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 The Threat to the Planet
 Jim Hansen, USA
 July 13, 2006
 

Most people, mainly aware of larger day-to-day fluctuations in the weather, barely notice that climate, the average weather, is changing. In the 1980s I started to use colored dice that I hoped would help people understand global warming at an early stage. Of the six sides of the dice only two sides were red, or hot, representing the probability of having an unusually warm season during the years between 1951 and 1980. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, four sides were red. Just such an increase in the frequency of unusually warm seasons, in fact, has occurred. But most people —who have other things on their minds and can use thermostats—have taken little notice.

Animals have no choice, since their survival is at stake. Recently after appearing on television to discuss climate change, I received an e-mail from a man in northeast Arkansas: "I enjoyed your report on Sixty Minutes and commend your strength. I would like to tell you of an observation I have made. It is the armadillo. I had not seen one of these animals my entire life, until the last ten years. I drive the same forty-mile trip on the same road every day and have slowly watched these critters advance further north every year and they are not stopping. Every year they move several miles."…

Studies of more than one thousand species of plants, animals, and insects, including butterfly ranges charted by members of the public, found an average migration rate toward the North and South Poles of about four miles per decade in the second half of the twentieth century. That is not fast enough. During the past thirty years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails ("isotherms") have been moving poleward at a rate of about thirty-five miles per decade. That is the size of a county in Iowa. Each decade the range of a given species is moving one row of counties northward.

As long as the total movement of isotherms toward the poles is much smaller than the size of the habitat, or the ranges in which the animals live, the effect on species is limited. But now the movement is inexorably toward the poles and totals more than a hundred miles over the past several decades. If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate—"business as usual"—then the rate of isotherm movement will double in this century to at least seventy miles per decade. If we continue on this path, a large fraction of the species on Earth, as many as 50 percent or more, may become extinct….

In the Earth's history, during periods when average global temperatures increased by as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit, there have been several "mass extinctions, when between 50 and 90 percent of the species on Earth disappeared forever. In each case, life survived and new species developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The most recent of these mass extinctions defines the boundary, 55 million years ago between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. The evolutionary turmoil associated with that climate change gave rise to a host of modern mammals, from rodents to primates, which appear in fossil records for the first time in the early Eocene

If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions. Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.

The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.

The level of the sea throughout the globe is a reflection primarily of changes in the volume of ice sheets and thus of changes of global temperature. When the planet cools, ice sheets grow on continents and the sea level falls….

Ice sheets waxed and waned as the Earth cooled and warmed over the past 500,000 years. During the coldest ice ages, the Earth's average temperature was about ten degrees Fahrenheit colder than today. So much water was locked in the largest ice sheet, more than a mile thick and covering most of Canada and northern parts of the United States, that the sea level was 400 feet lower than today. The warmest interglacial periods were about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today and the sea level was as much as sixteen feet higher.

Future rise in the sea level will depend, dramatically, on the increase in greenhouse gases, which will largely determine the amount of global warming. Sunlight enters the atmosphere and warms the Earth, and then is sent back into space as heat radiation. Greenhouse gases trap this heat in the atmosphere and thereby warm the Earth's surface as we are warmed when blankets are piled on our bed. Carbon dioxide (CO2), produced mainly by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), is the most important greenhouse gas made by human beings. Methane (CH4), which is "natural gas" that escapes to the atmosphere from coal mines, oil wells, rice paddies, landfills, and animal feedlots, is also an important greenhouse gas. Other significant warming agents are ground-level ozone and black soot, which arise mainly from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biofuels.

In order to arrive at an effective policy we can project two different scenarios concerning climate change. In the business-as-usual scenario, annual emissions of CO2 continue to increase at the current rate for at least fifty years, as do non-CO2 warming agents including methane, ozone, and black soot. In the alternative scenario, CO2 emissions level off this decade, slowly decline for a few decades, and by mid-century decrease rapidly, aided by new technologies.

The business-as-usual scenario yields an increase of about five degrees Fahrenheit of global warming during this century, while the alternative scenario yields an increase of less than two degrees Fahrenheit during the same period. Warming can be predicted accurately based on knowledge of how Earth responded to similar levels of greenhouse gases in the past….

How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming?…The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty fee higher Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

A rise in sea level, necessarily, begins slowly. Massive ice sheets must be softened and weakened before rapid disintegration and melting occurs and the sea level rises. It may require as much as a few centuries to produce most of the long-term response. But the inertia of ice sheets is not our ally against the effects of global warming. The Earth's history reveals cases in which sea level, once ice sheets began to collapse, rose one meter (1.1 yards) every twenty years for centuries. That would be a calamity for hundreds of cities around the world, most of them far larger than New Orleans. Devastation from a rising sea occurs as the result of local storms which can be expected to cause repeated retreats from transitory shorelines and rebuilding away from them….

The business-as-usual scenario, with five degrees Fahrenheit global warming and ten degrees Fahrenheit at the ice sheets, certainly would cause the disintegration of ice sheets. The only question is when the collapse of these sheets would begin. The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate. The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.

Both the Department of Energy and some fossil fuel companies insist that continued growth of fossil fuel use and of CO2 emissions are facts that cannot be altered to any great extent. Their prophecies become self-fulfilling, with the help of government subsidies and intensive efforts by special interest groups to prevent the public from becoming well-informed.

In reality, an alternative scenario is possible and makes sense for other reasons, especially in the US, which has become an importer of energy, hemorrhaging wealth to foreign nations in order to pay for it. In response to oil shortages and price rises in the 1970s, the US slowed its growth in energy use mainly by requiring an increase from thirteen to twenty-four miles per gallon in the standard of auto efficiency. Economic growth was decoupled from growth in the use of fossil fuels and the gains in efficiency were felt worldwide. Global growth of CO2 emissions slowed from more than 4 percent each year to between 1 and 2 percent growth each year.

This slower growth rate in fossil fuel use was maintained despite lower energy prices. The US is still only half as efficient in its use of energy as Western Europe, i.e., the US emits twice as much CO2 to produce a unit of GNP, partly because Europe encourages efficiency by fossil fuel taxes. China and India, using older technologies, are less energy-efficient than the US and have a higher rate of CO2 emissions.

Available technologies would allow great improvement of energy efficiency, even in Europe. Economists agree that the potential could be achieved most effectively by tax on carbon emissions, although strong political leadership would be needed t persuasively explain the case for such a tax to the public. The tax could be revenue-neutral, i.e., it could also provide for tax credits or tax decreases for the public generally, leaving government revenue unchanged; and it should be introduced gradually. The consumer who makes a special effort to save energy could gain benefiting from the tax credit or decrease while buying less fuel; the well-to-do consumer who insisted on having three Hummers would pay for his own excesses

Achieving a decline in CO2 emissions faces two major obstacles: the huge number of vehicles that are inefficient in their use of fuel and the continuing CO2 emissions from power plants. Auto makers oppose efficiency standards and prominently advertise their heaviest and most powerful vehicles, which yield the greatest short-term profits. Coal companies want new coal-fired power plants to be built soon, thus assuring long-term profits.

The California legislature has passed a regulation requiring a 30 percent reduction in automobile greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. If adopted nationwide, this regulation would save more than $150 billion annually in oil imports. In thirty-five years it would save seven times the amount of oil estimated by the US Geological Services to exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By fighting it in court, automakers and the Bush administration have stymied the California law, which many other states stand ready to adopt….

Any responsible assessment of environmental impact must conclude that further global warming exceeding two degrees Fahrenheit will be dangerous. Yet because of the global warming already bound to take place as a result of the continuing long-term effects of greenhouse gases and the energy systems now in use, the two-degree Fahrenheit limit will be exceeded unless a change in direction can begin during the current decade. Unless this fact is widely communicated, and decision-makers are responsive, it will soon be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. We have reached a critical tipping point.

Jim Hansen is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute. This is an excerpt from an article was published in the New York Review of Books, July 13,/2006. The complete article can be found at The New York Review of Books.