Climate change: the last resort

2010-07-30 00:00

IT may seem premature to talk about last-ditch measures to deal with runaway climate change, but Ben Lieberman has it right. Lieberman, an energy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank, responded to the news that the United States Senate will not pass any climate legislation this year by saying: “It’s pretty clear that no post-Kyoto treaty is in the making — certainly not in Cancun, and maybe not ever.”

The Cancun meeting in December is where the optimists hoped to untangle the mess left by last December’s abortive climate summit in Copenhagen, and create a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Accord, which expires in 2012. It was always a slim hope, and the U.S. Senate has crushed it. Big coal and big oil win again.

The U.S. Senate is one of the more corrupt legislative bodies in the Western world, so this comes as little surprise. Few senators take direct bribes for personal use, but many believe that they will not win re-election unless they accept cash donations from special interest groups such as the fossil-fuel industries. Taking the cash obliges them to vote in defence of those interests. Pity about the public interest.

As Senate majority leader Harry Reid put it: “We know that we don’t have the votes.” The Democrats control 59 out of 100 seats in the Senate, but some of their more vulnerable members have been picked off by the fossil-fuel lobby, so there will be no serious climate legislation in the U.S. before the congressional elections in November. And it’s not going to get better after November as the likelihood that the Democrats will emerge from the elections with a bigger majority in the Senate is about zero. The balance will probably tilt the other way. Either way, that means that there will be no climate legislation in the U.S. until after the next congressional election in November 2012.

Maybe President Barack Obama will be back in office in early 2013 with a bigger majority in the Senate, but that’s the earliest that we can hope for any legal U.S. commitment to cut its emissions — and it’s far from sure even then. Until the U.S. makes that commitment, you can be sure that none of the growing economies such as China, India and Brazil will make it either. So the climate goes runaway. Not right away, of course. We won’t actually reach the point of no return (over two degrees Celsius higher average global temperature) until the late 2020s or the early 2030s. But we will be committed to that outcome much sooner, because with every year that passes, the cuts that we would need to make to hold the temperature below that level become deeper. Eventually, they become impossible to achieve.

Before the current recession, global emissions of greenhouse gases were growing at almost three percent per year and they will return to that level when the recession ends. To come in with an increase of less than two degrees Celsius of warming, we need to be reducing global emissions by at least two percent by 2012: a total cut of around five percent each year, assuming economies grow at the same rate as before.

That would be hard to do, but not impossible. However, as the years pass and the emissions continue to grow, it gets more difficult to turn the juggernaut around in time. On the most optimistic timetable, there might be U.S. climate legislation in 2013, and a global climate deal in 2014, and we really start reducing emissions by 2015. By then, we would need to be cutting emissions by five or six percent a year, instead of growing them at three percent a year, if we want to come in under plus two degrees Celsius. That’s impossible. No economy can change the sources of its energy at the rate of eight or nine percent a year. So we are going to blow right through the point of no return.

Plus two degrees Celsius is the point of no return (every government has recognised this) because after that, the additional warmth triggers natural processes that speed the warming. The permafrost melts and emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. The warming oceans lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. After that, just cutting human emissions won’t stop the warming. Runaway. The only hope to avert that disaster currently lies in geo-engineering: direct intervention to hold the global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius, no matter what happens in the short term to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are suggestions on the table. Maybe we could create a kind of sunscreen in the stratosphere by putting sulphur dioxide gas up there. Maybe we could thicken the clouds over the ocean so they reflect more sunlight. Maybe. Nobody has done serious trials of these and it’s time they started. We are probably going to need them. Welcome to the last ditch.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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