The climate peril: a race against time

The latest climate-modelling projections underline the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming. The implications for civic and political action are profound.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 November 2009

The approach to the United Nations climate-change summit in Copenhagen on 7-18 December 2009 is mired in controversy as blocs of states vie with each other to determine the real agenda.  The multiple interests involved range from elite trading-networks and powerful oil-producers to small-island states in the global south. The underlying reality is a deep-seated inequality in bargaining-power in which the United States and leading European Union member-states can assemble delegations of a hundred or more specialist advisers, whereas the poorest states may have two or three diplomats with no special help. The stark injustice is reinforced by the fact that the climate dynamics of the world’s environment put the majority world most at risk.

The beginning of progress in redressing current dangers and unfairness is accurate information and sound analysis. There have great advances here since the significance of atmospheric carbon- accumulation was registered in the mid-1970s, around the time of the original study of The Limits to Growth. At that time, most analyses predicted that climate change would have its dominant impact on the temperate latitudes of north and south. In part this was because very long-term natural changes in climate (across millions of years) appeared to have had little impact on the tropics and sub-tropics. When the British land-mass was covered in ice and snow around 11,000 years ago, for example, the climate of sub-Saharan Africa was not greatly different to what it is today. The conclusion reached was that the regions likely to experience the largest climate- change impacts were also among the world’s richest - and thus would be best able to adjust.

The next generation saw improvements in climate-change modelling that by the early 1990s had overturned this thinking. There was now a recognition that the tropical and sub-tropical land- masses would indeed be greatly affected, though less by a process of warming than by major changes in world rainfall-distribution; the expectation being that more of the world’s rain would fall over the oceans and the northern and southern polar regions, and far less over the tropics and sub-tropics (see David Rind, “Drying out the tropics”, New Scientist, 6 May 1995). This “drying-out” of the tropics would - if not prevented by radical cuts in carbon-emissions - drastically reduce crop-yields. With two-thirds of the world’s people dependent on local food- production, the consequences could be disastrous.  

The sinking road

Some current analysis on climate change also predicts increasing variations in rainfall distribution, part of a damaging global asymmetry in temperature-related trends. A study by Britain’s Met Office made public on 28 September 2009 assesses several recent climate-change models in terms of the consequences of a 4ºC overall rise in temperature (using 1980 as the baseline of comparison). This may seem alarmist; but since average temperatures in 1980-2009 have already risen around 0.7ºC, and since there is a very long time-delay between cutting carbon-emissions and containing climate change, the approach is actually realistic. The projection is quite properly indicative of the world as it could look in 2055, unless there are radical cuts in carbon-emissions that go a very long way beyond current plans (see Shanta Barley, “A World 4ºC Warmer”, New Scientist, 3 October 2009).

The asymmetry of impact predicted by this recent modelling is very significant. Many parts of the world will warm relatively slowly; much of the southern ocean will become only marginally warmer; most other oceans (the Arctic excepted) will warm by 2-3ºC compared with 2009 levels. Some continental land-masses will experience a slightly below-average rise; in this category will be the southern part of south America, parts of southern India, and southeast Asia and Australia. Even so, these regions still face temperature increases of 3ºC or more, leading to dangerous shifts in climate, while the ocean-warming will intensify tropical storms and lift sea-levels.

This is serious enough, but the modelling should cause even greater concern in relation to the projected impact on other land-masses and the Arctic. Much of Amazonia, and central and north America, is expected to warm by around 10ºC on average on current trends; as will southern Africa, central and eastern Europe, much of the middle east, and central and north Asia right through to the Pacific.  The temperature increases across the Arctic could even exceed 12ºC, leading to wholesale melting of the Greenland and Canadian Arctic island icecaps and major increases in sea-levels across the world.  These are potentially catastrophic changes.

It is possible that further modelling will lead to some modification of these results, and there is no pretence that climate-change predictions made at a single point in time are immutable. But the work that has been done suggests with reasonable certainty that the continuation of present trends will carry two major consequences.

The first is that the impact of climate change will be highly variable across the world. Its effect on land-masses will be massive, on the oceans (apart from the Arctic) slightly less so. The most worrying in ecological terms among all the expected outcomes would be the  destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, a process that would accelerate the existing impacts of human activity. 

The second is that many of the poorest regions of the world, those least able to cope with climate change, will suffer the most (see Camilla Toulmin, Climate Change in Africa [Zed Books, 2009]). The severity of the effects can be gauged if it is recalled that the world’s tropical and sub-tropical land-masses are home to a majority of the world’s people and produce almost all of their food.

The saving pressure

What are the implications of this analysis for the Copenhagen summit? It is important to emphasise the context of the meeting, namely that it is part of a process rather than an isolated event. This in turn means that not everything depends on its outcome alone - but the larger picture is such that the process does need to be accelerated in 2010-12 in order to prevent catastrophic impacts by 2040-50. The radical action required includes a reduction in carbon- emissions by industrialised and industrialising states amounting to 40% by 2020 and 80% by 2030.

This may seem from the perspective of the present - including the widespread low expectations of the Copenhagen meeting - impossibly idealistic. But there are also many hopeful indicators, both at grassroots and government levels. The emergence of a new generation of determined and organised climate-change activists in a number of western countries, prepared to take non-violent direct action is one such; the embrace by some politicians of the need for bold action, after the “lost decade” of George W Bush, is another. The developments in China are especially interesting; the official Chinese stance may foreground demands that western states curb their emissions while allowing China’s economy to catch up, but on the ground there are signs of an embrace of wind-power, photovoltaics and solar-thermal systems, as well as efforts at least to curb the increase in carbon-emissions.

But for large-scale and comprehensive progress to occur, nothing less than a reworking of the structures of the global economy that addresses the issues of socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints is needed.  Here too there are positive signals, such as the support by British prime minister Gordon Brown (at the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Scotland on 7 November 2009) for a Tobin-like tax on financial transactions. This, from the leader of one of the world’s larger economies, represents a near-astonishing breakthrough whose impact among financial analysts is just beginning to be felt (see Saskia Sassen, “A global financial detox”, 3 September 2009).

Beyond this, the economic shift of the coming generation must be grounded in a serious analysis of the essentials of the new green economy. The work being done by the London-based New Economics Foundation (NEF) - for example, in its new “great transition” project - is just one welcome indicator. Much more research is needed, but even the initial analysis by the NEF is enough to show that “blue-sky” thinking can also be deeply practical.

Copenhagen may not achieve much, but this itself may not be fatal; for in terms of preventing the extremes of climate change, what happens elsewhere may well turn out to be more vital. The work of independent think-tanks (such as Sustainablesecurity.org) and dedicated activists could, in combination, become a singularly powerful force; the response of enlightened political leaderships could prove invaluable. But these agencies will  need an infusion of more energy and broad-based support to enable the pressure for fundamental change to reach a tipping-point.

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