With people preparing to take to the streets for this weekend’s People’s Climate March in New York City and 1,500 companion events globally, two stories of recent days underscore the urgent need for a climate breakthrough. They shout the reality of a world going radically in the wrong direction.
First was the World Meteorological Organization announcement Sept. 9 that carbon dioxide “levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984.” The jump of 2.9 parts per million (ppm) took heat-trapping, climate-twisting CO2 to 396 ppm. The world desperately needs to reduce atmospheric carbon to 350 ppm. That is the level at which the planet is no longer accumulating solar heat. Instead the captains of Planet Titanic are stoking the boilers and speeding up the ship toward climate disaster levels of 450 ppm and above.
WMO said that part of the reason for the accelerated rise may be the reduced ability of ecosystems to absorb CO2. This is the most troubling piece of the WMO announcement. Around half of human-emitted carbon pollution is soaked into trees, plants and soils. Increased heat appears to be diminishing the capacity of the biosphere to clean up our atmospheric spew. Global warming feeding global warming is the most terrifying aspect of climate disruption, because it can drive climate change beyond human control. The risk is that coming generations will be struggling to regain control of a runaway climate train, and employing all sorts of questionable geoengineering schemes to do so.
Part of CO2 is absorbed by chemical reactions with the ocean. As opposed to being taken from the air through plant photosynthesis, chemical absorption is highly undesirable because it makes ocean waters more acidic. Acidification is now increasing faster than any time in 300 million years, WMO reports. This threatens a collapse of the ocean food chain from plankton populations up, and with it the capacity of marine life to biologically absorb CO2.
The second story was a new report from one of the world’s top accounting firms lining out the carbon emissions reduction trajectory needed to keep the world from heating over 3.6° F. That is the generally agreed limit line for global warming beyond which the capacity of human civilization and natural ecosystems to absorb climate change approaches the breaking point.
PWC, the UK branch of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, says in its 2014 Low Carbon Economy Index, “For the sixth year running, the global economy has missed the decarbonisation target needed to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) . . . we managed only 1.2%. To avoid two degrees of warming, the global economy now needs to decarbonize at 6.2% a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100.”
The 2013 rate was better than the 0.9% average since 2013, reflecting that for the first time the emerging top seven economies are decarbonizing faster than the G7 traditional industrial leaders. But the shortfall indicates global warming of around 4°C (7°F) by 2100. That is clearly a point at which adaptation to global warming becomes a desperate struggle.
The World Bank spells it out: “With pressures increasing as warming progresses toward 4°C and combining with nonclimate–related social, economic, and population stresses, the risk of crossing critical social system thresholds will grow. At such thresholds existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse.” There is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”
In other words, we are on course to leave our children with an out-of-control climate that exhausts their capacity to cope and adjust.
The 6% solution is gaining increasing resonance. James Hansen’s team last year concluded it is the carbon reduction curve needed to stabilize climate. 6% must become the clarion call of the climate movement. We can no longer settle for half-measures we know will not achieve the goal of climate stability. We have to insist that the world, its leaders and its institutions step up to do the right thing for our children’s generation, and implement climate solutions that scale to the immense challenge.
We must right a world going wrong. We are out of time for less than complete and honest statements about what we must really do. Make no mistake. Amping up carbon reductions five times past the present rate is a supreme challenge requiring significant investment of public dollars, and outright shutdown of much fossil fuel infrastructure. Certainly it demands an end to expansion of fossil infrastructure such as coal ports and unconventional fossil fuel production such as tar sands and oil shales. Powerful economic interests whose profits depend on fossil fuels must simply be defeated.
There are strong economic arguments for making the transition. Clean energy technology costs are at or near competitiveness with fossil costs. The external costs of fossil fuels from environmental destruction to increased disease rates are overwhelming. Nonetheless, the fact that the most powerful economic interests – the fossil fuel and related industries – continue to benefit means we will not win on economic arguments alone.
There is a moral dimension to carbon pollution and the climate crisis that must come to the fore. We must take the moral high ground. We cannot continue to pollute our way to prosperity, cannot continue to grow the fossil fuel economy, without knowing we are leaving the world a wreck for our children. It is a basic and simple as that. We need to say it, say it repeatedly, say it loud and clear.
The success of the People’s Climate March in New York and the related 1,500 events around the world will be in elevating the moral imperative of cutting carbon pollution to the pinnacle it deserves. We must put our eyes on the prize, and that prize is a world where global warming has not run beyond human control, where climate stabilization is still possible.
It is less than glorious to understand that the primary goal to which we must devote the rest of our lives is to acknowledge the damage we have done and are doing, and to limit future damages. But that is the hard set of facts we must face if we are to be remembered as people who cared for our kids and their future.
We can still make a great world. I believe this, that out of the necessities of rising to this greatest of challenges we will find the better angels of our nature and make a great world for ourselves and our children. May our better angels get on the march on the streets of the world this weekend.
I will be participating in events around Cascadia this weekend. On Saturday is Climate Knows No Borders International Rally at the Blaine Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canada border. On Sunday the Seattle People's Climate March will begin at Westlake Plaza at 1 pm.