Climate Code Red – Urgent excerpts – Part 2 of 5 – Real numbers to return to a ‘safe climate world’

The following is part 2 of 5 excerpt collections from the Feb. 2008 report, Climate ‘code red’: The case for a sustainability emergency by David Spratt, policy analyst with CarbonEquity, and Philip Sutton, Director of the Greenleap Strategic Institute – published by Friends of the Earth (Australia).

We feel this is the best available, all-in-one, “brutal reality” source for the hard, undiluted truth about the URGENT GLOBAL EMERGENCY posed by climate change and the DRASTIC ACTION THAT MUST BE INITIATED ON A MASSIVE SCALE – RIGHT NOW – if humanity is to confront this unprecedented threat and mobilize to survive.

These excerpt collections are an effort to make the most essential, need-to-know info contained within the 70+ page report as accessible as possible. Ellipses (…) at the end and beginning of paragraphs, and after subsections, indicate material that has been excluded in the interest of brevity. You can reference the full report at

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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2.1 Framing the question

2.2 What we have done and where we are headed

“Ken Caldeira has shown… that a molecule of CO2 generated by burning fossil fuels will, in the course of its lifetime in the atmosphere, trap a hundred thousand times more heat than was released in producing it.” — Elizabeth Kolbert in New Yorker magazine, November 2006 (Kolbert, 2006)

Carbon dioxide contributes more to global warming than any other gas released by human activity. Together with water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone, CO2 in the air contributes to maintaining the Earth’s “greenhouse” effect, in which these atmospheric compounds trap much of the heat radiating from the Earth’s surface, keeping the surface temperature 33°C warmer than it would otherwise be. Human activity has increased the level of CO2 by 36% from the 1750 pre¬-industrial level of about 280 ppm to its present level of 383 ppm.

This human-induced increase in CO 2 level has increased the global average temperature by 0.8°C, with another 0.6°C in the pipeline due to thermal inertia, producing a long-term impact of 1.4°C. This is the highest CO2 concentration in the last 600,000 years and probably in the last 20 million years, and the rate of increase has been at least ten, and possibly a hundred times faster than at any other time in the past 420,000 years (UNESCO/Scope, 2006). In addition, the “albedo flip” consequent to the loss of the Arctic sea-ice would add another 0.3°C, so the planet is now likely committed to a total rise of at least 1.7°C because of human activity…

…Human caused CO2 emissions increased 70% between 1970 and 2004 (IPCC, 2007c) and are rising at an increasing rate; a May 2007 study found the annual growth in global CO2 emissions caused by human activity jumped from an average 1.1% for 1990–1999 to more than 3% for 2000–2004. The growth rate since 2000 is greater than for “business as usual”, the most fossil-fuel intensive of the IPCC emissions scenarios, and “no region is decarbonizing its energy supply” (Raupach, Marland et al., 2007)…

…The rising rate of CO2 emissions is reflected in a larger annual increase in the level of atmospheric CO2. The average increase of 1.5 ppm for 1970–2000 has jumped to 2.1 ppm since 2001 (Arguez, Waple at al, 2007; Adam, 2007c). James Hansen estimates that “if we go another ten years, by 2015, at the current rate of growth of CO2 emissions, which is about 2% per year, the emissions in 2015 will be 35% larger than they were in 2000,” and this would take emissions scenarios necessary to avoid dangerous climate change beyond reach (Connor, 2007a). Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science, says we must “begin to move our energy systems in a fundamentally different direction within about a decade, or we will have pushed the planet past a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid far-ranging undesirable consequences”. Global warming of 2–3°C above the present temperature, he warns, would produce a planet without Arctic sea-ice, a catastrophic sea level rise in the pipeline of around 25 metres, and a super-drought in the American west, southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa. “Such a scenario threatens even greater calamity, because it could unleash positive feedbacks such as melting of frozen methane in the Arctic, as occurred 55 million years ago, when more than 90% of species on Earth went extinct” (Hansen, 2006b).

Tony Blair and his Dutch counterpart, Jan Peter Balkenende, told European leaders in 2006 that “without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3–4°C above pre-industrial levels…We have a window of only 10 to 15 years to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy” (Colebatch, 2006). This statement was made before the imminent loss of the Arctic sea-ice and its consequences were as clear as they are today; when that event is taken into account, the “10 to 15 years to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points” have already evaporated…

…We have already noted that so far temperatures have risen 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, and the warming trend is accelerating, with a further 0.6°C of warming as a result of the pollution we have already put in the air still to come, plus an Arctic sea-ice “albedo flip” also in the pipeline.

Yet Hansen and his colleagues suggest that “comparison of measured sea surface temperatures in the Western Pacific with paleoclimate data suggests that this critical ocean region, and probably the planet as a whole, is approximately as warm now as at the Holocene maximum and within ≈1°C of the maximum temperature of the past million years. We conclude that global warming of more than 1°C, relative to 2000, will constitute ‘dangerous’ climate change as judged from likely effects on sea level and extermination of species” (Hansen, Sato et al., 2006). Figure 4 illustrates the western Pacific paleoclimate temperature data.

With the rise over pre-industrial levels of 0.7°C up to 2000, the Hansen target is 1.7°C, yet today this is already in the system and emissions are tracking at worse than the IPCC’s most pessimistic scenario. As well, rates of temperature rise from the mid-nineteenth century are higher than those of the glacial termination ten thousand years ago by more than a factor of ten, increasing to a factor of 20 from the mid-1970s. The implications for policy are far beyond the current public discourse.

2.3 What is “dangerous climate change”?

…While the concept of “dangerous” is generally cast into the future — for example, at a 2°C rise — other judges, such as the inhabitants of low-lying Pacific islands, know it is already dangerous…

…An example is the “imminent peril” we now face of “initiation of dynamical and thermodynamical processes on the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets that produce a situation out of humanity’s control, such that devastating sea level rise will inevitably occur” (Hansen, Sato et al., 2007b). “A tipping point occurs when the climate state is such that, because of large ‘ready’ feedbacks, small additional forcing can cause large climate change. The ready feedbacks today are provided by Arctic, the West Antarctic ice sheet, and much of the Greenland ice. Little additional forcing is needed to trigger these feedbacks because of global warming that is already in the pipeline…

…So what does it mean to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”? We suggest the goal is a climate safe for all people and all species over “all” generations, and we should not discount knowable impacts beyond our own lifetime.

The world has already overshot this goal. We have already moved beyond a safe-climate planet and global warming is now causing species extinction and taking a toll in human lives. So how much damage from climate change are we prepared to tolerate? We can only answer “the least amount possible” and certainly not levels that will overwhelm human and other species’ capacity to cope. One has only to read or watch day-by-day reports in the media to understand that dangerous climate change is already here. Looking at Darfur, the farmers along Australia’s failing Murray–Darling river system, collapsing ecosystems, the victims of the 2007 Greek and Californian mega-fires, the coral stress, the species lost, the changing patterns of the Asian monsoons, the fate of low-lying Pacific island communities and food production decline in sub-Saharan Africa, our world is already at the point of failing to cope. The United Nation’s emergency relief coordinator, Sir John Holmes, warned that 12 of the 13 major relief operations in 2007 were climate related and said this amounted to a climate change “mega disaster” (Borger, 2007).

Climate change is already dangerous.

2.4 What is a safe temperature target?

…In other words, there is an unacceptable risk that events two or three decades ago triggered the rapid disintegration of the sea-ice now being witnessed, and the precautionary principle leads us to conclude that global temperatures should not have exceeded the levels three decades ago in order to avoid dangerous climate change. The temperature rise to 1980 over pre-industrial levels is around 0.5°C. This would establish a 0.5°C rise in global average temperatures over the pre-industrial level as the sensible cap to long-term temperature change, which we thus propose as a cap to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The fact that we have long passed this point in no way detracts from its importance as a policy goal, and a state to which we should wholeheartedly endeavour to return the planet.

Any proposal for a goal higher than 0.5°C would be foolhardy and would dangerously underestimate the consequences of not being risk averse to the likely impacts of Arctic sea-ice disintegration and the flow-on effects.

A 0.5°C cap would mean atmospheric CO2 levels of about 320 ppm, compared to the current level of 383 ppm. Whilst once this view may have seemed a little “out there”, it is now heading towards the mainstream. In a momentous political “tipping point”, NASA climate science chief James Hansen…told scientists and others at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco in December 2007 that we as a species passed climate tipping points for major ice sheet and species loss when we exceeded 300–350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, a point passed decades ago. Climate zones such as the tropics and temperate regions will continue to shift, and the oceans will become more acidic, endangering much marine life, he added. “We either begin to roll back not only the emissions [of CO2] but also the absolute amount in the atmosphere, or else we’re going to get big impacts… We should set a target of CO2 that’s low enough to avoid the point of no return”, he said, estimating it to be around 300 to 350 ppm CO2. “We have to figure out how to live without fossil fuels someday,” Hansen said, “Why not sooner?” People must not only cut current carbon emissions but also remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, a number of scientists concluded (Borenstein, 2007; Beck, 2007b, Inman, 2007).

Following Hansen, we contend that current proposals to establish caps of 2°C or 3°C as “reasonable” for “avoiding dangerous climate change” are not being informed by the likely impacts and expert elicitations, but have been shaped by the world of diplomacy, political tradeoffs and compromises driven by narrow, short-term and national aspirations…

…Yet, what would constitute “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system is commonly answered as a temperature rise [not in excess] of 2°C, the target set by the European Union, the IPCC and the International Climate Change Taskforce, amongst many others. In 2004, two researchers neatly summarized the absurdity of the dilemma: “We’d all vote to stop climate change immediately, if we only believed that doing so would be so cheap that no country or bloc of countries could effectively object. But we do not so believe. Thus we’re forced to start trading away lives and species in order to advocate a ‘reasonable’ definition of ‘dangerous’… So it’s no surprise that… the advocates of precautionary temperature targets strain to soft-pedal their messages, typically by linking 2ºC of warming to carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration targets that can be straight-forwardly shown to actually imply a larger, and sometimes much larger, probable warming… Climate activists soft-pedal the truth because they think it will help, and perhaps they are even right. Who are we to know? Nevertheless, we also believe that the waffling is becoming dangerous, that it threatens, if continued, to critically undermine the coherence of our emerging understanding. That it delays difficult, but necessary, conclusions” (Baer and Athanasiou, 2004).

2.5 Are we getting the third degree?

…The science established long ago demanded a cap well below 2°C to avoid dangerous impacts. James Hansen — before the Arctic summer of 2007, which will likely cause a further revision downward in his work — pointed to the need for a cap that was a safe amount less than 1.7°C: “Earth’s positive energy imbalance is now continuous, relentless and growing… global warming of more than 1°C above today’s global temperature [of 0.7°C] would likely constitute ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ with climate… This warming has brought us to the precipice of a great ‘tipping point’. If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to ‘a different planet’, an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and the trip will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet” (Hansen, 2005a, 2008).

2.6 How to avoid dangerous climate change

2.6.1 Target history

2.6.2 Emissions, temperature rises and carbon cycle

2.6.3 The 2°C scenarios

2.7 Global equity and climate action

2.8 Goals for a safe-climate world

The safe zone: The first step would be to use precautionary rules-of-thumb to provide a crude sense of the possible outer boundaries. We know that over the last million years the global average temperature has not been more than 1ºC above the present temperature (that is, more than 1.8 ºC over the pre-industrial level), that CO2 levels take many decades to produce their full (equilibrium) warming effect, and that we have at least another 0.6ºC of warming still to come from the greenhouse gases in the air now. We also know that over the last million years the CO2 level in the atmosphere has not been more than 300ppm, and that while temperatures have been somewhat higher before, CO2 levels are now nearly 30% higher than at any time in the last million years. Using these very rough indicators of a possible safe zone boundary, and with the current atmospheric CO2 level at 383 ppm, we are clearly already well outside the CO2 paleohistory precautionary boundary of 300 ppm. With a warming of 1.4ºC already largely locked in (0.8ºC current + 0.6ºC in the pipeline) we are very close to the temperature-related paleohistory precautionary boundary of 1.8 ºC over the pre-industrial level, without taking into account the rapid regional warming of the polar north and its global effects.

But we can also consider more specific data and emerging conditions which strongly suggest that we are much closer to a well-calibrated boundary of the safe zone than we might have thought; indeed we may have already passed over the well-calibrated boundary…

…It is now clear that the process of ice-mass loss from the Arctic began at least two decades ago. The temperature at this time was about 0.5ºC above the pre-industrial level. So it seems reasonable, based on concern to maintain the solar reflectance value of the Arctic sea-ice, that we must keep temperatures to no more than 0.5ºC warming above the pre-industrial level. Furthermore, taking this as the maximum warming cap, we can determine, using the 3ºC climate sensitivity standard, that the long-run maximum level of CO2e must not exceed 320 ppm.

The world is already 0.3 ºC warmer than our recommended maximum temperature cap and we are 50 ppm CO2e above the maximum greenhouse gas cap. So it is clear that:

• we have already commenced the process of causing dangerous climate change now;
• to return to the safe zone we need to bring the global temperature and the atmospheric greenhouse gases down from their present levels;
• no further greenhouse gases should be added to the atmosphere, and there needs to be a major drawing down of CO2 using natural carbon sinks and deliberate human capture and sequestration of this gas; and

Taking into account the further 0.6ºC warming in the pipeline from the current greenhouse gases in the air, the huge inertia in the economic system (driven by economic and population growth and the depletion of high quality physical resources), the increasing carbon intensity of global production, and the declining efficiency of the natural carbon sinks such that the natural system in a few decades could become a net source instead of a net sink for CO2, it is now clearly an extremely urgent priority to make the needed structural changes to the economy/our lifestyles…

…In summary, we have proposed that a safe-climate temperature increase cap would be 0.5ºC, a level to which we should aim to return the planet if we value biodiversity and human life. There is no ideal achievement timetable other than as fast as possible. The risk in saying that we should reach our target some years or decades hence is that we have got into the habit of treating the crisis as future tense, where the crunch is still to come. As practical difficulties arise we have re-calibrated the future to make the targets seem manageable, which they won’t because they are incremental, and more practical difficulties arise and we recalibrate the future again, even more madly. Perhaps one day our descendants will look back and know that’s how 2°C became 3°C and the seas just kept on rising — unless we find the will and the way to take the Earth back into the safe-climate zone.

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Read the rest of our collected excerpts:

Climate Code Red – Urgent Report Excerpts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


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