The Clock Is Running Faster than We Thought

New data about the state of the world are making the conclusions of the 2007 IPCC report look conservative. Michael D. Lemonick, writing in Environment 360, the Yale Online Magazine, describes new data that indicates that the effects of warming are coming faster than the IPCC consensus predicted.
Unexpectedly rapid melting of the vast ice sheet in Greenland, for example, suggests that sea level could rise between 1 and 2 meters (roughly 3 to 6 ½ feet) by the end of the century — nearly triple what scientists projected just two years ago. A surprisingly rapid round of melting around the North Pole suggest that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice-free in summer within two decades or even less — at least 20 years ahead of the most pessimistic FAR [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] predictions. West Antarctica, whose ice cap is bigger than Greenland’s, is warming up faster than anyone thought, and a major ice stream in West Antarctica — the Pine Island Glacier — is sliding into the sea at the astonishing rate of two miles a year, adding its mass to steadily rising global sea levels.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is spewing into the atmosphere faster than any model anticipated, with the IPCC forecasting that if nothing is done to slow greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could be as high as 900 parts per million — triple pre-industrial levels — by the end of the century. That could boost worldwide temperatures by an average of more than 4 degrees C (7 degrees F).

To put this in perspective, I spent three days last week at a workshop offered by the Society of Organizational Learning on "Learning and Leadership for Sustainability," where one of the exercises was a simulated global-scale negotiation of carbon reduction targets. The baseline was the current CO2 reduction commitments or positions of nations. These numbers were plugged into a computer model that tracks CO2 atmospheric levels, temperature rise, and sea level rise over time. I don't remember the exact results of the simulation, only that they were shocking to the point of numbness.

The computer model was a simplified version of the kind of models used in developing the FAR. Given these new data reported in the article I quoted above, even these projections were likely to be on the conservative side. Two more rounds of negotiations among the participants, broken down into groups representing different groups of countries, finally got the projections into the range where the risks are considered by the experts to be manageable. The clear and indisputable conclusion of the whole group was that there is no time to lose. Drastic reductions are needed now.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers in relying on massive technological solutions such as seeding the atmosphere with aerosols to reflect back more of the sunlight impinging on the Earth. Efficiency improvement is an important, but only incremental, remedy. Only a deep-seated shift in values and norms is likely to bring about a cultural life-style that is not fueled by fossil fuels quickly. Innovation is essential, but will take time to become widely implemented.

It would be a social and political nightmare to move quickly toward an economy that produces satisfaction through relationships and quality instead of through material good and quantity The looming nightmare of the consequences of not doing this, however, seems even more to be avoided. In saying this, I want to stress that I am not a pessimist, rather a realist. I am convinced that what I am talking about is all too real. I do believe that it is possible to avoid the worst, but only if we open our eyes, wake up, and get cracking.