UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”

Finally, some of the top climate modelers in the world have done a “plausible worst case scenario,” as Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre, put it today in a terrific and terrifying talk (audio here, PPT here).

No, I’m not taking about a simple analysis of what happens if the nation and the world just keep on our current emissions path.  We’ve known that end-of-century catastrophe for a while (see “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F“).  I’m talking about running a high emissions scenario (i.e. business as usual) in one of the few global climate models capable of analyzing strong carbon cycle feedbacks.  This is what you get [temperature in degrees Celsius, multiple by 1.8 for Fahrenheit]:

A1F1 Met

The key point is that while this warming occurs between 1961-1990 and 2090-2099 for the high-end scenarios without carbon cycle feedbacks, in about 10% of Hadley’s model runs with the feedbacks, it occurs around 2060.  Betts calls that the “plausible worst case scenario.”  It is something the IPCC and the rest of the scientific community should have laid out a long time ago.

As the Met Office notes here, “In some areas warming could be significantly higher (10 degrees [C = 15F] or more)”:

  • The Arctic could warm by up to 15.2 °C [27.4 °F] for a high-emissions scenario, enhanced by melting of snow and ice causing more of the Sun’s radiation to be absorbed.
  • For Africa, the western and southern regions are expected to experience both large warming (up to 10 °C [18 °F]) and drying.
  • Some land areas could warm by seven degrees [12.6 F] or more.
  • Rainfall could decrease by 20% or more in some areas, although there is a spread in the magnitude of drying. All computer models indicate reductions in rainfall over western and southern Africa, Central America, the Mediterranean and parts of coastal Australia.
  • In other areas, such as India, rainfall could increase by 20% or more. Higher rainfall increases the risk of river flooding.

Large parts of the inland United States would warm by 15°F to 18°F, even worse than the NOAA-led 13-agency impacts report found “Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!

Dr Betts added: “Together these impacts will have very large consequences for food security, water availability and health. However, it is possible to avoid these dangerous levels of temperature rise by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If global emissions peak within the next decade and then decrease rapidly it may be possible to avoid at least half of the four degrees of warming.”

A DECC spokesman said: “This report illustrates why it is imperative for the world to reach an ambitious climate deal at Copenhagen which keeps the global temperature increase to below two degrees.”

Betts “presented the new findings at a special conference” today.  “4 degrees and beyond at Oxford University, attended by 130 international scientists and policy specialists, is the first to consider the global consequences of climate change beyond 2 °C.”  You can find all the talks here.

The UK Telegraph story is here.  The Guardian story is “Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes:  Study says 4C rise in temperature could happen by 2060, Increase could threaten water supply of half world population”:

When they ran the models for the most extreme IPCC scenario, they found that a 4C rise could come by 2060 or 2070, depending on the feedbacks. Betts said: “It’s important to stress it’s not a doomsday scenario, we do have time to stop it happening if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.” Soaring emissions must peak and start to fall sharply within the next decade to head off a 2C rise, he said. To avoid the 4C scenario, that peak must come by the 2030s.

Again, this is not the likely impact for 2060 if we fail to act aggressively, but it is a plausible worst-case scenario that should invalidate all economic cost-benefit analysis done to date (see “Harvard economist disses most climate cost-benefit analyses“).

Kudos to Betts and the Met Office for this important, uncharacteristically blunt, and long-overdue analysis.


38 Responses to UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon.”

  1. ken levenson says:

    Nice to see some realism!

    But I’m left wondering how Betts defines “decrease rapidly” and “fall sharply”…
    My guess is much more rapidly and sharply than anything currently being proposed….don’t we really need to think about going negative????

  2. paulm says:

    If the climate is speeding towards such temps in 50yrs time there is no way that anything we do now is going to stop us blowing through 2+C.

    We have to be up front about the devastation that this means and must start planning now for the chaos that’s going to come.

    We missed the boat for averting this nightmare. Lets try to do the best we can now.

  3. Gail says:

    oh good grief.

    greenhouse gasses emitted from burning fuels don’t just raise the global thermometer into disastrous ranges. They also produce emissions that react with UV radiation to create extremely toxic components in the atmosphere, which in turn produce horrific reactions in humans – cancers, asthma, emphysema – and also destroy all forms of life that photosynthesize – trees, shrubs, crops, flowers.

    Oops, my tomatos and pumpkins didn’t do so well this season!!! I wonder why…? must be some bacteria, or fungus…

    Are we ever going to grow up and confront the challenges we face?

  4. paulm says:

    Cayman waters hottest in a decade

    “Basically we don’t know at this stage how bad it is going to be but if is anything like the 1998 bleaching episode, the potential for mass mortality of corals is very high,” he said.

    The DoE said it expects the current bleaching episode to increase significantly in severity in the following weeks as water temperatures remain above the threshold.

  5. Roger says:

    Argghh! Another hidden cost of climate change! I was just about to click “Submit Comment” for a nifty (and possibly first) remark on this post, when an unexpected local thunderstorm and associated power outage momentarily threw me back to the stone age, causing my computer to reboot and my comment to be lost. Now I forgot what I wrote! Oh well, I still have the bare necessities of life: air, food, water, shelter, and Climate Progress;>

  6. mike roddy says:

    This kind of information is going to put humans to the test as to whether we truly are a rational species.

    One person who’s becoming increasingly vindicated is Dr. John Harte, a geochemist from Berkeley. He was saying several years ago that the models at that time were wrong, and way too conservative. John remains optimistic that we can reverse things through determination and intelligence, however. I strongly recommend his book Cooling The Earth, available for free without registration on the Web. For someone who’s been consistenly proved right, he is an upbeat guy, not at all like Lovelock or even the MIT group.

    For 17 years ago, Dr. Harte and his wife have been conducting an experiment in a Rocky Mountain meadow, simulating a three degree climate increase via sunlamps. The result was replacement of reflecting and sequestering wildflower decidous species with dark, slow growing high desert plants. The resulting feedbacks were measured and verified.
    Biological feedbacks remain poorly understood and underestimated, and data to that effect (such as EPA US deforestation statistics) is disguised and suppressed.

  7. Rick says:

    end of the world in 40 years, but wait – everything will be fine and it’s going to be easy to fix too.

  8. paulm says:

    Here is the BBC’s coverage. Video.

    Listen to the fear in the Oxford lecture’s voice when asked by the correspondent what he thinks of the new findiings.

  9. Ken Johnson says:

    Conversely, UNEP’s recent report analyzed a “best-case” scenario under which “industrialized and developed countries enact every climate policy they have proposed at this point,” and projected an end-of-century global temperature rise of 6.3F (3.5C):

  10. Brendan says:

    Joe, do you think in the future you could be a little more clear about labeling your figures? It is clear by the end of the article that the graph is for 2060, but the line before the chart quotes a 2095 timeframe and the line after the chart quotes a 2099 timeframe. It’s just a bit confusing.


  11. The MET office does wonderful research on local climate projections. Somewhere I heard the US has only half of their budget devoted to climate studies. Could that be true? That doesn’t sound very smart. We have weather research, shouldn’t we have climate research too? When does the dumbness flu stop?

  12. paulm says:

    Their agriculture infrastructure is wiped. Half a million people homeless. The storm is now moving on to Vietnam.

    How long is it going to take these nations to recover?
    What is 2C going to be like?

    The Philippines government says 240 people are now known to have died in severe flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ketsana.

    The country has appealed for foreign aid to deal with the disaster, which has displaced more than 450,000 people.

    Some 374,890 people are living in makeshift shelters, three times more than previously reported.

    Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said the situation could become worse if aid supplies run out.

  13. pete best says:

    I still cannot see how this works out myself for at realclimate who are at pains to point out that present decadal warming is occuring at 0.19C and that means around another 1C by 2060 on top of the 0.8-1C we have already had would be by far the most likely scenario. For temps to be 4C higher would require a decadal temperature rise of 0.6C which would require some severe climate feedbacks such as methane clathrates melting a lot faster, the amazon drying out and earths albedo going into reverse etc.

    I have worked out that in another post here in a previous article here (there are so many) that at a 2% increase in fossil fuel consumption we would have doubled our consumption by 2045 to 60 billion tonnes of emissions and that means that we would have released around an additional 1.6 trillion tonnes of CO2. Half of that would be absorbed by sinks will more than likely falter so lets suggest that 1 trillion tonnes of that is left in the atmosphere. This equates to 50 ppmv for every 200 billion tonnes or a 250 ppmv increase in Co2 making 630 ppmv in total not to mention the other GHG such as methane and BC etc.

    Now I know that it is unlikely that we can continue to emit carbon in this way for another 35 years due to the peaking of oil and gas and maybe even coal but its not out of the question as we do not know exactly how much fossil fuel is left.

    The other point must be related to the decadal temperature which would have to shoot up 0.6C from 0.19C which sounds unlikely, well it would be extremely nonlinear in nature.

  14. Wonhyo says:

    I think the links posted by paulm in comment 6 and Ken Johnson in comment 7 are most relevant. The first presents new findings that warming will occur much faster than previously thought, once you incorporate strong feedbacks. The second link reports that even if we adopt ALL of the GHG reduction policies that are proposed today, we will still reach catastrophic warming. This is just confirmation of what has been suspected already. We’ve long known that previous recommendations were based on simpler climate models that lack some of the important feedbacks.

    The problem with any conventional political approach to climate policy is that we are starting from business-as-usual and trying to compromise our policies toward what’s needed to prevent runaway climate change. As illustrated by the BBC report, this has so far produced “too little, too late” policies, and these are still only at the proposal stage.

    If we are to successfully prevent runaway climate change, we must start political negotiations from the opposite extreme: What actions and policies are needed to virtually guarantee we prevent runaway climate change? We should be starting from that position, then relaxing the severe limitations gradually, as we see the measures taking effect.

    We are making the mistake of treating climate policy like any other political negotiation where anything can be compromised or negotiated for enough money. Nature does not compromise or negotiate for money. The burden is on us to understand nature, and live within nature’s bounds.

  15. pete best says:

    Re #12. If we continue BAU then our emissions will double by 2045 to 60 billion tonnes per annum and by that time a further 1.6 trillion tonnes would have been emitted which is a staggering amount because at the moment around half of the emissions are absorbed by sinks but they may stop their job and leave more of it in the atmosphere. Worse still some sinks might turn to sources!

    So if we decrease our emissions by 2% per annum (4% in real terms due to that 2% growth we must also mitigate) then we will relase around 750 billion tonnes instead come 2045 and our sinks may stay sinks and abosrd 50% of it and hence only 375 billion tonnes will be added to tyhe atmosphere or arounf 90 ppmv instead of the 250 of the BAU scenario.

    I prefer the 2% cut even though it probably is not enough to defeat the crusade for 2C of warming it will stop experiencing 5 to 7C of it.

  16. Cait says:

    Pete – evidence suggests that carbon sinks are already spewing out methane as they warm. I want to thank
    Joe for the no-brainer analysis of the paper. It’s something that has worried me all year – recent research suggesting that not only is the Pacific around China not absorbing the CO2 it was, but that the sea in the north is belching back its stored methane by the megatonne – not to mention the meltimng permafrost and acres of methane bubbling up from Russia’s frozen lakes. Last year’s MIT and Met Office modelling seems to have had a profound shock effect not just on Obama (hmm, but not enough of the rest of America, it seems) and China but… werethese two landmark research projects wrong already, almost as the ink dried?

    So in a sense I’m glad that there’s been some clarification, even though it’s a more frightening picture. I was hoping that there would be enough frightening news before copenhagen to have a profound effect on the talks there, but whereas this should have been top of the news, its already been buried slightly. A bit too complicated for normal folk, apparently.

    But seriously, every reader of CP *has* to send Joe’s breakdown to their member of Parliament, Environment ministers, Senators and Congressmen/women. We have to keep acting, visibly, and independently of the big organisations, as well as with them. We have to make a big noise. Now.

  17. ecostew says:

    It’s time for Congress to act on AGW legislation now and use the reconciliation process, which requires only 50 votes.

    [JR: Reconciliation not possible for climate bill — it wasn’t in the budget.]

  18. Mike#22 says:

    Obviously, a 13 deg F temperature rise over the US would devastate our agriculture and ecosystems. Follow on sea level rise would devastate our coastal areas, including many major cities.

    When are the people of this nation going to realize we are under attack? The fossil fuel barons will flood our cities, raze our forests, and wither our crops in scorching heat.

    If some other country threatened us with these outcomes, we would go berserk.

    I am hoping we are right on the thin edge which seperates inaction from effective response. In large part, Global Warming hasn’t happpen yet. There are still a few precious years left to defend the world and our nation from this attack.

  19. ecostew says:

    If CO2 levels are allowed to reach 450 ppm (due to occur by 2030–2040 at the current rates), reefs will be in rapid and terminal decline world-wide from multiple synergies arising from mass bleaching, ocean acidification, and other environmental impacts. Damage to shallow reef communities will become extensive with consequent reduction of biodiversity followed by extinctions. Reefs will cease to be large-scale nursery grounds for fish and will cease to have most of their current value to humanity.

  20. Pete Best:

    It’s as you suggest. This Met study ran simulations that included estimates of carbon feedbacks; the first time the Met has done so. That’s why they sliced decades off the warming scenarios.

  21. ecostew says:

    2010 reconciliation bill is a possibility given bill passage this year is unlikely.

  22. pete best says:

    We know that science is conservative but we cannot just state that this scenario is plausible now can we. Where is the evidence of these faster than expected feedbacks? I know that James Hansen recently doubled the charney sensitivity to an earth sensitivity of 6C from 3C based on the study of the earths climate from 80 million years ago to the present day from which is dervided the sensitivity to climate forcings. The continents were where they are now (more or less) and hence all is seemingly revealed but for this to be all of a sudden loaded into a model and run seems a little unscientific to me.

    More of a marketing peice maybe. How real is it ?

  23. Marie says:

    Joe, can you please clarify?

    “…high-end scenarios without carbon cycle feedbacks, in about 10% of Hadley’s model runs with the feedbacks, it occurs around 2060. Betts calls that the ‘plausible worst case scenario.’”

    Why is this “high end”? It would seem that business as usual should be “run of the mill” and mid-range. Just because it is the highest end model they ran?

    [JR: High end because it presupposes the world will stay on the A1F1 emissions path. If the U.S. passes a climate bill, then there will be a global deal, and we’ll get off A1F1.]

    Model runs with the feedbacks – given that so many feedbacks have really come to the fore in the last year or two, shouldn’t this be “model runs with the feedbacks they’ve discovered and can model thus far”?

    I’m afraid this “plausible worst case scenario” doesn’t really paint the true picture yet and that the likelihood is MUCH higher than 10%.

    [JR: No, 10% chance of doing this by 2060 is staggering. Listen to the audio. The 2070s is much more likely.]

    Also, do you have any news/insider insight about how folks in the administration are taking this news?

    And I couldn’t agree more that, from a basic planning and rational human perspective, the place to start is the question: “What actions and policies are needed to virtually guarantee we prevent runaway climate change? We should be starting from that position, then relaxing the severe limitations gradually, as we see the measures taking effect. We are making the mistake of treating climate policy like any other political negotiation where anything can be compromised or negotiated for enough money. Nature does not compromise or negotiate for money. The burden is on us to understand nature, and live within nature’s bounds.”

    Is anyone doing this? I guess this is the wedges discussion, but no politicians seem to be discussing that. No major news media either.

    What do you think scientists could/should be doing to get the word out?
    I am sending your news to friends, colleagues, etc. and emailing legislators. We have installed PV panels that most cannot afford. Excel energy is still building a big new coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, I think. I realize I should be doing more and want to do it; it seems like it might be time to venture outside the comfort zone of talking/communicating with those I already know.

    Thanks for posting the links to actions.

  24. Mike#22 says:

    “Where is the evidence of these faster than expected feedbacks?” One example emerged during the European heat wave of 2003. The big sinks like the Amazon will soon turn into souces.

    “For the year 2003, researchers have observed that the extreme temperatures and especially the deficit in precipitation during the summer accelerated the drying of soils and produced altered photosynthesis, with effects lasting until fall. Consequently ecosystem photosynthesis declined by a total of 195 g C/m2yr which lead to an exceptional 30% reduction in gross primary productivity.
    This decline resulted in strong anomalous net loss of CO2 to the atmosphere (0.5 Pg C/yr) and
    reversed the effect of about four years of net ecosystem carbon sequestration across the
    Ciais, Ph et al (2005) “Europe-wide reduction in primary productivity caused by the heat and
    drought in 2003”, Nature 437, 529-533.

  25. Anonymous says:

    You all need to do more research and be careful of the so called facts that you are getting and where you get them from. FACT: We have been on a cool cycle for the last 10 years. FACT: Mother Earth has previously been through similar transformations. Do some research on the myths about climate change and global warming. Don’t believe the doomsday crap they are trying to sell you in order to reap $$$$. Make the connections and follow the power and $$$

  26. Pete Best:

    The evidence for faster than expected carbon feedbacks comes from the 1,400 studies presented at the emergency climate summit held in Copenhagen in March. That’s a little more than just marketing.

    And sorry to keep referencing my own blog, but I can usually find my links easily. :-)

  27. Anonymous…

    We follow the science here. OK, Recess is over.

  28. Rockfish says:

    At least now we can be sure that every member of the Senate who will be in office in 2060 will support climate legislation!
    The rest, sadly, probably not.

  29. Sable says:

    @ Anonymous (#25)

    Oh the irony. If we “follow the money” we find the fossil fuels industry at the heart of AGW denialism efforts. Your first “FACT” isn’t one. Your second “FACT” is a simplistic misinterpretation – and long since debunked.

  30. David B. Benson says:

    I suggest starting on
    Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming
    and otherwise making and burying a lot of biochar.

  31. Phillip Huggan says:

    As a Prairie Canadian I’m part of the Axis of Evil just like Republicans. Plz run this model forward further still to see if there are any known or postulated negative feedbacks that halt terraforming Earth into Venus this Millenia. I read somewhere the point of no return is around 60-70C surface temp for some reason (obviously oceans boil at 100C); can’t remember why but it could be determined by the altitude of increased cloud formation.

  32. Wonhyo says:

    “And I couldn’t agree more that, from a basic planning and rational human perspective, the place to start is the question: ‘What actions and policies are needed to virtually guarantee we prevent runaway climate change? We should be starting from that position…'” (Marie quoting Wonhyo)

    Actually, I’m starting to think this is the inhumanly rational perspective. Humans, by their nature, don’t seem to be rational at the society/civilization level.

  33. mike roddy says:

    David Benson:

    Thanks for the Australia and Sahara afforestation proposal, but there’s a shorter term and more cost effective way to go: halt deforestation and begin to restore forests that already have good growing conditions. A good place to start is here in the Western US. Northern China and Eastern Canada also present good opportunities.

    If we left our forests alone here in the US for a year, the aggregate gain would be in the 1 billion Mt CO2 range (Heath and Birdsey, 1990).

  34. Hmpf says:

    This is maddening. How do we get *everybody*, and politicians in particular, to understand that *we can’t negotiate or compromise with the laws of nature*?! It seems such a simple message, everybody should be able to understand it!

  35. Mike#22 says:

    Plunber, strangely enough, even President GHW Bush got it in 1989: “President Bush announced today that the United States has agreed with other industrialized nations that stabilization of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions should be achieved as soon as possible.”–White House Statement on the Ministerial Conference on Atmospheric Pollution and Climate Change
    November 7, 1989

    What is your excuse?

  36. Phillip Huggan says:

    I was saying it is nice to have realistic worst-case scenarios. From the perspective of developing and unleashing any “climate WMDs” to counter fast AGW, this is still insufficient.
    Geosynchronous Shades or carbon sequestration weeds might be why Earths die. The last ice age may have ended in less than a decade and if we trigger some analogous +/- 1C/yr unknown forcing trying to undo AGW, we are really screwed. ex) if temps reach what Hadley worst-case says and stabilize, is catastrophic but much less so than if the higher temps uncan even more unknown or hot forcings. I know science and modelling immature, not my fault.

    “Humans, by their nature, don’t seem to be rational at the society/civilization level.”

    Has more to do with a nation founded in a war about not paying taxes. Hawks don’t like commie solutions. PNAC seems to be a movement about stomping everyone not Evangelical, especially poor American Christians. And rich people seem to be taught by their mommies and daddies everything they do smells like roses even if it exterminates us. Is a coddled existence for now while social order. Wonhyo, maybe I just believe you’re wrong as an article of Faith, because if you’re right Earth is already dead. If there is some afterlife bequeathing being I’m sure he didn’t create Earth as a skeet target, there are asteroids and deer.

  37. greenhouse gaseous says:

    First, thanks to Joe and also to the many intelligent and rational commenters who participate in CP discussions.

    Second, I apologize for being late to this particular party; my excuse is working very hard to bring up a new GW & CC website that will perhaps make it a bit easier and faster to develop quantitative ways to understand these facts and trends and “what ifs” — not for the scientists, but more for the ordinary folks who will soon have to elect politicians who have the vision, science knowledge, and guts to vote on extremely painful action steps.

    My question to Joe and the rest of you is on this specific report of a more dire warming trend, based apparently on a new MET generation of modeling that incorporates hopefully most of the feedbacks not included in the (roughly) 2005-2007 genration of climate change models.

    My question is this: do we know if this new set of forecasting runs is based on the current more-or-less “officially accepted” estimates of population levels, circa 2060-2070?

    My work in developing hopefully more straightforward ways to understand AGW is focused especially on corellating population levels, probable per-capita consumption, and the resulting energy demand, and, hence, the resulting likely “business as usual” CO2 increase. It appears to me now that the current widely accepted assumption of roughly 10 billion people circa 2050 may well be a seruous *under* estimate. We may well be facing a population level by 2060-2070 on the order of 14 to 16 billion.

    This means a doubling of 2010 energy demand, *before* accounting for the rise in living standards per capita. IF, again starting with the “business as usual” assumption, ie, where new demand for energy is mostly met by increased burning of fossil fuels, at this level of population we can forecast even more severe warming and associated consequences and feedbacks.

    So, simply put, to restate: do we know if the revised and improved Hadley model(s) are still using the assumption of roughly 11 billion people as of 2060?

    Thanks in advance for your responses.

  38. Ashford says:

    Did you hear about what happened with the Eurotrain services? They had problems because of the snow too, although the services were only reduced, not cancelled. I got back from holiday yesterday and we had taken the Eurotrain, so we missed the trouble.