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
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Climate Change Creating New Complex Emergencies
from the Red Cross/Red Crescent.
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Waking up to Climate Change (a Youtube with Stephen Schneider, long time lead IPCC author)
Reasons Why Climate Change is an Emergency
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 well recognized that this level must be well below 350 ppm to avoid global climate catastrophe.
Other reasons for the emergency call:
- long-term climate change commitments and the ocean heat lag effect
- the irreversibility of many impacts
- carbon feedbacks are now all operant
- the uncertainty of computer model projections
- the lack of any progress in UN international climate negotiations
- all populations in all regions are now vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and climate disruption.
"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 at or is close to 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, over which time human agriculture and civilization developed.
- Greenhouse gas emissions are still accelerating.
- Global warming 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 higher than in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change worst case scenario and are still accelerating.
- Levels of methane in the atmosphere are on the rise again, after a 10-year stable period that followed a 150% increase between 1990 and 1998.
- Atmospheric methane level is 2.5 times higher than it has been in the last 800,000 years. (See IPCC graph below.)
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
- Atmospheric levels of methane are spiking (accelerating suddenly) since 2005 due to northern carbon feedbacks.
- 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 is assumed that methane hydrates would only emit methane into the atmosphere (in addition to dissolving in the ocean water) by a massive methane hydrate destabilization (Archer, 2007). Evidence suggests that in the past, this has led to rapid runaway global heating and mass extinctions of life on the planet.
- Terrestrial and ocean carbon sink failures have begun, which will add to carbon feedbacks.
- The oceans have been acidified by an extra 30% since 1900, at a rate that not experienced for at least 400,000 years, probably for the last 20 million years, and possibly ever.
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 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 by 2100.
- According to their analysis of national stated policy targets, the Climate Interactive Scoreboard calculates that the world is on course for a rise of nearly 4ºC (with a range of 2.3ºC to 6.2ºC) by 2100. 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
- Humanity's current economic trajectory is a global warming of 6ºC or more by 2100 (lasting for over 1000 years, adding another 3ºC), which is a threat to the survival of humanity and most life on Earth.
- Even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels now, 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).
- The fossil-fueled global economy has been tracking growth in world energy consumption that will increase global GHG emissions up to 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
See more details and references on the
State of the Global Climate
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 not yet 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
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.)
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