mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Killer Weather Ahead

There is implicit good news in the mostly bad news in the latest big
global warming report: From now on, politicians will find it harder to
do little or nothing to fight this problem. The release of the report
on February 2 by the world’s leading scientific body on global
warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ranks
as a landmark development.


Using unusually blunt language for a
scientific document, the report describes global warming as
“unequivocal” and says it is “very likely” caused by humans. The
results, according to the report, will likely include more frequent
heat waves and stronger droughts and storms, while sea levels will
continue to rise for more than a thousand years.

The silver lining is
that such plain-spoken warnings should make it difficult for anyone to
argue that greenhouse gas emissions should not be reduced. Capitol
Hill already had been aflutter with prospective global warming bills;
the report makes it more likely that one will land on George W. Bush’s
desk by year’s end.

Bush will face a choice: Sign the bill despite the
presumed opposition of the oil and coal interests he has championed,
or veto it and leave fellow Republicans open to attack on what’s
shaping up as a top-tier issue in the 2008 elections.

As for the bad news in the report, it confirms that the battle to
prevent global warming has been lost. Now the race to survive it has
begun. Because we waited so long to act, the best humanity can do now
is slow global warming down to where we can hope to endure it with
relatively manageable damages.

How bad things eventually get will
depend on how much greenhouse emissions are cut, and how quickly. But
the momentum of the climate system—the fact that carbon dioxide
remains in the atmosphere for decades, and oceans store heat for
centuries—guarantees that global warming will get worse before it
gets better (unless someone invents a miracle technology to strip
existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere).

Even if humanity stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, the IPCC
notes, global temperatures would still rise 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit by
the year 2100. An immediate stop is impossible; it would mean shutting
off every electric power plant, automobile, furnace and other device
anywhere in the world that runs on oil, coal or natural gas, as well
as halting tropical rainforest destruction.

Thus the IPCC calculates a
range of possible future temperature increases that vary by how
quickly emissions are or are not reduced. At the very least, says the
report, temperatures will rise 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100,
assuming a rapid shift away from fossil fuels. More likely is an
increase of 3.2 to 7.2 degrees.

These numbers imply that there is very little time for humanity to
avoid passing a climate threshold known as the two-degree target.
Endorsed by the European Union and many top scientists as the maximum
amount of warming above pre-industrial-era levels that humanity can
tolerate before damages become unmanageable, the target can be
confusing to Americans because it refers to two degrees Celsius. The
equivalent in Fahrenheit is 3.6 degrees.

At first glance, that sounds
roomy enough. After all, the IPCC estimates that “likely” future
temperature rise will range between 3.2 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit;
thus if we decarbonize our economies fast enough to hit the low end of
that range, the threshold could be avoided.

The problem is, humanity’s
past greenhouse emissions have already caused the temperature to rise
1.1 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century. That means we will pass
the threshold if we raise the temperature by only 2.5 degrees—barely
more than the lowest amount the IPCC considers feasible. And even in
that case, we will still face considerable sea-level rise and more
killer heat waves, droughts and hurricanes.

There are no good answers to global warming, only degrees of bad. But
speedy action might let us avoid the most catastrophic scenarios.
Scientists say we must cut emissions 80 percent by 2050, which is what
the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, sponsored by Bernie
Sanders, Barbara Boxer and others, mandates.

Habitual foot-draggers
ExxonMobil and the Bush Administration look almost comical as they
reposition themselves for the battle to come. Bush uttered the words
“global climate change” in a State of the Union address for the first
time last month; ExxonMobil announced it would stop funding some
climate-change deniers. But neither the White House nor the oil giant
accepts mandatory limits on greenhouse emissions. They simply
recognize that Congress is going to pass a bill this year, and they
know that in Washington if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re
on the menu.

Defenders of the status quo will want a bill that sounds
good but does little except defuse pressure for real change. And that
would be the worst outcome of all.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.