WHY CLIMATE CHANGE
IS AN EMERGENCY
Global climate change has become a real and increasing threat
to the very survival of humanity.
It is already a growing emergency for regionally
An estimated 400,000 people a year are being killed as a result of global climate change (DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012)
Visit the Red Cross/Red Crescent
Climate Centre online.
Read Climate Change Creating New Complex Emergencies from the Red Cross/Red Crescent.
Click on the picture to download the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Guide.
Waking up to Climate Change (a Youtube with Stephen Schneider, long time lead IPCC author)
Reasons Why Climate Change is an Emergency
Atmospheric CO2 safety. One reason that climate change has become an emergency is that today's atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is nearly 400 ppm, when it is now recognized that this level must be below 350 ppm to avoid a future commitment global climate catastrophe.
As it is we already are finding the planet is more sensitive to today's warming than expected, most dramatically shown by the rapid rate of the Arctic summer meltdown.
Climate sensitivity The reason that led to James Hansen's famous 350 paper is that we are using a climate sensitivity that is much lower than how the planet will respond on the long term. We have been using a metric of 3 while J, Hansen, and now in 2013 several other climate experts, find it is nearer 6. In this sense we suddenly our find our situation for all future generations and life is far worse than we had thought possible - hence planetary emergency.
Other reasons for the emergency call:
- Long-term climate change commitment (locked in additional warming) due the ocean heat lag and other system inertias, is several times today's warming.
- All energy plans are for continued business as usual fossil fuel energy dominance and dependence. The US 2013 EIA forecast estimates global carbon energy emissions will increase 46% by 2040.
- Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing as fast as ever.
- All atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing faster than ever.
- Extreme weather events like heat waves, drought,torrential rains, and floods are increase because of global climate change. Disastrous such extreme events have affected every continent, and has caused crops losses to the worlds best food producing regions in the northern hemisphere.
- The Arctic temperature is increasing fast, at 3-4 times the global average which has catastrophic implications to humanity and our planet.
- The Arctic summer ice decline has passed the ice free Arctic tipping point.
- Arctic snow and summer sea ice albedo is called the air conditioner of the entire northern hemisphere. As it melts away temperate northern hemisphere agricultural regions are hit even harder by longer and more extreme events.
- The vast permafrost region of Siberia has a thaw-down tipping point of just 1.5C. "Global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw significant regions of permafrost" (A. Vaks et al Science Feb 2013). Permafrost holds double atmospherioc methane.
- Sub sea floor methane is venting to the atmosphere from sediments beneath the East Siberian Arctic shelf (the largest on the planet, which 20 Russian scientists warn "is massive to the extent that growth in the methane concentrations in the atmosphere to values capable of causing a considerable and even catastrophic warming on the Earth" (V. I. Sergienko et al Ocean Journal March 2012).
- The irreversibly of many impacts
- Large Arctic amplifying feedbacks are now all operant
- the large upper range of uncertainty of computer model projections
- The lack of any progress in UN international climate negotiations that are now on hold and not new measures on the agenda till after 2020.
- All populations in all regions are now vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and climate disruption on crops (due to future warming commitment and Arctic summer sea ice meltdown).
- The loss of Greenland glacial ice is accelerating, and there are signs of ice sheet instability starting (cause of disastrous sea level rise).
- Oceans are acidifying at the highest rate in 300 million years (The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification. B. Honisch, et al Science, March 2012).
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not define dangerous climate interference (atmospheric GHG concentrations)or warn that we are past it, and does not make recommendations, so we can't expect a warning of planetary emergency from the IPCC.
- The governments of the worst emitting nations oppose binding emissions regulations and oppose reducing carbon emissions because of possible slower economic expansion.
"All populations are vulnerable – but some are more vulnerable than others.
"Each year, about 1.2 million people die from causes attributable to urban air pollution, 2.2 million from diarrhoea largely resulting from lack of access to clean water supply and sanitation and from poor hygiene, 3.5 million from malnutrition, and approximately 60,000 in natural disasters. A warmer and more variable climate threatens to lead to higher levels of some air pollutants, to increase transmission of diseases through unclean water and through contaminated food, to compromise agricultural production in some of the least developed countries, and to increase the hazards of extreme weather.
"All of these are going to be made far worse by already committed global climate change.
"It is clear that current trends in energy use, development and population growth will lead to continuing – and more severe – climate change.
"The changing climate will inevitably affect the basic requirements for maintaining health: clean air and water, sufficient food and adequate shelter. Climate change also brings new challenges to the control of infectious diseases. Many of the major killers are highly climate sensitive as regards temperature and rainfall, including cholera and the diarrhoeal diseases, as well as diseases including malaria, dengue and other infections carried by vectors. In sum, climate change threatens to slow, halt or reverse the progress that the global public health community is now making against many of these diseases.
"All populations will be affected by a changing climate, but the initial health risks vary greatly, depending on where and how people live.
"The greatest health impacts may not be from already inevitable acute shocks such as natural disasters or epidemics, but from 'the gradual build-up of pressure on the natural, economic and social systems that sustain health, and which are already under stress in much of the developing world.' These gradual stresses include reductions and seasonal changes in the availability of fresh water, regional drops in food production, and rising sea levels. Each of these changes has the potential to force population displacement and increase the risks of civil conflict."
— World Health Organization, Protecting Health from Climate Change
James Hansen has been warning for years that we must prevent the global temperature rising to such a degree that any chance of controlling global climate change is out of human hands. It is possible that this situation has been reached already.
All the reasons that follow set the planetary stage for "runaway" global warming and catastrophic climate change.
- We are already committed to a warming of 2.4ºC, which means that we are way past "dangerous interference with the climate system" — and into a state of climate change emergency. Note, in the graph above, that loss of water and food security is not included as a top danger — "danger" is not being defined in terms of human health and human survival (which is why the heath care profession has a role to play). The scientists restrict their definition of danger to major irreversible planetary changes, the one most often cited being the irreversible destabilization of the Greenland ice sheet, which will cause global sea level elevation over a period of many centuries.
- Today's commitment of global warming and climate change, as determined by the climate science, is beyond the tolerance of food crops in the most climate change vulnerable regions and for the most climate change vulnerable populations. Agriculture in all regions is at risk of decline due to this commitment.
- Arctic summer sea ice is past its ice free tipping point (T. Lenton)in irreversible meltdown,increasing the regional rate of Arctic warming with the loss of reflective cooling (the albedo effect). This changes everything for the climate stability (and ability to grow food) of the northern hemisphere, and will accelerate Arctic carbon feedbacks while boosting the rate of increase of global temperature.
- Greenhouse gas (GHG) molecules radiate heat for as long as they last in the atmosphere. Around 50% of emitted carbon dioxide (CO2) lasts for 50 years, but 25% lasts for thousands of years and it takes hundreds of thousands of years for the planet to permanently sink CO2 emissions.
- Methane lasts 12 years in the atmosphere, with a heat forcing more than 70 times greater than carbon dioxide, after which it is converted to other GHGs, notably CO2.
- Global warming, at any increased GHG level, lasts for over 1000 years.
- The rate of global warming exceeds anything in the past 10,000 years by orders of magnitude, over which time human agriculture and civilization developed.
- Greenhouse gas emissions are still accelerating.
- Global temperature increase is stalled, global warming has not stopped and global heating (radiative forcing) is accelerating.
- CO2 level is the highest it has been in 15 million years and 'probably 20 million years' (NOAA 2009).
- Since 2005, CO2 emissions have been as high or higher than in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change worst case scenario (A1FI).
- Levels of methane in the atmosphere are on the rise again, after a 10-year stable period that followed a 150% increase up to 2000.
- Atmospheric methane level is 2.5 times higher than it has been in the last 800,000 years. (See IPCC graph below.)
Research deep underground in Siberia by A. Vaks published 2013 in Science, found that "global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw significant regions of permafrost" and that just a 1.5C global warming is a tipping point for the vast amount of Siberian permafrost.
Thawing permafrost is presently emitting methane (mostly), CO2 and nitrous oxide.
A very small disturbance of gas hydrates could cause catastrophic consequences within a few decades. Shallow bottom sediment and underlying permafrost have warmed approximately 15°C since the time they originated. The implications of this trend are that shallow off-shore gas hydrate deposits could become vulnerable.... Methane plumes found in the East-Siberian Sea (ESS) during the 1st and 2nd Russian-U.S. joint cruises during September of 2003 and 2004 may indicate decaying gas hydrates in thawing undersea permafrost.
— Natalia Shakhova, Methane in the Arctic and its Role in Global Climate Change, 3 February 2005, IARC Research Highlights
International Arctic Research Centre, University of Alaska Fairbanks Over 20 Russian scientists published a 2012 review (Ocean Journal) of East Siberian shelf gas hydrates concluding "The emission of methane in several areas of the ESS is massive to the extent that growth in the methane concentrations in the atmosphere to values capable of causing a considerable and even catastrophic warning on the Earth is possible".
- Atmospheric levels of methane are on a renewed sustained increase since 2007 due to planetary methane feedback emissions from wetland peat.
- By far the most dangerous of all global warming effects and all carbon feedbacks, ocean methane hydrates are emitting to the atmosphere off the Arctic Siberian coast. This has huge significance because it was assumed that methane hydrates would not vent methane into the atmosphere because all the methane would dissolve in the ocean water(Archer, 2007). Evidence suggests that in the past, this has led to rapid runaway global heating and mass extinctions of life on the planet.
- The oceans have been acidified by an extra 30% since 1900, at a rate that not experienced for at least 300 million years.
We have analyzed the transition from the last glacial period until our present warm interglacial period, and the climate shifts are happening suddenly, as if someone had pushed a button.
— Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Professor of Ice Physics, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen
- Pledges (formal and proposed) made by nations at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009 set the Earth on course for a +3ºC warming or more, according to researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Climate Action Tracker. If the promises in the voluntary Copenhagen Accord are carried out, global yearly emissions of greenhouse gases could increase by 10 to 20 percent above current levels, resulting in a greater than 50 percent chance that warming will exceed 3ºC.
- According to their analysis of national stated policy targets, the Climate Interactive Scoreboard calculates that the world is committed by formal national UN policy pledges to 4.5ºC by 2100 (with a range up to 7C). They say that such a rise would bring a high risk of major extinctions, threats to food supplies and the near-total collapse of the huge Greenland ice sheet.
- Humanity's current economic trajectory is a global warming of 6ºC or more by 2100, according to the International Energy Agency warmings since 2008. This would last for over 1000 years,and add another 3ºC, which could not be survived by humanity and most life on Earth.
- Even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels today, today's warming of 0.78ºC actually equals a warming of 1.4ºC by 2100 (because of the ocean heat lag effect of +0.6ºC alone).
- The fossil-fueled global economy has been tracking growth in world energy consumption that will increase global GHG emissions by up to 100% by 2050 (International Energy Agency).
See more details and references on the
State of the Global Climate webpage.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said in March 2009 that if the build-up of greenhouse gases and its consequences pushed global temperatures +9 degrees Fahrenheit (+5ºC) higher than today — well below the upper temperature range that scientists project could occur from global
warming — Earth's population would be devastated.
— James Kanter in the New York Times, 13 March 2009
Two More Reasons Why Climate Change is an Emergency
- Climate change models tell us that due to the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2, it will now take "negative" GHG emissions to stop global warming. In other words, humanity must reach virtual net zero carbon emissions AND start taking GHGs out of the air through artificial carbon sinks.
- We are have barely begun to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy technologies, and have barely started to develop artificial carbon sinks.
The risks for worst-case outcomes amplify much more quickly than the risks for most likely outcomes. For an early and rapid decline in emissions, the worst-case outcome is around 0.7ºC higher than the most likely temperature rise. With much slower action taken much later, the difference between the most likely and worst-case outcome is almost twice as wide, at 1.2ºC. This takes a worst-case temperature rise of less than 3ºC to one just above 5ºC by the end of this century, bringing with it significant risk of dangerous impacts to our environment, society and economy.
A major reason for this amplification is the so-called "carbon cycle effect." Plants, soils and oceans currently absorb about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, limiting rises in atmospheric CO2 and slowing global warming. As temperatures increase, this absorption is very likely to decrease. For example, plant matter in the soil breaks down more quickly at higher temperatures, releasing carbon more quickly, and amplifying the warming trend. Methane released from the thawing of permafrost will add to the warming. This methane release is currently not included in the calculations, and becomes more of a risk for larger temperature rises.
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.
— Dr. Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change Advice, Hadley Centre, UK Met Office, in Met Office's bleak forecast on climate change, October 2008
UNEP's 4th Global Environmental Outlook warned in November 2007 warned that the state of the planet
and global climate change constitute a threat to the very survival of humanity. Since then, climate research has shown that the situation is even worse.
Climate Emergency: No more business as usual!
A presentation by Professor Barry Brook
Director, Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Adelaide, Australia
(Click link or image to launch Powerpoint presentation.)
Return from Why Climate Change is an Emergency to Evidence
Go to Climate Change Emergency Homepage