Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 8:39 PM GMT on December 22, 2009
The Copenhagen (COP15) climate summit is over, and leaves an uncertain legacy. What was accomplished in Copenhagen was far outweighed by what was not accomplished. While the final Copenhagen Accord affirmed that we must hold the warming of our planet below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 to avert dangerous climate change, no timetable for accomplishing that goal was specified. The promises made by the various nations at the summit would likely lead to a 3.9°C warming of the planet, according to an analysis by MIT's Sustainability Institute. Copenhagen did demonstrate that the hype preceding the talks was not undeserved--the stakes involved are huge, and we have an epic political battle on our hands that will afford high drama in 2010. Probably the best summary of the political battle at Copenhagen was posted by author Mark Lynas on the UK Guardian's web site. The title of the article was, "How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room".
The leaders for greenhouse gas reductions
While the Copenhagen Summit made it clear that the coming battle will feature the U.S. and China, the voices of two tiny island nations--Tuvalu and The Maldives--will be important as well. When ranked by percentage of population located near the coast at an elevation of ten meters or less, the top five spots are held by small island nations with more than 90% of their population in this Low Elevation Coastal Zone--the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands (McGranahan et al., 2007). The very existence of these island nations are threatened by sea level rise due to climate change. The leaders of Tuvalu and The Maldives brought considerable attention to their plight at the Copenhagen conference, and President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, in particular, has made his tiny country a force to be reckoned with in the coming battle.
Figure 1. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed and 11 cabinet ministers donned scuba gear and submerged 4 meters below the surface of sea to hold the world's first underwater cabinet meeting on October 17, 2009, in order to dramatize the threat sea level rise poses to their country.
The leaders against greenhouse gas reductions
Canada has joined Saudi Arabia as a leading voice against efforts to control emissions of greenhouse gases. According to The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), which is published annually by Germanwatch and CAN-Europe, Canada ranks second to last in climate policy and in overall efforts to tackle climate change, among the 57 industrialized countries and emerging economies that together account for more than 90 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Canada's national statement at COP15 featured no commitments of money or targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Canada also lobbied to change the "base" year from when emission reductions should be computed from 1990 to 2006. Croatia was the only other country to support Canada's position. The notorious political pranksters The Yes Men dramatized Canada's position by issuing a phony press release during COP15 claiming that Canada had come to its senses and was now going to work toward a 40 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions, the type of cut scientists say is necessary if we are to avoid dangerous warming of more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels. Canadian reporters immediately recognized the news release as a hoax. Canadian politics is heavily dominated by the fossil fuel industry, and Canadian reporters immediately saw the impossibility of the Canadian government performing an about-face on climate policy.
Figure 2. The top ten and bottom ten performing countries on the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), published annually by Germanwatch and CAN-Europe to rank the efforts to combat climate change of the 57 industrialized countries and emerging economies that together account for more than 90 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. The ranking system factors in three scores: the emissions level (CO2 per primary energy unit, primary energy unit per GDP, and primary energy unit per capita); the emissions trend (whether emissions are rising or falling), and a subjective rating of the nation's national and international climate policy. Tall bars indicate a higher ranking, and thin bars represent a poor ranking. None of the 57 countries were doing enough to keep global warming below 2°C, so the top three spots on the list were left blank. Image credit: Germanwatch.org.
Comparison with the battle over CFC regulations and the ozone hole
On June 28, 1974, Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine, published the first scientific paper warning that human-generated chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer (Molina and Rowland, 1974). They calculated that if CFC production continued to increase at the going rate of 10%/year until 1990, then remain steady, CFCs would cause a global 5 to 7 percent ozone loss by 1995 and 30 - 50% loss by 2050.
They warned that the loss of ozone would significantly increase the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet UV-B light reaching the surface, greatly increasing skin cancer and cataracts. The loss of stratospheric ozone could also significantly cool the stratosphere, potentially causing destructive climate change. Although no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed yet, CFCs should be banned, they said. A huge international political battle ensued, one that eerily echoes many of the same themes as the battle over global warming. In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Dr. Rowland concluded, "Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it." These prophetic words were proved true the very next year with the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Speedy action to save the planet from potentially disastrous loss of the ozone layer was realized with the swift implementation of the Montreal Protocol two years later, though.
As was the case with the battle over the CFCs and the ozone layer, I expect it will take a obvious imminent climate change disaster to motivate governments to take strong action. I believed in September 2007 that such an event had occurred, when the Arctic ice cap lost more than half of its area, compared to levels observed in the early 1950s. I was astounded at the nonchalance the event earned in the press and among politicians. But, in hindsight I should not have been surprised, since the stakes are very much higher than the battle to ban CFCs--now we are talking about the fossil fuel industry, the very basis for our modern industrialized society. A very big, very obvious disaster in the making will probably be needed to motivate strong enough action to make a major difference in CO2 emissions. Our climate is certainly capable of generating such an event in the coming decade. Unfortunately, if we wait until a disaster is obviously imminent, we will have far less time to prevent a climate disaster than we had for the ozone depletion crisis. The lifetime of CFCs in the atmosphere is 50 - 140 years, but a substantial portion of the CO2 put in the air stays for thousands of years. According to the 2007 IPCC report, "About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years."
McGranahan, G., D. Balk, and B. Anderson, 2007, "The rising tide: assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones", Environment & Urbanization, 19(1), 17-37.
Molina, M.J., and F.S. Rowland, "Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atom-Catalyzed Destruction of Ozone", Nature 249, 810-812, 1974.
Have a great Christmas, everyone, and I'll be back with a new post on Monday (at the latest).
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