Climate Change Outlook

A report delivered to the UN on 7/8/2014, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, examines how the global mean surface temperature increase might be kept within 2°C (3.6°F), a limit governments agreed to in 2010 “in recognition of the extreme risks to future human wellbeing resulting from a rise in temperature above 2°C.” The report notes that even a 2°C increase “constitutes a serious threat to human wellbeing.”

The report states that to have a probability greater than two thirds of keeping the temperature increase from exceeding 2°C,

“requires very near-term peaking and a sharp reduction in CO2 emissions thereafter…. Assuming a world population of 9.5 billion people by 2050—in line with the medium fertility forecast of the UN Population Division—this means that countries would need to converge close to a global average of CO2-energy emissions per capita of 1.6 tons in 2050, which is a sharp decrease compared to today’s global average of 5.2 tons….”

The study reports that far from being on track to stay within the 2°C limit, “the world is on a trajectory to an increase in global mean temperature of 3.7°C to 4.8°C compared to pre-industrial levels. …The consequences of such a temperature rise would be catastrophic. …The science is clear that global warming beyond 2°C carries the risk of grave and irreversible harm to human wellbeing….”

At a news conference introducing the report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commented that “We know that we are not on track, and time is not on our side.” After noting that “we are way off track and to get on track would require major cooperative efforts that are not currently in place,” Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, added that continuing with business as usual would be “an absolutely reckless and unforgivable gamble”.

You might think this news of impending catastrophe would deserve front page attention, but reflecting widespread apathy the New York Times instead gave front page priority (on July 9) to stories about Germany’s victory over Brazil in a soccer match, religious groups’ demanding that they be excluded from an edict barring discrimination against gays, approval of an Israeli troop call-up that may lead to a ground invasion of Gaza, the latest scandal regarding American spying on Germany, Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to cope with thousands of foreign children flooding across the nation’s southern border, and research aiming to discover treatments to reduce the memory and reasoning impairment of over 270,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with traumatic brain injury.

To the Times’ credit, the paper did find room for Eduardo Porter’s report on the Decarbonization study at the front of the July 9 business section. Porter notes that the required limit of 1.6 tons of CO2 per person is less than a tenth of the current American level, and comments that

Five years since political leaders from countries around the world committed to do whatever it took to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees above the preindustrial average, no one had taken the trouble, until now, to evaluate how that might be achieved.

Despite decades of warnings about global warming, CO2 emissions continue to rise. It will be interesting to see how bad the problem must get before serious action is taken to address it.