STATE OF THE CLIMATE
This page lists state of the climate evidence* that the world is far beyond dangerous climate interference (UNFCCC) and into a dire state of emergency with respect to regionally vulnerable populations today and all future generations,
of all species.
Visit the monthly State of the Climate blog for up-to-date information.
Established Methane Feedback
Atmospheric methane is now increasing due to planetary feedback emissions.
Assessing climate — and climate change — involves extensive reliable data from the many biospheric components of the climate system.
What is now missing from this illustration of the many components of our global climate is industrial civilization and its impacts on the system.
State of the Climate: Past Climate Trends
Over hundreds of thousands of years, an equilibrium between atmospheric carbon dioxide input and removal was never more than one to two percent out of balance. This natural feedback acted as a thermostat — critical for the long-term stability of the climate, which allowed life to evolve and thrive on this planet.
During Earth's history, this equilibrium has probably helped to prevent runaway greenhouse and icehouse conditions over timescales of millions to billions of years, a prerequisite for sustaining liquid water on Earth's surface.
- The maximum imbalance between the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere and the amount taken out of it during the last 610,000 years was 1 to 2 percent, or 22 parts per million. That one or two percent imbalance is thousands of times smaller than our current emissions from industry and the destruction of forests (Zeebe & Caldeira, 2008).
- Humans have increased the quantity of carbon dioxide 14,000 times more (to over 380 ppm) than any natural process is capable of doing (Carnegie Institution for Science, 2008).
- The amount of CO2 humanity is releasing into the atmosphere today, through human activity, is 100 times more than what came out of the Siberian volcanoes 250 millions years ago, causing the Permian extinction, referred to as "The Great Dying" (paleontologist Peter Ward, quoted in Bushnell 2010).
- The current rate of global warming exceeds anything in the past 5,000 years, over which time human agriculture and civilization developed (Greene, 2008).
- Global CO2 and methane levels are the highest in at least 800,000 years (Lüthi et al, 2008), according to direct ice core measurements (explained in the graph above by Brook, 2008).
- Global CO2 levels are possibly the highest they have been in 20 million years, according to ocean sediment analysis (Pearson & Palmer, 2000).
- We have reached an atmospheric CO2 level of almost 400 ppm, as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (widget above is updated monthly, or visit
to learn more) from a pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.
- Methane has over 70 times the heating effect of CO2 over 20 years after emissions (IPCC, 2007b). A unique aspect of methane is an atmospheric feedback: The higher its atmospheric level becomes, the less methane is oxidized in the atmosphere and so the more rapidly its concentration will increase. This is because, unlike CO2, methane is chemically reactive in the atmosphere and as a result only lasts about 12 years. However, its heating does not stop because it is converted to other greenhouse gases: water vapour, CO2 and ozone (Boucher et al, 2009).
- Levels of methane in the atmosphere are spiking (Rigby et al, 2008), suddenly on the rise again after a 10-year stable period that followed a 150% increase between 1990 and 1998 (Le Quéré, 2007).
- This increase in atmospheric methane is due to carbon feedback methane from anomalously high temperatures in the Arctic and greater than average precipitation in the tropics, rather than from increased industrial emissions (Dlugokencky et al, 2009).
- Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over its 120 year lifetime in the atmosphere (EPA, 2010).
- Atmospheric nitrous oxide has risen to its highest in 800,000 years (Schilt et al, 2009).
- Of the five long-lived greenhouse gases that contribute 96% to radiative climate forcing, CO2 and N2O are the ones that continue to increase at a regular rate
State of the Climate: What is Happening Now?
The greatest of all global warming dangers is carbon feedbacks, whereby the warming planet adds more carbon to the atmosphere.
All known positive (= bad) carbon feedbacks are now operant.
According to computer modelling and science, increases of both 1.4ºC (to which we are committed) and 2ºC (to which we are aiming) will put us beyond what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls "dangerous interference with the climate system," and into a rapidly worsening planetary emergency, which is threatening the future of humanity and the rest of life on Earth.
- Since the instrumental record began, the climate has never been hotter. June 2010 was the fourth month in a row with the warmest average global land and ocean temperature on record (NOAA, 2010a).
- "Based on comprehensive data from multiple sources, the report [State of the Climate in 2009, which gives actual observed climate trends — perhaps a better guide for understanding the climate change situation than computer model projections*] defines 10 measurable planet-wide features used to gauge global temperature changes. The relative movement of each of these indicators proves consistent with a warming world. Seven indicators are rising: air temperature over land, sea-surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, sea level, ocean heat, humidity, and tropospheric temperature in the 'active-weather' layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface. Three indicators are declining: Arctic sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere." (NOAA, 2010b)
- We have reached a globally averaged temperature increase of 0.78ºC (IPCC, 2007a) since the pre-industrial era.
- Scientists consider a global warming of 6ºC to be a threat to the survival of humanity, and anything beyond an increase of 2ºC to be intolerable (as recorded at the Asia-Europe Summit by Khor, September 2006).
- Global warming "could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate changes and impacts" (IPCC, 2007a).
- Global warming is accelerating (European Environment Agency, 2008).
- The level of atmospheric CO2 is rising at an accelerating rate (Global Carbon Project, 2008).
- The combined rate (of increase plus acceleration) is unprecedented (Global Carbon Project, 2008).
- Since 2005, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been accelerating above the IPCC's worst case scenario (Le Quéré, 2008). Scientists with the Global Carbon Project say the rate of increase this decade is 4 times the rate in the 1990s. The year 2009 was an exception, when CO2 emissions dropped suddenly in industrialized nations due to the economic downturn (Heinzerling, 2010).
- Nitrous oxide is expected to be the dominant ozone-depleting substance emitted in the 21st century (Ravishankara et al, 2009). Several ozone depleters are also greenhouse gases; ozone depletion and global warming are known to exacerbate each other (Shindell et al, 1998).
- Global warming will last hundreds of years (IPCC, 2007b).
There is always a large amount of "hidden heat" circulating in the world's oceans. This "in the pipe" heat makes it impossible to avoid almost a doubling of any "present day" increase in global temperature.
The danger, therefore, to all future generations is always practically double the danger to the present generation at any particular point in time.
- Due to the ocean heat lag of 0.6ºC, today’s global warming of 0.78ºC is going to certainly almost double (IPCC, 2007a).
- Today’s absolutely committed global warming is 1.4ºC (when 0.6ºC from the ocean heat lag is included), which will occur within about 30 years (IPCC, 2007a). This is an extremely dangerous level of global warming with respect to global ecosystems and large regional climate-change-vulnerable populations (in terms of agriculture, water supplies, and diseases).
- This absolute commitment to +1.4ºC pretty much guarantees that we will not be able to avoid a global warming of over 2ºC — which is NOT a safe level (European Climate Forum, 2004).
- It is not possible to avoid a global warming of over 2ºC (Weaver et al, 2007; several other papers, 2008).
The observed increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) since the preindustrial era has most likely committed the world to a warming of 2.4°C (1.4°C to 4.3°C) above the preindustrial surface temperatures. […] The range of 1.4°C to 4.3°C in the committed warming overlaps and surpasses the currently perceived threshold range of 1°C to 3°C for dangerous anthropogenic interference with many of the climate-tipping elements such as the summer arctic sea ice, Himalayan–Tibetan glaciers, and the Greenland Ice Sheet. […] [E]ven the most aggressive CO2 mitigation steps as envisioned now can only limit further additions to the committed warming, but not reduce the already committed GHGs warming of 2.4°C.
— V. Ramanathan and Yan Feng, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2008
- Atmospheric CO2 level will increase until global fossil fuel emissions are cut to virtually zero (IPCC, 2007b).
- The efficiency of the planet’s carbon sinks (both land and ocean) has decreased 5% in the past 50 years and this decline will increase in the future (Global Carbon Project, 2008).
- Terrestrial and ocean carbon sink failures have begun, which will add to carbon feedbacks (Le Quéré et al, 2007; Raupach et al, 2007).
- C02 uptake by the North Atlantic dropped 50% over the past decade (Schuster & Watson, 2007).
- The carbon sink efficiency of northern forests is declining (Global Carbon Project, 2008).
- Ground level (tropospheric) ozone, a greenhouse gas created when sunlight and heat react with pollution from combustion engines, has contributed to global warming almost as much as methane has. Concentrations of ozone have risen by around 30 percent since the pre-industrial era and it is now considered by the IPCC to be the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane (NOAA, 2010c). An additional complication of ozone is that it interacts with and is modulated by concentrations of methane (Johnson et al, 2001).
- Global warming increases the formation of ground-level ozone, which damages plant health (a carbon feedback) as well as human health (IPCC, 2007b; Ebi & McGregor, 2008).
- Modern day concentrations of ground level ozone pollution are decreasing the growth of trees in the northern and temperate latitudes (Wittig et al, 2008). By inhibiting carbon update by plants, tropospheric ozone increase is projected to be a significant carbon feedback (Sitch et al, 2007).
- The latest and most complete climate model (Prinn et al, 2008) run by
for the IPCC's worst case scenario (which our current GHG emissions surpassed in 2005) shows a 7.6ºC warming by 2100, from 1900. This model includes almost all the GHGs and terrestrial carbon feedbacks, unlike the IPCC's 4th assessment in 2007*. The IPCC has no permafrost or methane hydrate carbon feedback (see below) model results.
- The fossil-fueled global economy is on track for growth in world energy consumption that will increase global GHG emissions up to 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 (IPCC, 2007a).
- The growth in carbon emissions is mainly being driven by human population growth (Hofmann et al, 2009) and fossil-fueled economic growth in global GDP, as shown on the graph below (NOAA, 2009b).
- What is the danger limit for survival of human populations? It is 6.0ºC to 7.0ºC. For the first time, this most important of all questions has finally been answered (Sherwood & Huber, 2009).
- "Seven degrees (global average temperature increase) would begin to create zones of uninhabitability due to unsurvivable peak heat stresses [periods when the shedding of metabolic heat is thermodynamically impossible] and 10ºC would expand such zones far enough to encompass a majority of today's population." The authors explain that it is now "widely assumed that humans can adapt to any amount of warming, on the basis that humans live in such a wide variety of climates now.... but the limits themselves rest squarely on basic thermodynamics." (Sherwood & Huber, 2009)
- How likely, then, are we to reach a temperature increase of 7ºC? Researchers at the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre (see Pope, 2008) project that if we continue "business as usual" (that is, continuing to take no action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), we could see a 5.5ºC to 7.1ºC rise in global temperature by 2100. This is twice the global warming projected by the 2007 IPCC assessment*. "This would lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts." Pope explained that these projections do not include methane release that will occur as temperatures rise. "Hence, the risks of dangerous climate change will not increase slowly as greenhouse gases increase. Rather, the risks will multiply if we do not reduce emissions fast enough.... For every delay of 10 years in achieving peak emissions, another 0.5°C will be added to the most likely temperature rise, unless emissions are reduced even more quickly."
- The time scale of future global climate change resulting from current greenhouse gas emissions is 1000 years (Solomon et al, 2009). Global warming, climate changes (in precipitation levels, for example), and sea level rise are largely irreversible for 1000 years after carbon dioxide emissions cease.
Climate Change Emergency References
State of the Climate: Extreme Weather Events
- There has been a dramatic rise in natural disasters during the past decade, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) (Vos et al, 2010). During the 2000 to 2009 period, there were 385 disasters, an increase of 233 percent since 1980 to 1989, and of 67 percent since 1990 to 1999, according to CRED data. Though earthquakes made up 60 percent of natural disasters from 2000 to 2009, climate-related events, such as droughts, storms and floods, have made up the majority of disasters overall, increasing tenfold since data was first collected in 1950.
- The World Meteorological Organization announced in July 2003 that as global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, the number and intensity of extreme events might increase (WMO, 2003). In late 2009, they announced that "climate extremes, including devastating floods, severe droughts, snowstorms, heatwaves and cold waves, were recorded in many parts of the world" (WMO, 2009).
- The WMO also notes that "new record extreme events occur every year somewhere in the globe, but in recent years the number of such extremes has been increasing" (WMO, 2003). (The WMO limits the definition of extreme events to high temperatures, low temperatures, and high rainfall amounts and droughts.)
Climate Change Emergency References
State of the Climate: Arctic Climate Feedbacks Kick In
The change in the extent and thickness of Arctic summer sea ice is our greatest danger now because we risk losing its cooling climate-moderating influence, especially in the northern hemisphere. Once the ice disappears, accelerated regional Arctic warming will accelerate deadly Arctic feedbacks, which means we must make securing year-round Arctic sea ice the top requirement for the safety of all future generations.
- According to NASA scientists, more than 2 trillion tonnes of land ice in Greenland, the Arctic, Antarctica and Alaska have melted since 2003 (as reported by the Associated Press, 2008).
- Loss of Arctic ice results in loss of regional cooling caused by the reflective albedo effect (NASA, 2008).
- The albedo loss (due to (open water, dark exposed rock and soil)) leads to a switch from regional cooling to regional warming, with the warming extending 1500 kilometres inland (Lawrence et al, 2008).
- Analysis of many different types of data collected throughout the world has shown that climate can suddenly flip. The record for abrupt change is roughly 6°C in 1–3 years (with a shift of 10-12ºC over 50 years) recorded in Greenland ice cores (Steffensen et al, 2008).
- The planet is in "imminent peril" from loss of Arctic albedo, which could flip the climate system, leading to cascading runaway Arctic carbon feedbacks (Hansen et al, 2007).
- The loss of Arctic sea ice hit a record for August in 2008 (NASA, 2008).
- Arctic ice thickness hit a record low in October 2008 (Giles, 2008). This means that Arctic sea ice is decreasing in both extent and thickness.
- The Arctic ocean may be free of ice in the summer within 20 years (Barber, as reported in Leahy, 2008).
The National Snow and Ice Data Center posts daily Arctic sea ice data.
- Arctic soils store tremendous amounts of organic matter. Over millennia, cold, wet conditions have slowed the breakdown of plant material in the Arctic, and large quantities of carbon and nitrogen have built up in permanently frozen ground (Jungkunst, 2010). Carbon feedbacks are now emitting additional carbon (carbon dioxide and methane) across the Arctic as permafrost thaws (United Nations Environment Program, 2008). See the UNEP Year Book 2008 for more information.
- Nitrous oxide is now also being emitted from thawing permafrost. Laboratory experiments show that re-wetting of previously thawed permafrost could increase nitrous oxide production by 20-fold (Jungkunst, 2010).
- By far the most dangerous of all carbon feedbacks and climate changes is the melting of methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are emitting to the atmosphere off the Arctic Siberian coast (Semiletov et al, 2005; Shakhova, 2007).
Methane frozen into hydrate makes up a large reservoir of potentially volatile carbon below the sea floor and associated with permafrost soils. This reservoir intuitively seems precarious, because hydrate ice floats in water, and melts at Earth surface conditions. The hydrate reservoir is so large that if 10% of the methane were released to the atmosphere within a few years, it would have an impact on the Earth's radiation budget equivalent to a factor of 10 increase in atmospheric CO2.
Hydrates are releasing methane to the atmosphere today in response to anthropogenic warming, for example along the Arctic coastline of Siberia.
— David Archer, University of Chicago, Department of the Geophysical Sciences (2007)
- Rapid permafrost thaw is occurring, with predictions that the rate of thaw will increase in future (IPCC, 2007a).
- This permafrost soil, which covers nearly 400,000 square miles (over 1 million square kilometres) of northeast Siberia, averages 82 feet (almost 25 metres) in depth and contains about 500 billion metric tons of carbon, described as a catastrophe in the making (Zimov et al, 2006).
- Regional Arctic warming is projected to triple the rate of permafrost thawing (Lawrence et al, 2008). Previous published research by Lawrence had projected up to 90% of surface permafrost thawed by 2100.
- One million square miles (over 2.5 million square kilometres) of Siberian permafrost is melting (Kirpotin & Marquand, cited in Pearce, 2005).
- Direct measurement from Siberian "peatland thaw lakes" shows that the rate of their methane emissions is 5 times the rate previously estimated. Rising temperatures have increased the area of thawing lake in northern Siberia by 14.7% from 1974 to 2000. Walters's team estimates this would have bumped up methane release by 58% (Walters, 2006).
Climate Change Emergency References
Meltdown Fear as Arctic Ice Cover Falls to Record Winter Low
"...Experts are worried because a long-term slow decline of ice around the north pole seems to have sharply accelerated since 2003, raising fears that the region may have passed one of the 'tipping points' in global warming. In this scenario, warmer weather melts ice and drives temperatures higher because the dark water beneath absorbs more of the sun's radiation. This could make global warming quickly run out of control.
"Walt Meier, a researcher at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, which collected the figures, said: "It's a pretty stark drop. In the winter the ice tends to be pretty stable, so the last three years, with this steady decline, really stick out." Dr. Meier said there was 'a good chance' the Arctic tipping point has been reached. 'People have tried to think of ways we could get back to where we were. We keep going further and further into the hole, and it's getting harder and harder to get out of it.'
"Dr Meier said: 'For 800,000 to a million years, at least some of the Arctic has been covered by ice throughout the year. That's an indication that, if we are heading for an ice-free Arctic, it's a really dramatic change and something that is unprecedented almost within the entire record of human species.'"
— David Adam, Environment Correspondent, The Guardian, 15 May 2006
- East Siberia's permafrost (the Yedoma) is deeply underlaid with organic matter and ice, and it contains about 500 gigatons (1100 trillion pounds) of frozen carbon deposits that are highly susceptible to disturbances as the climate warms. Once started, irreversible thawing could release 4.4 to 6.2 trillion pounds of carbon per year into the atmosphere between the years 2300 and 2400, transforming 74 percent of the initial carbon stock into carbon dioxide and methane (American Geophysical Union, 2008).
- Field observations suggest that most carbon in the thawed Yedoma will be released within a century (University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2006).
- Permafrost's carbon content is double previous estimates (hence it has twice the atmospheric carbon content estimated), and the permafrost's carbon feedback will dominate as the driver in regional Arctic warming (Schuur, 2008).
- Much more methane gas is being emitted into the atmosphere from the tundra in northeast Greenland than previous studies have shown (University of Copenhagen, 2008).
- Atmospheric levels of methane are spiking due to northern carbon feedbacks (Rigby et al, 2008; reported by Beeby, 2008).
- In response to warmer autumn temperatures due to global warming, nothern ecosystems are becoming net emitters of CO2 (Shilong Piao, 2008).
- Greenland lost an average of 195 cubic kilometres of ice per year between 2003 and 2008, and the melting of Greenland ice is accelerating (Wouters et al, 2008).
Climate Change Emergency References
State of the Climate: Ocean Feedbacks
- The oceans have been acidified by an extra 30% since 1900 at a rate that has not been experienced for at least 400,000 years, probably for the last 20 million years, and possibly ever. This will have further adverse consequences for global climate change (European Geosciences Union, 2008).
- Ocean acidification is growing faster. The acidity has increased more than 10 times faster than had been predicted by climate change models. This increase will have a severe impact on marine food webs (University of Chicago, 2008).
- Dead zones in the oceans are expanding due to global climate change (Stramma et al, 2008).
- The amount of phytoplankton in the oceans is being reduced by global warming and is a potential carbon feedback (Behrenfeld et al, 2006).
- Microscopic phytoplankton account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth, and are the base of the marine food chain. Researchers have found that average global phytoplankton concentration in the upper ocean is currently declining by around 1 percent per year. Since 1950 alone, algal biomass has decreased by approximately 40 percent, probably in response to ocean warming — and the decline has gathered pace in recent years (Boyce et al, 2010). A century of phytoplankton decline suggests that ocean ecosystems are imperiled by climate change.
- Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton produce around half of the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere. They also drive the "biological pump" that fixes 100 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide a day into organic material, which then sinks to the ocean floor when the phytoplankton die (simply stated). What makes this even more catastrophically dangerous is that the ocean biological pump is the only process that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and "sink it" in a long-term, permanent way.
- "A thriving phytoplankton population would tend to remove more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than is returned through respiration by the entire community (phytoplankton plus zooplankton and other organisms living in the surface layers), and the ocean works as an effective carbon sink. Conversely, if respiration of the community were to exceed photosynthesis, more carbon dioxide would be generated than is fixed, and the ocean becomes a carbon source."
Climate Change Emergency References
State of the Climate: Impacts on Coral Reefs
- Coral reefs won't survive past 2050, thousands of scientists, conservationists and policy makers heard at the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium (International Society for Reef Studies, 2008).
- Unless the world gets serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next few years, it is likely there will be massive bleaching and deaths of corals around the world. This will have significant impacts on the lives of the people in developing countries who are dependent on reefs for food, for tourism, and for protecting the land they live on (The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, 2008).
These up-to-date reports on global climate change, taken together, are overwhelming evidence that the world is far beyond dangerous climate interference and into a dire state of emergency.
This is all the more so as all of the above feedbacks and factors exacerbate other ongoing regional and global environmental degradations.
Also, the most climate change vulnerable populations will be impacted first and hardest, because of the ongoing regional socio-economic deprivations of these populations (who are also the most climate change innocent).
The only response is an international emergency response, cutting global GHG emissions as soon and as quickly as possible.
In order for the planet to sink carbon, our greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels must be cut to virtually zero. But even this now will not be enough. We must develop artificial carbon sinks, as well, to enhance the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.
These are the bottom line essentials of the emergency response.
*N.B. The 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on which negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are based, included only research papers published before 2006 — limiting the scientific basis for current and future UNFCCC negotiations before 2015 — and did not include many carbon feedbacks.
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