) “Simulation of warm tropical conditions with application to middle Pliocene conditions”, Climate Dynamics 26:349–365
26 Robinson, Calov et al (2012) “Multistability and critical thresholds of the Greenland ice sheet”, Nature Climate Change 2:429–432
27 Frieler, Meinshausen et al (2013) “Limiting global warming to 2°C is unlikely to save most coral reefs”, Nature Climate Change 3:165–170
28 Vaks, Gutareva et al (2013) “Speleothems reveal 500,000-year history of Siberian permafrost”, Science 340:183–186
29 Rahmstorf, Box et al (2015) “Exceptional twentieth-century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation”, Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate2554
30 Paolo, Fricker et al (2015) “Volume loss from Antarctic ice shelves is accelerating”, Science 348:327–331
31 Greenbaum, Blankenship et al (2015) “Ocean access to a cavity beneath Totten Glacier in East Antarctica”, Nature Geoscience 8:294–298
32 Brienen, Phillips et al (2015) “Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink”, Nature 519:344–348
33 Raupach, Gloor et al (2014) “The declining uptake rate of atmospheric CO2 by land and ocean sinks”, Biogeosciences 11:3453–3475
34 Khan, Kjaer et al (2014) “Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming”, Nature Climate Change 4:292–299
35 Lindsay and Schweiger (2015) “Arctic sea ice thickness loss determined using subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations”, The Cryosphere 9:269–283
37 Natali, Shuur et al (2014) “Permafrost degradation stimulates carbon loss from experimentally warmed tundra”, Ecology 95: 602–608
DAVID SPRATT REPORT AUTHOR David Spratt is a climate activist, writer and author, who works with climate action groups in Melbourne’s inner north. He runs the blog Climate Code Red, is the author with Philip Sutton of a book of the same name, and his writings appear in ReNew Economy and elsewhere. His work focuses on communicating climate science, policy-making and movement politics, drawing on experiences including the peace and solidarity social movements. His recent work has included the carbon budget & the myth of “burnable carbon”, climate movement strategy in Australia, and connecting the dots to win on climate.
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