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“We are running out of time”

There is no doubt that greenhouse-gas emissions are rising relentlessly. After a wasted year, writes Robin McKie, climate change must again be our priority and the skeptics must be sidelined.

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On an observatory 11,000 feet (3,350 metres) high on Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii, a pair of ageing, automated detectors have been churning out details about the make-up of our atmosphere for several decades. In December 2010, they produced their most alarming result to date. They showed that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have touched 390 parts per million – a 40% increase on pre-industrial levels.

The timing was striking. Just as negotiators were reaching their compromise deal on global warming in Cancún, the Mauna Loa machines showed the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions – left largely unresolved in Mexico – have reached an unprecedented level. Humans have procrastinated while the composition of the air around us has changed remorselessly.

It is a point stressed by Pieter Tans, who heads the US government's carbon-monitoring programme. "I find it shocking," he said after Republican party politicians claimed carbon dioxide posed no threat to earth. "We really are in a predicament here and it's getting worse every year."

Nor is it hard to understand his despair. Humanity was served notice of impending catastrophe 50 years ago when climate scientist Charles David Keeling decided to investigate the fate of the carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the atmosphere from factories and cars. Were the oceans absorbing most of this input, as some scientists said, or was it lingering in the atmosphere? To find out, Keeling installed his detectors on Mauna Loa in March 1958.

At first, he was baffled by his results: carbon-dioxide levels rose to 315.1 in May of that year. Then they fell for the next six months to 310.6. After that, they started to rise again until a new dip started six months later. Then Keeling understood. Those levels were fluctuating as the world's forests and plants – found mostly in the northern hemisphere where earth's land masses are concentrated – drew in carbon dioxide during the growing season in spring and summer and then let it out in winter. Keeling was watching the planet breathe.

But its breathing was troubled, he realised. Those annual cycles did not begin at the same low point each year. "It was higher the second year," Keeling recalled. "Then it was higher the third year. And then the fourth. Then we knew something was going on." In fact, each early winter low in the carbon-dioxide cycle was one to two parts-per-million (ppm) higher compared with the previous year – thanks to rising outputs of industrial carbon dioxide. Keeling started when overall levels were 315ppm. Today they stand at 390 – 391.65 in the first week of January this year -- and will touch 400 around 2015.

This discovery is probably the most important ever made in climate science, say Robert Kunzig and Wallace Broecker in their book, Fixing Climate. "If Keeling had not been so devoted to measuring carbon dioxide, the debate on global warming would be even more mired in polemics than it is now. Instead, the 'Keeling curve' of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa has become one of the debate's few universally acknowledged truths."

This is a crucial point. Climate-change deniers, as they try to sow doubt about global warming, have attempted to tarnish every meteorological finding they have come across. Hence the furore they created over the leaking of e-mails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit in the United Kingdom in 2009. However, they have never made a dent in the Keeling curve. As a result, we face the indisputable fact that levels of carbon dioxide, a gas known to warm the atmosphere, is rising relentlessly as we burn the concentrated organic carbon deposited as coal, gas and oil several hundred millions of years ago. In burning this fossil legacy: "Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future," wrote US scientists Roger Revelle and Hans Suess in 1957.

You get the message. We were warned long ago but have done nothing about the threat of carbon dioxide, such is our dependence on fossil fuel. As a result, the interlude between introducing ecological constraints to halt its increased emission and the onset of the ecological catastrophe that will be triggered if we take no action is now being squeezed alarmingly. We are running out of time.

Indeed, many scientists now believe we passed the point of no return when we breached the 350ppm carbon-dioxide level in 1990. This was the maximum figure our planet could tolerate without suffering some climate change. "We have already seen temperature rises of 0.8 Celsius, thanks mainly to greenhouse-gas emissions," says Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. "And even if we stopped all these emissions tomorrow, the gases we have already put up there will still produce a further 0.2 C rise in global temperatures by 2030 because of the lag in their effect on the atmosphere and the oceans."

Thus the world cannot avoid becoming at least one degree hotter than it was in the 19th century because of human activities. How much hotter it will get is a more difficult question to answer. Most scientists say increases of at least 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100 are now inevitable. That doesn't sound so bad until you note such a rise will expose up to three billion people to the risk of water shortages, says Professor Martin Parry of the UK Met Office, while the UN states global food production will also be disrupted.

In fact, most climate scientists say rises could easily reach 4° C to 6° C, producing global average temperatures not seen on earth for 50 million years. Deserts will spread, ice caps melt, coastal areas flood and millions of people forced from their homes.

Some sceptics deny such changes will occur. Others say it is too costly to abandon the burning of fossil fuels even if this does dump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They say we should just put up with those spreading deserts and flooded coastlines – a notion of staggering immorality, according to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt. "This is the equivalent of medical researchers arguing that they shouldn't try to cure cancer because it is too expensive and that, in any case, people in the future might decide that dying from cancer is not really that bad."

After a year in which climate talks stalled and the “climategate” affair – the East Anglia e-mail leaks – induced near paralysis in dealing with the discussion of global-warming issues, we can see we are in a bad shape. Nothing new there. We have been doing nothing about global warming for 50 years, despite the warnings. Nor do the omens for the next 50 look better, a point highlighted by one US researcher. "When you go to Washington and tell them carbon dioxide will double in 50 years and will have major impacts, what do they say? They ask me to come back in 49 years."

It goes without saying, of course, that in 49 years, it will be too late.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/

© Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Homepage image from miuenski

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Default thumb avatar
tdeanxx

为何我们步履蹒跚?

很明显地我们在减少温室气体排放这个重要(对那些有知识和常识的人来说)的任务上进展得十分缓慢。为何如此? 那是因为那些偏袒化石燃料的对那些最关键的政府,如美国和中国,具有庞大的影响力。跨国能源公司刚获权可以无限量地在美国的选举上大洒金钱。它们对美国政府拥有庞大的影响力,而它们亦明显地利用该影响力去保障它们那非常高利润的生意。当历史上比任何国家都大大地排放了最多两氧化碳的政府拒绝承担责任,那为什麽现今生产量最大的中国要去损害它的经济来减排?现时,生产清洁能源比起简单地向溶炉投入大量煤可要贵。因此,当善後工作带来的益处是全球性的同时,志愿国家的经济效率却减少。我们该如何解决这个「你先来 」,「 不,你先来」的难题?欢迎来到国际政治的世界。

But Why are We Dragging Our Feet?

Clearly we are moving slowly at the obviously important (to those with knowledge and common sense) task of reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. Why? Because those in favor of the fossil fuel status quo have vast power to influence the governments that are most critical: The US and China. With the newly decided right to pump as much cash as they wish into US elections, the giant multi-national energy companies have massive influence in the US government and they are blatantly using that influence to protect their very profitable business. If the country that historically has produced by far the most carbon dioxide in the atmosphere refuses to take responsibility, why should China, the country that is currently producing the most, “take the hit” to their economy to reduce emissions? It is currently more costly to produce clean energy than it is to simply throw huge quantities of coal into a boiler, so cleaning up reduces the efficiency of the economy that chooses to do so while the benefits are distributed globally. So how do we get past the problem of “You go first! No! You go first!” Welcome to the world of international politics.

Default thumb avatar
blindspotter

重新规划整个事件

气候问题不能够得到解决因为每个人都陷入了“集体思考”和“群思维”当中。人们试图用解决其他全球性问题的方法来解决气候问题,“我们怎样才能用最狭窄的观点做出一些进步?”这不能够解决其他全球性问题,对于气候问题也是同样。
举例来说,全球气候论坛,我们有些看上去很好的方法但同时可能会花费过去二十年不停的质问——“我们怎样才能规划这个问题来鼓励节制而不是有效的行动?”当这之后年复一年没有任何有效行动,又发出质问——“我们怎样才能继续有所进展而不是不停的问为什么不起作用?”这儿我有一个小建议关于重新规划整个事件,因此事情可能被解决(如果我们动作足够迅速)。另一个气候峰会丢失了最重要的一条——“这样做为什么不起作用?”
http://bit.ly/workingprocess James Greyson

Reframe the whole issue

The climate problem hasn't been resolved because everyone is stuck in 'group thinking' or 'herd thinking'. People try to solve the climate problem in the same way as all other global issues, "what's the narrowest perspective we can take to attempt some progress?" This hasn't worked for other global issues and cannot possibly work for the climate either.

With international climate talks for example, we have a process that means well but might as well have spent the past two decades asking, "how can we frame the issue to encourage denial rather than effective action?" And then year after year when there is no effective action, "how can we continue with the process as it is rather than ask why isn't it working?"

Please find here a short proposal for reframing the whole issue so that it can be resolved (if we can act fast enough). 'Another climate summit missing the most important agenda item - why isn't this working?' http://bit.ly/workingprocess

James Greyson

Default thumb avatar
tdeanxx

这的确是工作上简单的政治学

在减少温室气体排放的重要进程中,我们的步伐明显很慢(对于那些有相关知识和常识的人来说)。为什么呢?因为那些依赖矿物燃料发展的企业有着极强的能量来影响政府决策,包括在中国和美国。伴随着最新决定的权利——攫取尽可能多的资产来支持美国大选,巨大的跨民族的能源公司对于政府有着巨大的影响力,而且他们公然的运用他们的影响力来保护他们利润丰厚的生意。如果这个历史上到目前为止排放了最多的二氧化碳的国家拒绝承担责任,为什么中国,这个最近产生最多二氧化碳的国家要把节能减排的任务放到经济发展当中呢?生产清洁能源比只要简单地把大量的煤炭扔进锅炉要昂贵得多,所以清理工作减少了经济的效率,但是选择这样做的同时,会使得全球受益。所以我们该如何应对这个互相推让责任的问题呢?欢迎来到国际政治世界。

Really! It is simple politics at work.

Clearly we are moving slowly at the obviously important (to those with knowledge and common sense) task of reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. Why? Because those in favor of the fossil fuel status quo have vast power to influence the governments that are most critical: The US and China. With the newly decided right to pump as much cash as they wish into US elections, the giant multi-national energy companies have massive influence in the US government and they are blatantly using that influence to protect their very profitable business. If the country that historically has produced by far the most carbon dioxide in the atmosphere refuses to take responsibility, why should China, the country that is currently producing the most, “take the hit” to their economy to reduce emissions? It is currently more costly to produce clean energy than it is to simply throw huge quantities of coal into a boiler, so cleaning up reduces the efficiency of the economy that chooses to do so while the benefits are distributed globally. So how do we get past the problem of “You go first! No! You go first!” Welcome to the world of international politics.