Climate change: 3rd degree burns

Andreas Wilson-Späth

If there’s one number we’ve heard about endlessly in connection with the climate change debate it’s this: 2oC. That, the experts have told us, is the amount of atmospheric warming (compared to average temperatures in pre-industrial times) that would offer us a half decent chance of avoiding some of the more nasty and long-term consequences of global warming (many climate activists and some developing countries have actually been calling for a safer 1.5oC maximum temperature rise).

It’s also the number that most of the world’s governments have latched onto, supposedly committing themselves to a variety of ways of cutting their carbon emission in order to restrict warming to below 2oC.

With the next international global warming talk shop, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris, just around the corner, how good are our chances of actually making the 2oC target?

Not very good, I’m afraid.

In October, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre released a policy brief which shows that on the basis of the emission reduction commitments that member countries have so far submitted to the UNFCCC ahead of COP21 (the official term for these is ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ or INDCs), we can expect a temperature rise not of 2oC, but of 3oC by the end of the century. And that’s only if all of the promises are actually implemented fully and successfully.

While some progress is being made – if nobody were to do anything different and we all carried on with business as usual, we’d be heading for a 4.5 to 5 degree warming – the report notes, more drastic measures than those currently on the table are necessary to stay below the 2oC mark. The UNFCCC has come to similar conclusions.

Now you might think that a one degree difference isn’t a big deal, but as Tim Gore of Oxfam has pointed out, the carbon reduction pledges offered by countries until now “only take us from a four degree catastrophe to a three degree disaster”. Many experts predict that a 3oC increase would result in us exceeding a tipping point beyond which reversing the impacts of climate change would be very difficult or impossible. The outcomes would include an increase in the speed at which glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting along with a substantial rise in sea levels, as well as more frequent and severe droughts, floods, wildfires and storms.

There is mounting evidence that this intensification process is already under way. A new report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society suggests that of 28 extreme weather events studied around the world in 2014, at least 14 were influenced by climate changing human activities.

Putting our hopes on the negotiators who’ll be meeting at COP21 in Paris seems naive. So with 2015 tipped to become the hottest year in recorded history, I guess we’d all do well to start getting used to the rising mercury and its consequences.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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