Just days after Rasmussen reported that 47 percent of U.S. citizens suggested that it was OK to put the economy before climate change concerns, one of the key advisors to the German government suggested that North Americans know less about climate change than just about anyone else in the world.
Professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, is one of the world’s foremost climate experts. On the sidelines at a climate conference at Oxford University, he predicted that it will be several years before the U.S. will be able to get its house — or perhaps Senate — in order to join the world in cutting emissions. And until that happens, says Schellnhuber, developing countries like India and China won’t set hard emission targets. It’s a dangerous Catch-22. He’s hoping that most G20 economies will reach some measure of an agreement at Copenhagen, and the U.S. and Canada will follow in a few years time.
And Schellnhuber hopes that will be enough because time is getting short. Global warming has often been sold as something nebulous that could bring ruination several generations into the future, but a new report prepared for the British government — and presented at the Oxford conference — is warning that most people alive today will see dangerous levels of warming. According to scientists at the Met Office in the UK, climate change will be a problem for our children — not our great-grandchildren — with a 4°C (7°F) rise temperatures expected by 2060 if humanity fails to cut emissions significantly. A temperature increase of this magnitude would likely threaten the water supply of half the world’s population, wipe out up to half of animal and plant species, and swamp low-lying coastal areas. Local impacts, in places like Africa and the Arctic, could be even more severe, leading to much greater temperature increases.
“We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4°C rise,” said Dr. Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre. “People will say it’s an extreme scenario, and it is an extreme scenario. But it’s also a plausible scenario.”
The landmark 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report included scenarios that predicted more rapid warming, but these predictions were considered less likely to occur. More recent observations suggest just the opposite: That global warming is barreling along, and greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise faster than predicted in the worst-case IPCC projections. That’s why Met Office scientists used new computer models to update the IPCC predictions — models which include so-called carbon feedbacks that occur when warmer temperatures release more carbon, such as methane, from melting tundra. That, too, is already occurring, decades earlier than expected.
The Met scientists are quick to dismiss claims that the planet is doomed. If the world’s nations reach an international climate change agreement, and emissions peak sometime in the next decade, we still have a shot at keeping the rise in temperatures to below 2°C (3.6°F).
Once, on a comment board, a provocative poster asked why Republicans — who think the economy takes precedent over the environment — don’t love their children as much as Democrats. If Republican leaders in the House and Senate don’t stop wearing their scientific illiteracy like a badge of honor, that biting comment might gain currency among the next generation.
Photograph: Vinay Dithajohn, EPA