There’s been remarkably little buzz about some news from the other day, so (after a gentle reminder from Sasparilla) I’m going to shine a light on it.
The article hews right to the bone in the title, 2C warming target ‘out of reach’ – ex UN climate chief:
The UN’s former climate chief on Tuesday said the global warming pledge he helped set at the Copenhagen Summit little more than two years ago was already unattainable.
“I think two degrees is out of reach,” Yvo de Boer, former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said on the sidelines of a conference here on June’s Rio+20 summit.
The UNFCCC’s 195 parties have pledged to limit the rise in global average temperatures to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The target was set by a core group of countries in the final stormy hours at the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 and became enshrined by the forum at Cancun, Mexico a year later.
But more and more scientists are warning that the objective is slipping away without radical, early cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Some consider the goal to be a dangerous political mirage, for Earth is now on track for 3C (5.4 F) of warming or more.
“The two degrees is lost but that doesn’t mean for me we should forget about it,” de Boer said in the interview with AFP.
“It is a very significant target, it’s not just a target that was plucked out of the air, it refers to trying to limit a number of impacts.”
See the article for more detail, but the portion I quoted above gives you the general idea.
A few thoughts here:
- Given the level of atmospheric CO2, our current emissions, and the truly dim prospects for making them peak any time before 2020 or 2025 or even 2030, I can’t imagine how anyone would think 2C of warming over pre-industrial times was still on the table. On the emissions peaking point, let me be as clear as possible: The paths chosen by the three most important countries, China, India, and the US, whether through explicit comments about development taking precedence over the environment, or implicit statements made via policy choices, outweigh anything that the rest of the world can do.
- This idea, pushed by de Boer above, that 2C was not an arbitrary guideline or one of political/economic convenience, is simply wrong. Impacts rise with rising temperatures, to be sure, and whether you measure them in terms of human lives lost or severely uprooted or merely in dollars, they rise very quickly to withering heights. And we’ve seen numerous examples in recent years of how much quicker the environment is changing in response to already realized warming than expected — thinking here specifically about phenological and hydrological changes and sea level rise. As a result, the chain of causality from emissions to warming to environmental changes to impacts on human beings effectively maps emissions to a more painful set of consequences than we thought decades or even just a few years ago. Although some people from a massive UN conference had figured out how vulnerable we were to “just a little warming” over 40 years ago.
- De Boer is 100% correct about the importance of doing everything we can to deal with climate change even if any specific goal is a pipe dream. This is a point Joe Romm makes constantly, and I agree very strongly. Even if we’ve locked in a very bad scenario, and I think it’s clear we have, there is still a range of public policies and individual behaviors open to us that will make a big difference. One meter of sea level rise by 2100 along most heavily populated coastlines will not be a pleasant or cheap situation, to put it mildly. But two meters or more would be much, much worse. It sickens me to think that we locked ourselves into a great deal of pain, but it’s simply infuriating that we could continue to ignore all the experts and make it much worse. Nothing is more expensive than the cost of a needlessly lost opportunity, and we have a real doozy staring us in the face.
- So, those of use who follow this topic obsessively shouldn’t be the least bit affected when de Boer and others talk about 2C being “out of reach”, right? Well, that’s what I would have thought, and probably did, until this article appeared and I thought about it for a moment or three. As I told Sasparilla in e-mail:
As much as I hate to admit it, this one really hit me hard. I think that in some tiny recess of our minds we’re all hoping, somehow, some way, that the science is wrong, or if it’s right then we’ve grossly overestimated the urgency of the situation we’ve created. As least that’s what gets me through most days. But to see de Boer (and others) come out and say that publicly and directly that 2C is a pipe dream (when we all know bloody well it was too high a limit) really felt like a gigantic, Onion-esque headline: “IT’S OFFICIAL” WE’RE SCREWED”.