Levees Not War
National Security Begins at Home

IEA Sees “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years”

01/21/12

“I don’t know who and where the climate leadership in the administration is. It doesn’t exist. There is no resolve in the Obama administration to do anything.”Tim Wirth, U.N. Foundation president

“What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real?” —Pink Floyd, “Sheep” (Animals, 1977)

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With apologies for our habit of running a bit late sometimes, behind the curve of the news, we call to your attention, dear fellow earthlings, a report in a recent issue of The Guardian Weekly titled “Irreversible Climate Change in Five Years.” The stark warning is based on a study of the world’s energy infrastructure conducted by the International Energy Agency that was released released before the recent Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. (By the way, were you aware that there was an international, UN–sponsored climate change conference in November and December?)

The IEA’s data, notes The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey, “is regarded as the gold standard in emissions and energy, and is widely regarded as one of the most conservative in outlook—making the warning all the more stark.”

The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever,” according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure. 

Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this “lock-in” effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change, the world’s foremost authority on energy economics has found. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous. 

“The door is closing,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. “I am very worried—if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

The Guardian observes that the IEA’s new research shows that “current choices in building new infrastructure are likely to commit the world to much higher emissions for the next few decades, blowing apart hopes of containing the problem to manageable levels.” The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey continues:

If the world is to stay below 2C [3.6°F] of warming, which scientists regard as the limit of safety, then emissions must be held to no more than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the level is currently around 390ppm. But the world’s existing infrastructure is already producing 80% of that “carbon budget”. . . . If current trends continue, and we go on building high-carbon energy generation, then by 2015 at least 90% of the available “carbon budget” will be swallowed up by our energy and industrial infrastructure. By 2017, there will be no room for manoeuvre at all—the whole of the carbon budget will be spoken for, according to the IEA’s calculations.

The IEA’s report was released before the recent Durban conference, a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference ended with a legally binding agreement among developed and developing countries to work for the first time on an agreement to cut greenhouse gases, but the agreement would not even be written until 2015, and would not come into force until 2020.

Scientists and environmental groups said the Durban deal would not be enough to avert catastrophic climate change, and the U.S. special envoy Todd Stern infuriated the European Union when he warned that there would have to be a long preparatory period before any sitting down to haggle over details. The election of Barack Obama has altered the rhetoric but has made little difference in the United States’s actions to curb global (warming) climate change.

As a little background on international efforts to reduce global warming, the Kyoto Protocol was agreed to in 1997. In 2001 newly inaugurated President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would not participate. United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 produced little more than bitter disappointment (see below) and a vague agreement to take steps “to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius” over the next century.

America’s Energy Conservation Policy: “Running on Empty”

The disconnect between one of the world’s most prolific producers of carbon emissions (industrial and automotive exhaust) and the acceptance of responsibility for the environmental consequences of is staggering. The Republican presidential candidates (except for Newt Gingrich, occasionally) either ignore or dispute the inconvenient truth, and they are not asked about climate change in their many corporate media–delivered debates. Barack Obama, who in his 2008 campaign led supporters to believe his administration would bring in a breath of fresh, lower-carbon-emission air, either does not really care or is afraid of giving further ammunition to those who accuse him of being “anti-business.” See “Obama’s Climate Betrayal” by The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert and these remarks by Tim Wirth, the U.N. Foundation president and former U.S. senator quoted in the epigraph above.

About the Copenhagen Accord signed in 2009, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:

Two years ago, at a meeting in Copenhagen, world leaders agreed on the goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, or roughly three and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The so-called Copenhagen Accord, which Barack Obama personally helped negotiate, contained no mechanism for meeting this goal, so even though the President called it a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough,” many others questioned whether it was worth the proverbial paper it was printed on. Unfortunately, it now seems, the many others had a point.

And, in a bitter denunciation of the Copenhagen cave-in quoted in this blog at the time, climate change writer George Monbiot fumed (“Copenhagen Negotiators Bicker and Filibuster While the Biosphere Burns,” The Guardian):

First they put the planet in square brackets, now they have deleted it from the text. At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face. As the talks melted down, everything that might have made a new treaty worthwhile was scratched out. Any deal would do, as long as the negotiators could pretend they have achieved something.

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For More Hot Reading . . .

Obama’s Climate Betrayal” (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 30, 2011)

Top 10 Signs We Are Living in a Warming World, 2011 Edition” (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Dec. 12, 2011)

Two Degrees of Disaster” (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2011)

Copenhagen Climate Summit: Five Possible Scenarios for Our Future Climate (Guardian, Dec. 18, 2009). With talks in Copenhagen descending into chaos, the prospects for stabilising temperatures ‘dangerous’ levels look increasingly slim. Here are five possible scenarios for our future climate.

Science Museum Unveils Climate Change Map Showing Impact of 4C Rise (Guardian, October 22, 2009). A new map of the world that details the likely effects of a failure to cut carbons emissions has been developed by Met Office scientists.

International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2011

And read these writers’ excellent, fact-based environmental reporting: Fiona Harvey (Guardian), Elizabeth Kolbert (New Yorker), and George Monbiot (Guardian).

United Nations Climate Change Conference web site

Text of 12-paragraph Copenhagen Accord

Dot.Earth (Andrew C. Revkin’s climate change blog @ NYT)

Global Climate Network

Grist.org

More Levees Not War Coverage of Climate Change

Copenhagen Climate Accord Better Than Nothing (Sound Familiar?)

Polar-Palooza and the Singing Glaciologist

Penguins Are Melting

Swiftly Melting Planet 2007

Diagnosis of a Stressed-Out Planet

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 Top photo by Hipgnosis for Pink Floyd, 1977. Bottom photo courtesy of Salon.com.

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