Climate Code Red – Urgent excerpts – Part 1 of 5 – Preface, overview and ‘After the Big Melt’

The following is part 1 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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…a brief overview of three areas of climate policy — recent science, appropriate targets, and the case for emergency action…

…extraordinary events in the in September 2007 reinforced our view that “dangerous climate change” is not future tense, but now. The world is experiencing the dangerous impacts of rapid warming and if our purpose is to protect all people, all species and all generations, we need to conceive of climate action as returning us to a “safe-climate Earth”, rather than trading off thousands if not millions of species, and perhaps hundreds of millions of people, by opting for compromise goals such as a rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Returning to a safe-climate world requires a global cooling to turn around some of the impacts so far, including the very likely complete loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice within a few years.

The massive Arctic ice melt in 2007 reinforced our supposition that global warming is a global emergency which now demands an emergency response…in which we put aside “business as usual” and “politics as usual”, and devote our collective energy and capacity for innovation, and all necessary resources, to establish a path to a safe-climate world before it is too late.

The issues of global warming, water shortages, peak oil, ecosystem destruction, resource depletion, global inequity and threat of pandemics intersect and intertwine. Together their threats and risks constitute a sustainability crisis or emergency. Effective solutions need to consider these issues together…


The extensive melting of Arctic sea-ice in the northern summer of 2007 starkly demonstrated that serious climate-change impacts are already happening, both more rapidly and at lower global temperature increases than projected. Human activity has already pushed the planet’s climate past several critical “tipping points”, including the initiation of major ice sheet loss.

The loss in summer of all eight million square kilometres of Arctic sea-ice now seems inevitable, and may occur as early as 2010, a century ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections. There is already enough carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to initiate ice sheet disintegration in West Antarctica and Greenland and to ensure that sea levels will rise metres in coming decades…

…We stand at a time where we still have the power to make a choice. Only by dealing with the full scale and urgency of the problem can we create a realistic path back to a safe-climate world. Targets should be chosen and actions taken that can actually solve the problem in a timely manner. A temperature cap of 2–2.4°C, as proposed within the United Nations framework, would take the planet’s climate beyond the temp. range of the last million years and into catastrophe.

The loss of the Arctic sea-ice unambiguously represents dangerous climate change. As the tipping point for this event was around two decades ago when temperatures were about 0.3°C lower than at present, we propose a long-term precautionary warming cap of 0.5°C and equilibrium atmospheric greenhouse gas level of not more than 320 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide.

The USA’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, stated recently that we should set an atmospheric carbon dioxide target that is low enough to avoid “the point of no return”. To achieve this, he says, we must not only eliminate current greenhouse gas emissions but also remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and take urgent steps to “cool the planet”.

These scientific imperatives are incompatible with the “realities” of “politics as usual” and “business as usual”. Our conventional mode of politics is short-term, adversarial and incremental, fearful of deep, quick change and simply incapable of managing the transition at the necessary speed. The climate crisis will not respond to incremental modification of the business-as-usual model.

There is an urgent need to reconceive the issue we face as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise…We now need to “think the unthinkable”, because the sustainability emergency is now not so much a radical idea as simply an indispensable course of action if we are to return to a safe-climate planet.


…Yet just as the Arctic demands that we be more stringent in thinking about what constitutes dangerous climate change, there is an undertone in public discussion that the widely supported (though far too high) target of 2ºC is too big an ask, so in Bali it was 2–2.4ºC and in many other place sits “let’s go for 3ºC instead”. The fact that when the maximum temperature about three million years ago was 2–3°C greater than now, sea levels were 25 metres higher and the northern hemisphere was free of continental glaciers seems not to be a matter to be considered. Our conclusions are very different from this loose talk of 2ºC or 3ºC caps.

And the Arctic summer of 2007 is not the only reasons for our conclusion that we now face a global climate emergency that requires extreme action and a transition to a post-carbon economy as fast as humanly possible, rather than at a leisurely “politics as usual” pace. Already there is evidence that the Earth’s major carbon sinks are becoming less efficient and are leaving more carbon in the atmosphere. Rapid heating of the Arctic opens the possibility of the release of catastrophic amounts of greenhouse gases as the permafrost melts.

The decade from 2004 to 2014 is likely to see temperatures rise by 0.3°C, a pace which if maintained would be too fast for 70% of ecosystems to adapt, especially forests. Yet the indications are that decadal temperature rises are likely to exceed 0.3°C till well past mid-century. We are on course to kill off much of the biosphere. Such a prospect demands that we “think the unthinkable” and find extraordinary ways and means to reverse this slide into oblivion for many or most species.

Because we are primarily guided by the need to advocate actions that are capable of fully solving the problem, we can only conclude from the available evidence that if we are to stop global warming becoming “dangerous”, it is not a question of how much higher will be OK, but rather by how much we need to lower the existing temperature if we are to return our planet to the safe-climate zone…

1.2 The accelerating loss of the Arctic sea-ice

1.3 The fate of the Greenland ice sheet

…The view that a 2°C global temperature increase will be hard to avoid is widespread: from Nicholas Stern (Stern, 2006a) to the co-chair of the IPCC’s impacts working group, Martin Parry (Adam, 2007b). If the likely Arctic sea-ice “albedo flip” is taken into account, we are already just about there without adding one more tonne of human emissions to the atmosphere. But well before 2°C average global warming, a high momentum melting of much of the Greenland ice sheet will be underway (Hansen, 2005a). Greenland’s critical melt threshold is a regional temp. rise of 2.7°C (Gregory, Huybrechts et al., 2004), but with Arctic regional temp. increases at least 2.2 times the global average (Chylek and Lohmann, 2005), that point will have been triggered at just over a 1°C global rise. Yet, alarmingly, a global rise of 1.7–2°C is already in the system…

1.4 A 5-metre sea-level rise by 2100?

1.5 Trouble in the Antarctic

…Underground water is the largest reserve of fresh water on the planet, and more than two billion people depend on it. Long before the rising seas inundate the land, aquifers will be contaminated. The 2006 Conference of the International Association of Hydrogeologists heard that rising sea levels will also lead to the inundation by salt water of the aquifers used by cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima. “The water supplies of dozens of major cities around the world are at risk from a previously ignored aspect of global warming. Within the next few decades rising sea levels will pollute underground water reserves with salt… Long before the rising tides flood coastal cities, salt water will invade the porous rocks that hold fresh water… The problem will be compounded by sinking water tables due to low rainfall, also caused by climate change, and rising water usage by the world’s growing and increasingly urbanized population” (Pearce, 2006a).

Whilst big figures about large sea-level rises may seem abstract, a rise of one metre will have a devastating impact on the densely-populated river deltas in the developing world as homes and agricultural land are lost and damaged by storm surges. In industrialized regions, there will be severe impacts on coastal infrastructure from small rises: loss of beaches, ports and shipping infrastructure, flooding of access and connecting transport links, and the inundation of underground civil services, including sewers, water, electricity transmission and communications, as well as the loss of industrial and domestic buildings.

1.6 The impact of “slow” climate feedbacks

1.7 Can ecosystems adapt to fast change?

…With emissions now tracking higher than the worst “business as usual” scenario of the IPCC, we can only say, in the plainest possible words that by mid-century we are likely to be locked into degrading or destroying most species and most ecosystems if we follow “business as usual”.

Most species, most ecosystems. Full stop.

1.8 IPCC deficiencies

…Inez Fung at the Berkeley Institute of the Environment says that for her research to be considered in the 2007 IPCC report, she had to complete it by 2004. “There is an awful lag in the IPCC process,” she says, also noting that the special report on emission scenarios was published in 2000, and the data it contains were probably collected in 1998. “The projections in the 2007 IPCC report [using the 2000emission scenarios] are conservative, and that’s scary” (Barras, 2007).

The data surveyed suggests strongly that in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and indeed a misleading basis for policy-making. We need to look to processes not dogged by politics, and to a more up-to-date and relevant scientific base that integrates recent data and findings, expert elicitations and the need in moments of uncertainty to fully account for the most unacceptable but scientifically conceivable outcomes. On that basis we can build strategies that would at least give us a real chance to avoid the great dangers manifesting in the climate system, of which we humans have become both the masters and, precariously, its likely victims.

The primary assumptions on which climate policy is based need to be re-interrogated. Take just one example: the most fundamental and widely supported tenet — that 2°C represents a reasonable maximum target if we are to avoid dangerous climate change — can no longer be defended. Today at less than a 1°C rise the Arctic sea-ice is headed for very rapid disintegration, in all likelihood triggering the irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet, catastrophic sea level increases and global temperatures rises from the Albedo flip. Many species and ecosystems face extinction from the speed of shifting isotherms. Our carbon sinks are losing capacity, and the seas are acidifying…

…If we could start all over again, surely we would say we must stabilize the climate at an equilibrium temperature that would ensure the stable continuity of the Arctic? Given that this safe level has long since been passed, as soon as we knew there was a problem with the climate we should have aimed for a level of atmospheric CO2 that would allow the restoration and then maintenance of the Arctic ice cap, with a safe margin for uncertainty and error.

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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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