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How 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]

Since 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 heating.

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 human history.

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 [] 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. []

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 rising.

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 rear.

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 a few.

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 Scientists]

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 this brings.

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 our site]

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,, and


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