Mr. President, "eventually" won't cut it on climate
by David Atkins
While much of the political oxygen is currently being sucked up drones, guns and hand-wrining over military cuts in sequestration, the world's most pressing and dangerous threat is being put on the back burner.
President Obama’s message to House Democrats on Thursday: Yes, acting on climate change is important. But it’s going to have to wait in line.I'm not sure these people understand the stakes. There are sequential tipping points involved in climate change. Tipping points that will be avoided this decade or not at all:
Obama barely touched on energy policy during his roughly 20-minute address to the Democratic caucus on Thursday, spending more time on fiscal issues, guns and immigration.
But Democratic lawmakers questioned the president about climate change during Obama’s appearance at their retreat in Lansdowne, Virginia, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters.
Reporters were not allowed at the question-and-answer session of the president’s visit.
“He said it’s very serious, and he wants it on the agenda. But you can’t do everything at once,” said Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
“I think his message is, it’s a major, major issue. We need to address it. We need to make sure we sequence each effort so we accomplish each,” the Michigan Democrat added. “I think you know, jobs is number one, economic growth, and that’s why sequestration is so important.”
As emissions grow, scientists say the world is close to reaching thresholds beyond which the effects on the global climate will be irreversible, such as the melting of polar ice sheets and loss of rainforests.Some tipping points have already passed, and some more are rapidly approaching. We've already hit the 1C threshold. We're absolutely going to hit the 2C threshold no matter what we do. And it would take extraordinary effort to avoid hitting the 4C threshold if we started RIGHT NOW, as in today. David Roberts as the details:
"This is the critical decade. If we don't get the curves turned around this decade we will cross those lines," said Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University's climate change institute, speaking at a conference in London.
It might seem that, given the extraordinary difficulty of hitting 2 degrees C, we ought to lower our sights a bit and accept that we’re going to hit 4 degrees C. It won’t be ideal, but hitting anything lower than that is just too difficult and expensive.
It’s seductive logic. After all, to hit 4 degrees C we would “only” have to peak global emissions in 2020 and decline thereafter at the relatively leisurely rate (ha ha) of around 3.5 percent per year.
Sadly, even that cold comfort is not available to us. The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”
Yeeeah. You’ll want to read that sentence again. Then you’ll probably want to pour yourself a stiff drink.
Obviously, “incompatible with an organized global community” is what jumps out, but the last bit, “high probability of not being stable,” is equally if not more important. One of the most uncertain areas of climate science today has to do with feedbacks — processes caused by climate change that in turn accelerate (or decelerate) climate change. For instance, heat can melt the Arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which accelerates climate change, which melts more permafrost, etc.
And the longer we wait, the worse it will get.
Right now, global emissions are rising, faster and faster. Between 2000 and 2007, they rose at around 3.5 percent a year; by 2009 it was up to 5.6 percent. In 2010, we hit 5.9 percent growth, a record. We aren’t just going in the wrong direction — we’re accelerating in the wrong direction.No, Mr. President. This can't wait. Whether the United States keeps both or just one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf is irrelevant next to this issue. Whether the deficit is slightly larger or smaller tomorrow is irrelevant next to this issue. Whether we use manned or unmanned aircraft to kill people who are plotting against the United States is irrleevant next to this issue. Almost everything is less-than-relevant next to this issue.
(Most climate modeling scenarios, e.g. the Stern Report, underplay the current rate of emissions growth, leading to sunnier-than-justified results.)
The growth of emissions is making the task ahead more and more difficult. The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget.
But if momentary economics is truly important, then perhaps America might want to take a Keynesian approach as Professors Krugman and Stiglitz have advocated, and spend some money to create needed jobs in moving America out of the fossil fuel economy.
If not, our future will be bleak indeed.