Close Are We To Irreversible Damage? What Can We Still
Do About It?
By Dr John James
18 April, 2007
The campaign against climate change is unlike all previous public
protests: it is not for abundance but for austerity; it is not for more
freedom but for less; it is not against other people, but against ourselves.
[George Monbiot, Heat]
the start of the Industrial Revolution the average global temperature
has risen 0.8 degrees centigrade. The EU has adopted a 2 degree rise
as the maximum mankind can risk. At that level we will have triggered
the release of untold quantities of greenhouse gases that are now stored
in the oceans, in trees and in the soil. These tipping
points could raise temperatures ten times more than now.
Once triggered there is absolutely nothing we could do to stop runnaway
How close are we to a 2 degree
rise, and when will we get there?
This report will show that this critical threshold is much closer than
most are prepared to admit.
Concentrations of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere are already at 382ppm. That is 36% higher
than pre-industrial levels. To this should be added the other greenhouse
gasses such as methane.
The pre-industrial figure
had remained more or less unchanged for 10,000 years. This has produced
the benign climate that has allowed the human race to multiply, develop
and prosper. Its stability accounts for the entire span of civilised
There have been minor variations:
warm periods that allowed places like Greenland to be settled by the
Vikings or mediaeval monks in Britain to make wine, and cold periods
that made it possible to have fairs on a frozen Thames. These were small
glitches on the chart compared to what we are doing now, but they too
may have been caused by human activity.
Here is the basic situation:
The present average global temperature rise has been about 0.8 degrees
over the pre-industrial temperature, and at 2 degrees we will probably
reach an irreversible tipping point.
This leaves us about 1.2
degrees before it’s too late.
However, were we to stop
all emissions immediately, were we to stop now and everywhere, world
temperature would continue to rise to double what we have today without
any more input from us.
With no more burning of coal
or flying in aeroplanes we would still be boiling in a few years from
two well-understood factors:
latent heat and the aerosol
effect. Together they are holding back the full impact
of our present emissions by 20-30 years.
In the latest study of the
Scientific Expert Group [www.unfoundation.org/SEG] we are committed
to a further 0.4-0.5 degrees rise from the greenhouses gases that already
exist in the atmosphere. This latent heat is stored in water, both in
the oceans that take longer to heat up than the air, and water vapour
in the atmosphere. The amount of water vapour in the air increases as
it heats, and then becomes the major driver of gas-induced climate change.
In other words, this means
that the increase of 0.8 degrees seen so far is caused by the CO2 that
has already been discharged into the atmosphere only up to the later
1970s. We have not yet experienced the consequences of the emissions
added since then.
To this must be added the
dampening effect from aerosols in the air. This is called Global Dimming
and comes from industrial pollution. It acts as a shield that masks
the full impact of solar heating. If it were not there, about 20% would
be straight way added to the present temperatures. [news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4171591.stm]
The calculation is simple,
but has not appeared anywhere to my knowledge, in press or in scientific
journals. It is that were we to instantly stop all emissions, average
global temperature would continue to rise as follows:
Current temp + latent heat + dimming = 0.8 + 0.45 + 20% = 1.52 degrees.
This is double today’s temperature.
This leaves us a margin of
less than 0.5 degrees before we reach the threshold.
Considering that no one knows
for sure what temperature would trigger the tipping
points, we are already in a zone of absolute risk. And
we should not forget that some regions that hold the largest quantities
of methane, such as the Siberian
permafrost, are heating up more quickly than anywhere else.
From here on we have to allow
for additional coal-fired plants in all countries, and especially in
China where new ones are being opened every week. The zeppelin measuring
station on the Arctic (which has the advantage of being remote from
industrial centres) has calculated the rate of CO2 increase is now almost
twice what it was twenty years ago, when it was a little less than 0.02
degrees per year.
Together with more vehicles
on the road and additional forest fires, current emissions are now raising
the temperature more than 0.03 degrees per year, and the rate is still
Thus, we will reach our critical
threshold in the next decade, and with it inevitable catastrophic climate
change over the following decades. By continuing to emit as we do there
is absolutely no way we can prevent triggering one of the many tipping
points that threaten civilisation.
We have to cut emissions
by 10% every year for the next decade. Then we may just make it.
If we don’t, the tipping
point is already behind us, and a rise of more than 2 degrees is inevitable.
The passing of this threshold will be of the most enormous significance.
It means we have actually entered a new era - the era of dangerous climate
change. We will have reached the point where neither we nor our children
can count on a safe future.
Present policies: The current
consensus is politically driven, and is irrelevant. Most concerned politicians
and green groups are satisfied with demanding we cut existing emissions
by between 60% and 80% in the next 40 years to keep some control of
our own destiny. Worse, the Kyoto protocol does not come near this,
as it requires only 5.2% from developed countries.
At the moment the whole emphasis
has been on getting industry to curtail itself, either voluntarily or
by law. Emission trading, carbon offsets and taxes are based on the
gross assumption that the rich nations can go on living as we do, and
that we only have to change the way we get served our material goodies
to make it all nice again. The rush to ‘clean coal’ and
sequestration follows the same rationale. [Bad for the South, bad for
the North, and bad for the climate, by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation]
George Monbiot described
these solutions as “pushing the food around on your plate to give
the impression that you have eaten it.”
Emission trading diverts
investment from renewable technology, maintains current profits and
prolongs the world's dependence on oil, coal and gas. It is designed
to maintain our standard of living while continuing to extract as much
fossil fuel out of the ground as we can.
It is too late for market
solutions. It is too late to try to keep our prosperity as sumptuous
as it is. With ten years to go, our politicians are leading from the
So, let’s look at what
it will mean to cut emissions by 10% per year over the next 10 years
– not 40 – starting now.
The major problems are (in
order) coal, vehicles, cement, aeroplanes, and shopping malls. Most
people don’t yet recognise the importance of the last three. And
this makes no mention of the military.
They all hinge around one
word: consumerism. Our demand for unnecessary products, love-trips overseas
for a birthday, the time-filling rituals of shopping, the endless proliferation
of larger and larger houses and our lust for the motor car, to mention
Consumerism is powered by
our personal greeds and passions, and it fills our emptiness.
This is what makes it hard to change.
In 1900 the average income
for each Australian was $6,000 in today’s money. Today that has
grown to $44,000 for every man, woman and child: All due to industrialization.
When shown on a graph you can hardly see the oil crisis’ of the
1970’s or “the recession we had to have”. We are without
doubt the wealthiest generation in history. [Wentworth Group of Concerned
Our massive consumption is
exactly where we must direct the solution. A reduction in personal carbon
use will reduce the demand for power, and thus for coal and cement and
oil. Any reduction in our individual desires will reduce nearly all
emissions at source – at the feeding lot.
And if we all do it together,
under the law, then we can act as a community, with the huge benefits
Since these changes must
start somewhere, we cannot wait for global consensus (that is impossible)
but each country has to go it alone and seek to inspire the rest, as
Denmark and Germany have begun to do.
If we can’t do it together
we could start a public movement to do this individually. This may be
the only way to get action.
The immediate tasks: The
first task is to set an annual carbon cap, and to reduce that by 10%
per year. This does not mean less jobs or less income, but a shift away
from high-emission products to a whole new high-tech industry that is
just waiting for the opportunity to flower. This has been widely discussed
in many reports, and most publicly by Sir Nicholas Stern.
The second is to set a personal
carbon ration. We are each given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide.
We spend it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane
tickets, cement and imported perishables. When we run out, we either
buy the rest from someone who has used less than his quota or reduce
our consumption. This will transfer funds from the rich to the poor
(both nationally and internationally) and provides a powerful incentive
to purchase low-carbon technologies.
The ration is reduced every year by 10%. [References at end of newsletter]
This is the hard one. It
will require us to not only think through our priorities each year,
but plan on a daily basis how we can best maintain our standard of living
while emitting less. It means, for example, that every Australian who
emits 26 tons of CO2 a year will be encouraged to work out how to emit
only 20 tons a couple of years hence. The money we keep in the bank
will become less meaningful than our carbon credits.
The personal quota would
account for about 40% of the CO2 we produce. The rest would be auctioned
off to industry. This too would be reduced by 10% per year. Just think
what that will mean!
There are a dozen other important
moves being widely canvassed, all useful in one situation or another.
These include banning standby-equipment, taxing non-solar air conditioning
units, forcing landlords to insulate their properties, and so on. It
may have to include moving funds from road-building to public transport,
promoting renewable power and new designs for cars and trucks, reducing
air flights and limiting power use in supermarkets (that require six
times as much electricity per square meter as a factory). It would have
to alter the nature of tourism and advertising. [See
All this is possible.
After all, when the US entered
the second world war, it turned the economy around in a trice. Carmakers
began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious
vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start. And that was 66 years ago.
If we want this to happen, we can make it happen. It will require more
government intervention than we're used to and some pretty brutal emergency
planning policies (with little time or scope for objections). But if
you believe these are worse than mass death, there is something wrong
with your value system.
The alternative is, as Lovelock
states clearly, that global warming will kill billions of people over
the next fifty years. The earth is in the midst of a rapid transition
that could boost temperatures by 8 degrees, making large areas uninhabitable
and large-scale food production impossible. Population will be decimated
in the most agonizing way, and that will include you and me. Humanity
will be lucky if one in ten of us survive.
Make your choice now, and
work for it personally and politically!!
For more information see
George Monbiot’s Heat, Paul Brown’s The Last Chance for
Change and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia. For carbon quotas
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