Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

2C of warming is a pipe dream

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”.

13 comments to 2C of warming is a pipe dream

  • Sasparilla

    I felt the same way.

    Frankly after stumbling onto the article yesterday (prokaryotes on Climate Progress put it up in a blizzard of about 20 different articles on the daily news page yesterday and I think few people saw it) and absorbing it – I knew this shouldn’t be unexpected (I had been wondering about this for a while in fact), but to have these guys just come out and say it. How could they just do that?

    What you said Lou about the Onion was perfect – that was exactly what this was like for me. It’s good to be able to chuckle about some aspect of this. ;-)

    I have to salute De Boer (former former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change) and Bob Watson (former IPCC Head) for publicly saying what they think and sticking their necks into a crocodile tank (the reaction to them being honest like this will probably not generally be pleasant – what government wants them saying this?, just guessing). The pressure to not say this publicly must be enormous.

    My other reaction after absorbing was – this is a really big xxxx deal, where is this in the media on this? I was looking at the coverage and…it’s being ignored…the implications are too unpleasant to consider, they don’t know what to do with it so the media is just going to…ignore it. (the conference was being covered in a bunch of media outlets but these bombshell statements were just left out of everyone’s articles).

    Even other climate sites haven’t picked it up for whatever reason.

    Lou, thanks for shining a light on this tree that fell over in the forest yesterday – cause nobody else was going to notice it – and it definitely needs noticing.

  • Lou, thanks for shining a light on this tree that fell over in the forest yesterday – cause nobody else was going to notice it – and it definitely needs noticing.
    I think it was the forest that fell over.

    Me, I just fell of my chair. OK, I didn’t, since I’ve heard similar admissions before from highly credible people. But not the (former) head of the UNFCCC.

  • “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.”

    Spot on. Let’s continue to pray we’ve been duped by a shadowy network of socialists trying to steal our money. Oooh, that’s just not going to work…!

  • John Harkness

    Yes, even though we have read to reports of three degree rise by mid century, hearing from these official sources that keeping global temps to two degrees was no longer in the cards hit me surprisingly hard. And officially, even keeping it to three degrees is only a fifty-fifty proposition. So four degrees is quite likely according to this very official source.

    Some part of me hopes to be proven a hopelessly paranoid pessimist, that there is some unanticipated damping feedback that will bring everything back into balance…

    But the news just doesn’t improve. Every new finding seems to show that we have sealed our fate more firmly than previously thought.

    I agree that this means even further efforts on every front. It also means, to me, that I owe my daughter and everyone from the coming generation an even deeper apology, since there is now no question that they will see true horrors in their lifetimes.

    Best wishes facing an increasingly horrific future–

    John Harkness

  • Peter

    to peak at 2 degrees- would require us now to begin reducing our emissions 6% a year. By 2020- 15% a year- the possibility of this is frankly ZERO. We should pass 450ppm in the early 2030s- this over time will allow 3 degrees above the PI level.
    550ppm BY 2050 Is now likely- perhaps higher.

    It truly amazes me considering the very dreadful future we will see (and this all lies in the paleo climate records) Why the media stands by and says hardly anything. We could be facing a future in which our civilization is pushed to near extinction. ‘Protecting’ us from the truth seems like folly. The special interests have hijacked our country, and they could in the end send us over a cliff.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – good on you for posting this. Shamefully few enviro-blogs have yet touched this news.

    It’s good to see DeBoer and Watson stating this reality – but where the hell are the rest of the scientific and diplomatic community ? Trenberth ? Holdren ? Hansen ? Et ‘ucking cetera. If the leading lights of climate science and politics don’t find their balls rather soon and reject the reliance solely on emissions reduction, they should I think be denounced for their reticence.

    I write from the perspective of having for some years seen a 2.0C peak as being patently unobtainable by the ‘respectable’ strategy of emissions control. Part of that unobtainium is in my view the lack of intellectual courage among dissenters – (I can write that here since your post is patently exceptional in this regard). Specifically, I see near zero discussion of the US empire’ unwillingness to cede China a treaty that constrains US fossil usage equitably, when the US economy is within six years of being exceeded by that of China (Yes, 2018). Moreover the coupled issue of China’s vulnerability to destabilization via food prices and other climate impacts (which many downslope-empires would have coveted as destroying the rival without risking warfare) is near taboo on discussion sites.

    Instead we are asked to accept the ‘plausible incompetence’ of the entire Whitehouse staff, and the Dem party machine, in somehow just not noticing that climate is an immensely powerful wedge issue – one that splits even the Tea-party dupes, and could unite the country behind the necessarily radical re-orientation.

    My concern over De Boer and Watson is the lack of background to their responses. I find it simply implausible that either of these players actually proposes setting a new 3.0C target – when both are well aware of the inevitable warming via the sulphate parasol loss (80% to 140% of received warming IIRC Hansen). Similarly both are fully alert to the reality that at least 7 out of 8 interactive mega-feebacks are already accelerating at just 0.7C of AGW. I’d expect that they have some pretty grim assessments of what the feedbacks would be doing at 2.0C, and of how, at or beyond that level they will predictably become self-fuelling.

    So what was the point of their candid critique of the present goal’s feasibility via emissions controls ? My guess is that this conjunction of both top scientific and diplomatic opinions reflects their decision to start opening the discussion of the necessity of very well-supervised efforts at Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration.

    Or is there some argument I’ve missed of the advantages of letting the feedbacks run amok ?

    All the best,


  • Got linked to this post via TheOilDrum, and followed it to the Yahoo/AFP article.

    Good god. I’ve been pretty certain of a death spiral of positive feedback for a few years, because I’ve seen that scientists are always, always, always as conservative as they can get away with being, in terms of conclusions, much less predictions.

    But hearing that de Boer is stating this outright says to me that he’s no longer speaking professionally — he’s speaking personally. Like Hansen, he’s concluded that his moral duty as a member of humanity is to speak what he believes.

    At, we’ve been trying to make fun of the converging emergencies for nearly five years now — but some days it’s nearly impossible.

  • Joan Savage

    Based on the assumption of a continuum, you disputed DeBoer’s assertion that 2C was not arbitrary. I went looking for what might have been the basis for DeBoer’s statement. Mark Lynas wrote a piece about the degree of impacts relative to degrees temperature that attempted to answer this. I’m not satisfied with it, but it is interesting.

  • Lou


    I did a bad job with that part of my post, so let me take another swing at it.

    My point was that impacts clearly escalate with temperature increase, so no one should assume that just a little (or a little more) warming is in any way benign. But the exact choice of “2C of warming over pre-industrial times by 2100″ was not based primarily on science. As I understand it (and it’s a devilishly hard detail to pin down, I’ve found), that guideline was a political line in the sand that became enshrined as “the” standard. As the prior post I linked to above points out, there were more than a few scientists who saw 2C as potentially very dangerous. I would argue that the realized environmental changes and impacts since then — and we’re talking 1972 — strongly support the notion that we plunked down the guardrail in the wrong place.

    Aside from placement, I have two major problems with the 2C guardrail:

    1. It gives undue weight to the exact number 2C, and creates the impression that if we warm by “only” 1.8 or 1.9C, for example, that the impacts won’t be bad, but at 2.1 or 2.2C we’re talking about major problems. In my opinion a better place for the guardrail is somewhere around, likely below, 1.5C. But there’s almost no chance of avoiding that with the current CO2 level and current emissions trajectory.

    2. What is this fetish with the year 2100? That’s a hell of a drop-off in our concern: We care a lot about what happen up to that finish line, but after 2100, everyone is on their own. Is it as simple as the political forces saying, “Hmm… I’ll be dead by then, and so will my kids. And their kids can… figure out something, I’m sure.” Given the latencies in human societies and institutions plus those of the environment, it feels like a very convenient way to segregate a big piece of the future impacts and arbitrarily say that we simply aren’t going to worry about it.

    • Joan Savage

      “devilishly hard detail to pin down” – so I’m not alone in that experience. This excursion makes me want to know if there IS anything more physically substantive, such as accumulation of joules in the ocean, or the time frame for gradual decline of CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere, that correlates to increments in surface temperature, which is used as the policy proxy for so many (too many) kinds of thresholds.

  • Joan Savage

    Not to miss your main points, I agree about the error of putting a barrier in the wrong place and the flaw of artificial drop offs in general.

    One counter-intuitive insight about humans in parks with cliffs or rushing rivers is that the humans, including children, are far more careful if there are NO railings at the edge to lean on. Statistically there are fewer fatalities, or so I was told by a landscape architect. Seems like a lesson about climate change as well.

  • Lou


    I think the problem with trying to find any good metric for climate change is that we’re looking for something that’s unambiguous and simple to measure, like air or (as you suggest) ocean temps, that we can then map that to the thing we really care about, impacts on human beings. That’s where things get very fuzzy, as we’re trying to characterize not just the impacts in the year that warming reaches, say, 1.5C, but the impacts in ensuing years as the additional, unrealized warming that’s “in the pipeline” happens. Any such mapping of temps to impacts can’t escape the need to make a boatload of assumptions about ecological and hydrological changes, and even weather pattern shifts, as they’re the intermediary between the things we can measure and the ones we care the most about. (And don’t get me started on how each country values the lives of people from other countries halfway around the world. If ever there was a stage set for a massive tragedy, that’s it. Ask the average American driver if he or she would swap the family SUV for a Prius PHV as part of helping to lessen the impacts on people in Bangladesh, and see what reaction you get. Hell, ask if he or she would make the change to help people in Florida, and the response will almost certainly not change.)

    I like the idea of no guardrail being its own lesson, but I think that’s effectively what we’ve been doing. There’s an immense disconnect between what scientists know and what some negotiators at climate conferences say on one hand, and what elected politicians and billions of consumers do on the other. Looking at the current behavior of the Big Three (C, I, US) and their statements about future actions, I’d say a lack of a guardrail hasn’t deterred anyone from a BAU path.

  • Joan Savage

    The folk who stay away from the precipices are the ones who can see them.
    Germany sees beyond the edge and steps back from it.
    The US is acting blind and drunk.