Have we given up on six degrees?

Monday, 26. January 2009     0 comment(s)
Mari Luomi
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
Picture how 500 billion tonnes of carbon escape into the atmosphere from the Arctic soils, how the Amazon basin turns into a desert and the city of Alexandria is swallowed underwater. This is likely to be the world with only a couple of degrees more than today. How about war over scarce food resources and a total reversal of globalisation? Four degrees warmer.

In November 2008, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the energy security lobbying organisation of the OECD, delivered a cold message in its World Energy Outlook 2008:

The projected rise in emissions in the Reference Scenario, in which no change in government policies is assumed, puts us on a course of doubling the concentration of those gases in the atmosphere to around 1 000 parts per million of CO2-equivalent by the end of this century. This would lead to an eventual global temperature increase of up to 6°C.

The IEA’s scenario did not shake me yet. What did, more recently, was Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007). The book carries two important messages: First of all, we must not exceed the two-degree boundary, commonly accepted as the limit of dangerous climate change, because after this there is no turning back. Secondly, despite the gloomy predictions, it is still possible to avoid higher temperature increases by cutting back emissions.

Lynas’ book was written in the mid-2000s, much before the UN climate conference in Bali, which set up the framework for negotiations on a global post-2012 climate pact. Today, the same two messages are still valid, but time is running short. An unprecedented show of political will is going to be needed from our global leaders in Copenhagen this December in order to succeed in limiting global warming to the two degree-level.

Currently, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world is 0.8 degrees warmer than 150 years ago, and a part of this has been caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. We have only a little over a degree left before we reach the two-degree threshold. After this, as Lynas points out, it becomes increasingly likely that there will be an inevitable slide to even higher temperatures.

Written in a comprehensible style, Six Degrees examines chapter by chapter how the world would look like if the average temperatures were to rise by up to six degrees over the next one hundred years. For writing the book, the author went through thousands of scientific papers, ordered them according to the temperature increase reflected in each one, and constructed six different worlds, each one with a different level of temperature rise.

Here are just some highlights of the potential physical and social effects of a warmer global climate accoding to Lynas’ book:

1 degree: deserts in Western United States, permafrost degradation in the Alps, more category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and the disappearance of the island state of Tuvalu;
2 degrees: chronic shortages of water in Northern and flooding in Southern China, extreme summer heat in Southern and Central Europe, structural famine in poorer countries, Greenland tipping into irreversible (although slow) melting and the extinction of the now iconic polar bear;
3 degrees: complete melting of the Arctic ice, dire water shortages in India and Pakistan, desertification in the Southern parts of Africa causing widespread famine, extreme droughts and fires in Australia, and desertification of the Amazon basin;
4 degrees: Egypt’s Alexandria underwater, destabilisation of the ice sheet in the Antarctica, desertification in Southern Europe, disappearance of glaciers in the Alps and consequent drought in Central Europe, and climate refugees flocking to the Nordic countries;
5 degrees: dramatic shrinking of inhabitable zones and a new era of ‘enforced localism’, warfare over scarce resources and a drastic reduction in the human population and, finally,
6 degrees: poisonous gases invading the atmosphere and a survival crisis for the humanity.

After closing the back cover of Six Degrees, one wishes that we could wind back the clocks by at least a couple of decades. The hard and inconvenient truth, as spelled out by the IEA, is that we are already heading towards the two-degree limit. Moreover, by giving up on two degrees our decision-makers will actually give up on a whole six degrees.

Quite understandably, no-one wishes our grandchildren to inherit a world like the one painted above. Still, if one is to believe Mark Lynas, the IEA and modern science, it is precisely what our politicians and decision-makers are currently paving a wide road for.

However, admitting that our leaders are afraid of taking bold decisions does not mean we still need to give up. Talking about the inevitability of anthropogenic climate change with the current energy consumption trends or voicing that our current policies are not ambitious enough should not be treated as a taboo. Pronouncing these facts will not lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, they should be employed so as to underscore the urgency and importance of concerted global action.

After reading Lynas’ book, the words ‘don’t give up on six degrees’ sound like a powerful wake-up call.

Have you given up on six degrees? Read Lynas’ book and tell me.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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