The Climate Change Hangover

Thu, 2009-06-18 17:34Jeremy Jacquot
Jeremy Jacquot's picture

The Climate Change Hangover

Let’s assume that the Obama administration and Congress get their act together this year and make good on their pledge of enacting meaningful climate legislation by establishing the nation’s first cap-and-trade system.

Let’s further assume, for the sake of argument, that the administration, working with its international partners, succeeds in drafting a robust successor to the Kyoto Protocol at the climate talks in Copenhagen later this year.

If we accept that the U.S. climate bill, known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), will accomplish its goal of bringing down emission levels 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050—which is nothing to sneeze at when you consider that a substantial fraction of policymakers (including some Democrats) vehemently oppose the measure—then the question becomes: Will it be enough to prevent the worst of climate change?

Having spent the better part of the last two decades predicting the severity of unconstrained climate change, many researchers are now shifting their focus to the aftermath of emission mitigation. The limited consensus so far has been sobering: Even if we were to significantly ratchet down our current emission levels by midcentury, a full recovery to safe levels, let alone a partial one, could take many decades—if not centuries.

The scenarios become especially grim if we overshoot certain “dangerous” thresholds of atmospheric GHG levels—around 1.7°C above pre-industrial levels, according to James Hansen, or the more moderate 2°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the European Union.

Under certain worst-case scenarios, some researchers have predicted that we would need to keep emissions at near-zero, or even negative, levels to stabilize near-surface temperature—hardly realistic goals. Until now, however, few studies have attempted to examine the underlying reasons for the sluggish recovery rates.

In a new study detailed in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Jason A. Lowe of the Met Office Hadley Center at the University of Reading and his colleagues did just that, using two global climate models—the HadCM3LC model, a complex general circulation model (GCM) developed by the Hadley Center, and the MAGICC model, a simple model—to scrutinize the accuracy of previous predictions and assess their relevance in a more policy-centric context.

They used four different scenarios which followed identical emission estimates up until 2000, after which they followed SRES A2 emissions until at least 2010. For the first three scenarios, CO2 emissions were set to zero for the next 100 years at years 2012, 2050, and 2100. The fourth scenario, which was meant to better approximate real-life conditions, also included forcing from other GHGs and pollutants, such as sulfate aerosol particles.

Using only the CO2 component of the SRES A2 emissions scenario to force the complex GCM until the end of the 21st century, they found that atmospheric levels would likely exceed 1000 ppm in 2100. Setting emissions to zero in 2012 and 2050 resulted in atmospheric levels exceeding 404 ppm and 556 ppm, respectively. In all cases, the model simulated extremely low rates of decline in atmospheric CO2 levels.

The predicted temperature rise was considerable: over 2°C by 2050 and, assuming emissions are zeroed beginning that year, around 0.2°C per century thereafter, suggesting that temperatures could remain dangerously high for a long time. Furthermore, the 2050 and 2100 scenarios, by drastically altering precipitation levels and global temperatures, resulted in the terrestrial biosphere becoming a net source of carbon—emitting up to 50 GtC (gigatons of carbon) and 76 GtC, respectively, over the ensuing century. (The oceans, however, could potentially compensate by increasing their uptake.)

In the fourth scenario, with multiple GHG emissions peaking in 2015 before adjusting to an annual long-term reduction rate of 3 percent, the authors found that there was a 55 percent chance that temperatures would overshoot the 2°C. Worse, there was a 30 percent chance that temperatures would remain above this dangerous threshold for at least a century, and a 10 percent chance that they would exceed it for up to 3 centuries. And here’s the kicker:

This particular scenario has a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions approaching 50% of the 1990 values by 2050, which we note is similar to the G8 statement in 2008 to consider ‘the goal of achieving at least 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050’.”

In other words, even adopting the emission targets set by the global community (which could be further watered down) may not be enough to prevent temperatures from staying dangerously high.

Putting aside the usual list of caveats, this study should worry anyone who believes that passing a climate bill, even an ambitious one, would solve all of our problems. The basic message is that climate change is here to stay and, though governments need to do everything in their power to forestall the worst, we will have to live with its effects for many decades to come. As such, Lowe and his colleagues argue, there should be more of a focus among the research community on studying the resiliency of what they call “Earth system components,” such as the Greenland ice sheet or the thermohaline circulation.

John Holdren, who, as director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, oversaw the publication of the new 196-page report issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and Steven Chu, the head of the Department of Energy, are well aware of the risks of complacency and presumably will do their utmost to ensure that the administration keeps its eyes on the climate ball.


Andrew Weaver, the Canada Research Chair in climate modelling, posted a study on this subject in Geophysical Research Letters Oct 2007. The study demonstrated through modelling that global GHG reductions of about 90 percent below 1990 levels would be required by mid-century to avoid more than two degrees of warming. Even the complete elimination of all emissions by then would still produce 0.5 degrees of warming. The basic point of his paper, he explained in an interview, was that you can’t be emitting GHGs faster than your sinks can drain them out. Since the oceans are maxing out, that leaves us with slower sinks such as turning-stuff-into-carbonate that permit far lower levels of annual emissions. If you cut emissions by half and stop there, you’ll get more than two degrees of warming – eventually. Like the simulations mentioned above, his model went out for a few centuries.

This is a superb article, comprehensively demonstrating why we need to act on climate change, and why even action may not achieve the sorts of goals we had hoped to reach even five years ago. Seeing it spelled out like this, one wonders how some in Washington dare to negotiate for more lenient emissions standards. It’s like asking the phlebotomist to return a pint of blood not only when the patient is dying, but when he/she is one of our own.

Some interesting notes on CO2 rise from Gwynne Dyer’s “Climate Wars” book:

1]”A doubling of CO2 will cause a 6oC rise eventually”

2] Since the last ice age until there was “warm stable conditions” there was a CO2 rise of 100 PPM {180 PPM to 280 PPM} , and a temperature rise of 5oC [over an 8000 year period]

So, Dyer asks, “will the 100PPM rise from 280 PPM to 380 PPM over the past 200 years also cause a 5oC temp.rise?”
-end quotes -

Noah -
Probably YES, but the question is “How Soon?” ;
-if it happens suddenly, the drastic changes will be difficult to adapt to.

The 2oC rise we are talking about avoiding is likely another case of underestimation, like the Arctic ice melting surprise.
In order to avoid catastrophic climate changes, we should be reducing CO2 emissions so that we can stay below 400PPM, and at least we should stay below 450PPM.

Final Quote:
“At an emissions rate of 3ppm per year, we will be at 800ppm by 2100”

it will never be enough for desmog. just think..your ultimate fear is your ultimate goal.

lets keep the world Green, Stop Dreaming Start Action

Obama is taking good step for climate . This is a excellent work because we need that for decrease global warming factor which is increasing day by day and making world is very hot. Thanks for share. New York Limousine
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Call me crazy, but I’m predicting that climate change or no climate change, in 100 years the world will be a better place than it is today, and yes, even if all New Yorkers have to move to Detroit.

Margareth, from Fashion World

The climate problem is globle, it’s the expensive cost for economical development.Let’s be hopeful to believe Obama administration can do good on it.

Try to plant a tree in your house and help nature
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