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Top scientists propose ambitious plans to safeguard world from devastating climate change

World must aim for one degrees Celsius warming, instead of two say leading scientists.

Two degrees is too much: that’s the conclusion of a landmark new paper by top economists and climatologists, including James Hansen formerly of NASA. The paper, appearing in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, argues that global society must aim for only one degree Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst impact of climate change, and not the two degrees Celsius agreed on by the world’s governments. But given that the world’s governments are not yet on track to even achieve the two degree target, how could we lock in just one? A combination of renewable energy, nuclear power, and, most importantly, a rising price on carbon emissions, according to the eighteen scientists.

“Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects,” the scientists write. “Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.”

Global temperatures have already risen approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius. Graph courtesy of Hansen et al.

The scientists argue that allowing the climate to warm two degrees Celsius would lead to massive and devastating impacts, including rising sea levels that could hit six meters above current levels within a few hundred years, essentially swamping the world’s coastal populations. Evidence for this lies in the Eemian period, when global temperatures were around 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

“More generally, humanity and nature, the modern world as we know it, is adapted to the Holocene climate that has existed more than 10,000 years. Warming of 1 degree Celsius relative to 1880–1920 keeps global temperature close to the Holocene range,” the researchers write.

Moreover, the scientists warn that allowing global temperatures to rise two degrees would lead to “slow” warming feedbacks that eventually push our climate up three to four degrees Celsius in total, unleashing catastrophic climate change that would change the face of the Earth entirely.

Annual carbon emissions from fossil fuel sources. Coal is the largest contributor to climate change. Graph courtesy of Hansen et al.

Already, the researchers contend that the impacts of current warming (at 0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels) have proven far more severe than predicted: rapidly declining Arctic sea ice, acidifying oceans, migrating species, loss of mountain glaciers, and an increase in deadly heatwaves.

“Mega-heatwaves, such as those in Europe in 2003, the Moscow area in 2010, Texas and Oklahoma in 2011, Greenland in 2012, and Australia in 2013 have become more widespread with the increase demonstrably linked to global warming,” they note as an example.

In the end, the scientists dub the governments’ current plan to keep temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius as “foolhardy.” But how would we achieve this new, much more ambitious target?

An impossible task or an opportunity?

Sunrise in Hawaii. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

In order to keep temperatures from rising above one degree Celsius, the scientists propose bold action. According to them, the crisis demands a decrease in fossil fuel carbon emissions of six percent annually beginning this year. If that sounds like a lot—and it is—every year that the world’s puts off slashing carbon emissions will require even steeper annual cuts. They also say cumulative carbon emission from fossil fuels must not exceed 500 gigatons. To date, 370 gigatons have already been emitted with another 10 gigatons added every year currently.

“It is urgent that large, long-term emission reductions begin soon. Even if a 6 percent/year reduction rate and 500 gigatons of carbon are not achieved, it makes a huge difference when reductions begin. There is no practical justification for why emissions necessarily must even approach 1000 gigatons of carbon,” the scientists write. The 1,000 gigatons of carbon figure comes from the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which recently laid out a carbon budget for achieving the two degree target.

Atmospheric CO2 if fossil fuel emissions are reduced at 6 percent versus 2 percent annual rates starting 2013, including a 100 gigaton of carbon sequestration due to reforestation. Graph courtesy of Hansen et al.

Furthermore, an agricultural transformation coupled with a vast reforestation program must take place worldwide in order to lock in 100 gigatons of carbon in the world’s forests and soils. According to the paper, if fossil fuel emissions are aggressively curbed and forests allowed to grow back then the world has a good chance of seeing carbon in the atmosphere drop from the current 393 parts per million (ppm) back to 350 ppm by the end of the century. Most scientists view 350 ppm (and declining) as an acceptable number for a generally benign climate.

To achieve this, the most important missing element, according to the paper, is a steadily rising carbon fee. To make such a fee more politically feasible, proceed from the carbon fee could be redistributed to the general public.

“If the carbon fee rises continually and predictably, the resulting energy transformations should generate many jobs, a welcome benefit for nations still suffering from long-standing economic recession,” the researchers write.

They add that the current cheapness of fossil fuel energy is really an economic smokescreen.

“Fossil fuels are cheap only because they do not pay their costs to society and receive large direct and indirect subsidies,” the researchers write. “Air and water pollution from fossil fuel extraction and use have high costs in human health, food production, and natural ecosystems, killing more than 1,000,000 people per year and affecting the health of billions of people, with costs borne by the public.”

A rising carbon price would not only lead nations to increasingly adopt less carbon-intensive fuel sources, but to greater innovation in the energy sector. Once a carbon price is in place, the scientists suggest nations focus on ramping up renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, pushing research and development of new technologies, and rapidly deploying nuclear power, the last of which is probably the most controversial.

“Nuclear power faces persistent concerns about safety, nuclear waste, and potential weapons proliferation, despite past contributions to mortality prevention and climate change mitigation,” the researchers write, adding that they view future nuclear power plants (third and fourth generation) as more efficient and safer.

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. Nuclear power makes up nearly 75 percent of France’s energy. Some climatologists, including James Hansen, are increasingly vocal that the risks of nuclear power are far less than fossil fuel energy. Photo by: Gralo/Creative Commons 3.0.

“The long-term future of nuclear power will employ ‘fast’ reactors, which utilize 99 percent of the nuclear fuel and can ‘burn’ nuclear waste and excess weapons material,” they contend.

Not only is it possible to keep temperatures from rising one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but it’s economically feasible, according to the scientists. Co-author, Jeffrey Sachs with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said at a press conference that the cost would be about one percent of GDP a year to decarbonize society, far cheaper than the alternative.

“In terms of economics, comparing a path to decarbonization versus a path of wrecking the planet are not even close,” he noted as reported by Yale360, adding “at low cost, it’s possible to avoid the devastating risks of a continued business-as-usual path.”

Carbon emission from fossil fuels 1751-2012. Graph courtesy of Hansen et al.

Yet, governments are showing little sign of tackling climate change with the seriousness that scientists say it deserves.

“Governments and industry are rushing into expanded use of fossil fuels, including unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, tar shale, shale gas extracted by hydrofracking, and methane hydrates. […] A case has been made that the absence of effective governmental leadership is related to the effect of special interests on policy, as well as to public relations efforts by organizations that profit from the public’s addiction to fossil fuels,” write the scientists.

At the close of the paper the researchers appeal to the world’s judicial branches and the broader public. They note that government’s judicial branches are less prone to industrial lobbyists and electoral swings, thereby possibly allowing greater clarity on addressing climate change.

“We maintain that failure of governments to effectively address climate change infringes on fundamental rights of young people,” they write, adding that the rising moral dimension of climate change could drive the societal transformation required.

“As with the issue of slavery and civil rights, public recognition of the moral dimensions of human-made climate change may be needed to stir the public’s conscience to the point of action.”


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