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Climate: Losing Control

29 September 2009

 Climate: Losing Control

 By Gwynne Dyer

My youngest daughter is seventeen, so she will have lived most of her life before the worst of the warming hits. But her later years will not be easy, and her kids will have it very hard from the start. As for their kids, I just don’t know.

It is the Met Office’s job to make forecasts, and its forecast for the 2060s is an average global temperature that is as much as 4 degrees C warmer (7.2 degrees F). Speaking this week at a conference called ‘4 degrees and beyond’ at Oxford University, Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre, one of the world’s most important centres for climate research, laid it all out.

“We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations,” said Dr. Betts, “but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise. People will say it’s an extreme scenario, and it IS an extreme scenario, but it’s also a plausible scenario.”

All we have to do is go on burning fossil fuels at the rate we do now, and we’ll be there by the 2080s. Keep increasing our carbon dioxide emissions in pace with economic growth, as we have done over the past decade, and we’ll be there by the 2060s. “There” is not a good place to be.

At an average of 4C warmer, fifteen percent of the world’s farmland has become useless due to heat and drought, and crop yields have fallen sharply on half of the rest: an overall 30-40 percent fall in global food production. Since the world’s population has grown by two billion by then, there will be only half the food per person that we have now. Many people will starve.

In western and southern Africa, average temperatures will be up to 10C (18F) higher than now. There will be severe drying in Central America, on both sides of the Mediterranean, and in a broad band across the Middle East, northern India, and South-East Asia. With the glaciers gone, Asia’s great rivers will be mostly dry in the summer. Even one metre of sea level rise will take out half the world’s food-rich river deltas, from the Nile to the Mekong.

So there will be famines, and massive waves of refugees, and ruthless measures taken to hold borders shut against them. The bitter irony is that the old-rich countries whose emissions did the most to bring on this disaster will suffer least from it, as least in the early stages. By and large, the further away you are from the equator, the less you are hurt by the changes.

In Britain, at 4C hotter, there would doubtless be severe food rationing, but the country could still just feed itself if it farmed every available piece of land: the heat would not be lethal, and it would still be raining. That’s one advantage of being an island surrounded by sea; the other is that it’s easier to avoid being completely overrun by refugees. Britain would be almost unrecognisable, but it would be seen as one of the luckiest places on the planet.

The trouble is that 4C is not a destination. It is a way-station on the way to 5C or 6C hotter, where all the ice on the planet melts and the only habitable land is what’s still above sea level around the Arctic Ocean. Once we have passed 2 degrees hotter, we are at ever-greater risk of triggering the big “feedbacks” that take control of the warming process out of our hands.

At the moment, we are in control of the situation if we want to be, for it is our excess emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing the warming. But if melting permafrost and warming oceans begin to give up the immense amounts of greenhouse gases that they contain, then we find ourselves on a climate escalator that inexorably takes us up through 3C, 4C, 5C and 6C with no way to get off.

The point where we lose control, most scientists believe, is when the average global temperature reaches between 2C and 3C warmer. After that, it ha rdly matters whether human beings cut their own emissions, because the natural emissions triggered by the warming will overwhelm all our efforts. If we don’t stop at 2C, our current civilisation is probably doomed.

That is why the leaders of all the world’s big industrial and developing countries, meeting in Italy last summer, adopted 2C as their joint “never-exceed” goal. (Interestingly, they didn’t explain the reasoning behind that goal to the rest of us. Mustn’t frighten the children, I suppose.)

Meanwhile, the people tasked with negotiating a new climate treaty at Copenhagen in December struggle bravely onwards, but show no signs of coming up wi th a deal that will hold us under 2C. Global emissions must start dropping by 3 percent a year right away, but over the past decade they have been RISING at 3 percent annually.

Everybody involved in the process understands the stakes and agrees on the goal. Almost everybody knows what the treaty will eventually look like, but they don’t believe they can yet sell that deal to the folks back home, so it probably won’t happen this year. Or next. Tick tock.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“In Britain…planet”; and “The point…doomed”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

US PAPERS: To convert from metric to US measures: multiply the Celsius degrees by nine and divide by five for Fahrenheit degrees. One metre is three feet.

Climate: A Stich in Time

29 September 2006

Climate: A Stich in Time…

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s a law of physics that translates well into the behaviour of human beings: the greater the mass involved, the more effort is needed to overcome its inertia. But it doesn’t read very well as an epitaph for civilisation.

The information we need in order to act is around us every day. Three small, low-key stories in the inner pages of the newspapers I read at breakfast this morning — the sort of stories you find in the media almost every day — should have been enough to galvanise every reader into instant action. But the human version of the laws of physics gets in the way.

The first story was a warning by the Meteorological Office in Britain that summer temperatures in south-eastern England may reach as high as 46 degrees C (115 F) by the end of this century. “By 2100, such heatwaves are likely to occur almost every year, and could occur several times in any given summer,” said the Met Office.

London with the summer temperatures similar to Kuwait’s seems incredible, but the Met Office was relentlessly reasonable. Depending on how fast greenhouse gas emissions rise, it pointed out, we are facing an average rise in global temperature rise of between two and five degrees Celsius (4.5 and 11 degrees F) by the end of this century.

If the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is halted at the level of 450 parts per million, then we get away with “only” two degrees hotter. But we are already at 385 ppm, so that requires immediate global agreement on radical action to curb the growth of CO2 emissions. Allow the current model of economic development and energy use to continue basically unchanged, and you end up with 800 ppm by the end of the century and the five degrees hotter world.

Except — and the Met Office didn’t say this part — that you never get there, because global civilisation falls into violent chaos as huge numbers of people start to starve. Even two degrees hotter will reduce agricultural output in the main food-producing regions of the world by about a quarter.

Much hotter, and it will be much worse, so we may end up negotiating (or more likely, fighting) over which billion of us starve first. Intelligent human beings, faced with that prospect, would act at once, or so you would think — especially because the actions required are not really all that painful, provided that they start right away.

The second story in this morning’s papers was about a “green growth plus” strategy devised by consultants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the US-based giant that provides a wide range of business services including risk management. Basically, the report said that it wouldn’t cost all that much to save civilisation.

The economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that serious efforts to improve energy efficiency, greater use of renewable energy, and new technologies for carbon capture could cut global CO2 emissions by about 60 percent from the level predicted for 2050 if countries just pursue a “business-as-usual approach.” Moreover, the costs involved would not beggar us all.

“Estimates suggest that the level of (world Gross Domestic Product) might be reduced by no more than two to three percent by 2050 if this strategy is followed,” said John Hawksworth, head of macro-economics at PwC. But the success of the strategy does depend on getting really serious about global heating RIGHT NOW.

Is that really likely to happen? The third story in this morning’s paper seemed encouraging at first, for it reported that scientists now believe the battle to close the “ozone hole” is being won.

It is an impressive tale of global cooperation to stop human activities that damage vital natural systems. The ozone hole was first spotted in 1985, and soon researchers linked it conclusively with chlorofluorocabons, compounds that were widely use in refrigerators, air-conditioners and aerosol sprays.

Every Antarctic spring, the CFCs in the upper atmosphere were interacting with the returning sunlight to destroy the ozone that protects living things from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The predicted consequences included blind penguins, sunburned fish, and a soaring rate of skin cancer among people living at high latitudes.

However, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 restricted the production of CFCs only two years after the hole was discovered. The Antarctic hole still covered an area bigger than all of North America this month, but scientists are now confident that the worst is past. It will stay at about this size for fifteen or twenty years, and then “somewhere between 2020 and 2025 we’ll be able to detect that the ozone hole is actually beginning to decrease in size,” said Paul Newman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Within seventy years, the hole should be entirely healed.

So why can’t we react as fast to global warming? Because of inertia: the mass of people and institutions to be moved is just so great.

Fixing the ozone hole was easy because neither hair-spray nor refrigerator coolants are centrally important in the economy. Changing the way we produce and use energy is not easy at all, even if PricewaterhouseCoopers are right and the ultimate level of economic sacrifice would not be that great. So many people and institutions are involved that it’s hard to move fast, even if failing to do so costs us the Earth.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 13. (“Except…away”; and “Every…latitudes”)

AMERICAN papers note that I have only converted Celsius degrees to Fahrenheit in para 5. The same numbers need to be converted to Fahrenheit again in paras 6 and 7.

TRANSLATORS note that the title comes from the English adage “A stitch in time saves nine.” If you can find a equivalent, please do. Otherwise, make up your own subtitle.