The other shoe

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).”

They still haven’t dropped the other shoe. The “Spe­cial Re­port on Global Warm­ing of 1.5C” con­tains ter­ri­fy­ing fore­casts about what will hap­pen when we reach an av­er­age global tem­per­a­ture one-and-a-half de­grees Cel­sius higher than the pre-in­dus­trial av­er­age. (We are now at +1C.) But it still shies away from talk­ing about the feed­backs, the refugees, and mass death.

The In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) or­dered this spe­cial re­port in 2015, af­ter the Paris cli­mate agree­ment ef­fec­tively ad­mit­ted that the tra­di­tional target — stop­ping the warm­ing be­fore it reaches two de­grees C higher — had been set too high. By then, re­ally bad things would al­ready be hap­pen­ing.

So all the coun­tries that want to stop the warm­ing be­fore it goes run­away (ev­ery­body ex­cept the United States) for­mally kept the “never ex­ceed” target of +2C, but said that gov­ern­ments should “as­pire” to stop the warm­ing ear­lier, at +1.5C.

And they asked the IPCC to fig­ure out how hard that would be.

The an­swer, re­vealed at a meet­ing in South Korea on Sun­day, is: very hard.

We have ef­fec­tively wasted the past 30 years, since the cli­mate-change threat first be­came known, and there is now very lit­tle time left. In order to skid to a halt, brakes on hard, be­fore we hit +1.5C, we will have to cut our green­house gas emis­sions by al­most half (45 per cent) in the next 12 years.

To cut emis­sions that fast by 2030, we would have to de­cide to close down all the re­main­ing coal-fired power plants within the next two years. It would take the next decade to get that done and get the same en­ergy from ex­panded re­new­able sources (wa­ter, wind and so­lar), leav­ing us just on track to reach zero emis­sions by 2050.

Cli­mate sci­en­tist John Skea, who worked on the re­port, summed it up: “Lim­it­ing warm­ing to 1.5 de­grees C is pos­si­ble within the laws of chem­istry and physics, but do­ing so would re­quire un­prece­dented changes.”

Changes of a scale that peo­ple would read­ily ac­cept if they faced an im­mi­nent in­va­sion by Nazis or Mar­tians — but that they are less will­ing to make when their whole en­vi­ron­ment is at risk. Hu­mans are funny that way.

The re­port is a brac­ing dose of re­al­ism in many ways.

It ef­fec­tively says that we can’t af­ford to go any­where near +2C. It talks bluntly about the need to end all fos­sil fuel use, re­for­est vast tracts of mar­ginal land, and cut down on meateat­ing. It even ad­mits that we will prob­a­bly have to re­sort to geo-en­gi­neer­ing — “so­lar ra­di­a­tion man­age­ment,” in the jar­gon.

“If mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts do not keep global mean tem­per­a­ture be­low 1.5C,” says the re­port, “so­lar ra­di­a­tion mod­i­fi­ca­tion can po­ten­tially re­duce the cli­mate im­pacts of a tem­po­rary tem­per­a­ture over­shoot, in par­tic­u­lar ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, rate of sea-level rise, and in­ten­sity of trop­i­cal cy­clones.”

Pump­ing sul­phur diox­ide into the strato­sphere is scary stuff, but so is run­away warm­ing.

So far, so good. At least it’s be­ing hon­est about the prob­lem — but only up to a point.

“Not in front of the chil­dren” is still the rule for gov­ern­ments when it comes to talk­ing about the mass move­ments of refugees

and the civil and in­ter­na­tional wars that will erupt when the warm­ing cuts into the food sup­ply. And they still don’t want to talk openly about the feed­backs.

Peo­ple for­get that this is a gov­ern­men­tal project run through the United Na­tions — the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change — not just a sci­en­tific one. Sci­en­tists write the body of the re­port, but the ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary (the only part that most pol­icy-mak­ers and jour­nal­ists will ever read), is ne­go­ti­ated be­tween the sci­en­tists and the gov­ern­ments.

The gov­ern­ments take cli­mate change very se­ri­ously these days, but they worry that too much frank­ness about the cost in lives of go­ing past 1.5C will cre­ate ir­re­sistible pres­sure on them to take rad­i­cal ac­tion now.

In the en­su­ing strug­gle be­tween the sci­en­tists and the politi­cians, the ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary al­ways gets toned down.

What got re­moved from the sum­mary this time was any men­tion of “sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion dis­place­ment con­cen­trated in the trop­ics” at +2C (i.e. mass mi­gra­tions away from stricken re­gions, smash­ing up against bor­ders else­where that are slammed shut against the refugees).

Even worse, “tip­ping points” are barely men­tioned in the re­port. These are the dreaded feed­backs — loss of Arc­tic sea ice, melt­ing of the per­mafrost, car­bon diox­ide and meth­ane re­lease from the oceans — that would trig­ger un­stop­pable, run­away warm­ing.

They are called “feed­backs” be­cause they are self-re­in­forc­ing pro­cesses that are un­leashed by the warm­ing we have al­ready caused, and which we can­not shut off even if we end all of our own emis­sions.

If you don’t go into the feed­backs, then you can’t talk about run­away warm­ing, and go­ing to 4, 5 or 6 de­grees C higher av­er­age global tem­per­a­ture, and hun­dreds of mil­lions or billions of deaths.

And if you don’t ac­knowl­edge that, then you will not treat this as the emer­gency it re­ally is.


A hot-air bal­loon passes by the lig­nite coal power plant Nieder­aussem in Roggen­dorf, western Ger­many, Wed­nes­day.

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