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Goodbye to limiting climate change to 2°, cue storms! Part One

Goodbye to limiting climate change to 2%, cue storms! Part One Anthony Harrington

On 10 June the International Energy Agency's latest report, on the World Energy Outlook in effect said goodnight and goodbye to the chances of the concerted actions of the governments of the world succeeding in the stated goal of limiting the rise in temperature through climate change to just 2 degrees Centigrade above pre industrial levels. The goal is still reachable, but, as the IEA says rather wistfully, achieving it would be "extremely challenging, technically". And since it is far easier for politicians to procrastinate than to act meaningfully, particularly when disaster seems distant rather than an immediate threat, we can conclude that planet Earth has missed the bus and will now have to settle for second best, even if this means wild weather, droughts and floods of Biblical proportions.

In presenting the report, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said that the more likely outcome, given the way governments were behaving over measures to limit global warming, is that the world will see a temperature rise of between 3.6 degrees and 5.3 degrees. Climate scientists who are proponents of global warming scenarios (and not all are) have been warning for years now that anything over 2 degrees could very well be catastrophic. However, the IEA's latest report is not exactly news. Back in 2010, NASA's Earth Observatory noted that "based on a range of plausible emission scenarios, average surface temperatures could rise between 2 degrees centigrade and 6 degrees Centigrade by the end of the 21st century - 6 degrees being of course even further off the scale than the IEA's 5.3 degree rise.

One of the biggest fears in the climate change models is that surface warming beyond a certain point could lead to secondary changes, such as melting of the polar icecaps, glacier melts and melting of the permafrost tundra releasing vast amounts of methane (a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). These changes could act as potent climate change feedback loops, creating runaway global warming happening on an increasingly rapid scale.

The IEA report needs to be read against the backdrop of the "4 Degrees and Beyond International Climate Conference" held at Oxford in the UK in September 2009, and the follow up event "Four degrees or more? Australia in a hot world", held in July 2011 at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Most of the presentations at the first conference can be found here so you can read about the projected effects, including the impact of sea level rises, which update the IPCC report which also considers scenarios between 2-6 degrees. The takeaway is that very little of this is good for business and it is likely to be far worse for people. Some 10% of the world's population live in coastal areas that are low lying enough to be flooded permanently by sea level rises. However, sea level rises, as Dr. Pier Vellinga, of Wageningen University pointed out at the first of the two 4 degree conferences, are the least of the problems faced by low lying areas, precisely because they are going to happen very slowly, a few millimetres a year, increasing possibly to a centimetre or two a year as things ramp up and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets disintegrate. Much more immediately devastating will be the storm surges and hurricanes which he expects to see happening far more frequently. By the time the world has seen a 7 metre rise in sea levels (sometime in the next 300 to 1000 years) people can reliably be expected to have decamped for higher ground, with whatever inconvenience and conflict that might provoke with those already in possession of the higher ground.

There are hordes of other scary facts associated with a 4 degree rise in average global temperatures, but to stay with sea level rises, Professor Stefan Rahmstorf made the point in that first 4 degree conference that if you look at the historic records, very dramatic changes in sea levels have always been associated with relatively modest average temperature changes. Twenty thousand years ago, during the last ice age, the average temperature was only about six or so degrees colder than today's average of 15 degrees Centigrade, yet sea levels were more than 130 metres lower than today. Not 13 metres, which would be scary enough, but 130 metres. The average depth of the English channel is 120 metres!

Of course, the IEA is not advocating that we simply pull the bed covers over our heads and wait shivering in a blue funk for the inevitable hurricane to sweep us into the rising waters. There are things that governments can do, and they mostly have to do with power generation, since this sector contributes around two thirds of man-made global warming. We will pick the IEA's recommendations up in Part Two.

Further reading on climate change and the impact on business

Tags: climate change , emission scenarios , global warming , IEA , International Energy Agency , island communities , Maria van der Hoeven , sea level rise , storm surges
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