Either by action, or by inaction, it’s most likely that the climate decision will be made this year.
The decision, simply put, is whether to step aside from business-as-usual, and fully mobilize, or to generally continue business as usual, and condem humanity to a thousand years of torture.
The decisiveness of this particular historical moment is highlighted by an important new paper in Nature (with the classically obscure name, Probabilistic Cost Estimates for Climate Change Mitigation) which finds first, that when we start serious change is the most important factor in limiting the damage from climate change, and second, that we have to start serious change now, with policy shifts comparable to an international carbon price of $60 a tonne by 2015, to, essentially, save the day.
The study further finds that if we wait until 2020 to make our pivot to serious change, the effort would have to be equivalent to an international carbon price of $150 per tonne.
If we wait until 2025, then there’s no realistic level of effort modeled by the researchers that would have a reasonable likelihood of preventing devastating (and multiplying) impacts.
Climate Change: All in the Timing, an accompanying interpretive article to the paper at Nature, describes the approach used in the study:
“The authors quantify the importance of five ‘uncertainties’ that are thought to influence the chance of limiting global temperatures to different levels, using a suite of models to generate around 500 scenario variations. They find that the timing of international action to limit emissions has by far the largest impact. Furthermore, the models show that the impact of timing is highly nonlinear, and that delaying emissions limits by only five years, from 2020 to 2025, would dramatically cut the likelihood of limiting warming to 2°C.
“The five major uncertainties assessed by Rogelj and colleagues were the following: the responsiveness of the physical climate system to cumulative emissions; the deployment of energy- and land-based emission-reduction technologies; the global demand for energy (which includes combined uncertainties about population, income growth and energy efficiency); the global carbon price that the international community is willing to impose; and the timing of substantive action to limit emissions (phased in from 2010)…
“These scenario comparisons revealed timing of global action to be the uncertainty with the greatest effect. For example, the authors find that bringing forward global action on emissions from 2020 to 2015 would improve the chance of limiting temperatures to 2°C from 56% to 60%, all else being equal. To put this another way, achieving the same 60% chance of success with action starting in 2020 would require a 2020 carbon price of around US$150 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) — more than double the $60 per tonne CO2e required if action begins in 2015. However, delaying emissions limits from 2020 to 2025 would bring the chance of success down to 34%, and the authors found no scenario in which a feasible increase in carbon price or improvements in energy technology could make up for these five years of delay.”
These findings are entirely consistent with the overall thrust of the latest strong climate research.
National Climate Assessment Draft
Another new piece of the puzzle is the Draft U.S. National Climate Assessment Report (NCA), just released, which opened for 90 days of public comment on Monday, January 14, 2013.
Initial media coverage has focused on the climate science chapters of the draft report, which are excellent, as well as foreboding:
Report Says Warming is Changing US Daily Life — Guardian, 2013.0111
“‘Human-induced climate change means much more than just hotter weather,’ the report says, listing rising-seas, downpours, melting glaciers and permafrost, and worsening storms. ‘These changes and other climatic changes have affected and will continue to affect human health, water supply, agriculture, transportation, energy, and many other aspects of society.’
“The report uses the word “threat” or variations of it 198 times and versions of the word “disrupt” another 120 times.
“If someone were to list every aspect of life changed or likely to be altered from global warming, it would easily be more than 100, said two of the report’s authors.”
At Climate Progress, the leading U.S. climate policy blog, Joe Romm cuts to the chase with a posting titled Draft Climate Assessment Warns Of Devastating 9°-15°F Warming Over Most Of U.S..
“The Assessment, put together by dozens of the country’s top climate experts, makes clear that if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are headed towards a devastating 9°F to 15°F warming over most of the United States (this century), with ever-worsening extreme weather, heat waves, deluges and droughts. As the report notes ‘generally, wet [areas] get wetter and dry get drier.’ Future generations will be wishing for the boring ‘moist’ and ‘cool’ days of 2012 (when they aren’t cursing our names).”
In addition to its review of climate science up to a mid-2012 cut-off date, the 1,146 page draft NCADAC report has chapters on climate mitigation, and on 12 specific sectors, from Urban Systems, Infrastructure, and Vulnerability, Energy Supply and Use, and Forestry to Land Use and Land Cover Change and Transportation, as well as chapters describing impacts specific to 10 regions of the U.S.
The report is a big deal. It is destined, with revisions, to become the “Third National Climate Assessment (NCA) Report,” to be published perhaps in 2014. The two previous national climate assessments were published in 2000 and 2009.
This, therefore, is the round of climate assessment and documentation, from the current draft NCA onward, that will be a primary official reference for the immediate critical period — during this period, in which which we will determine the general feasibility of civilization for our children and grandchildren.
Missing the Big Boat
The draft NCADAC report clearly recognizes the basic fact that mitigation (the net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (adjusting infrastructure and systems to avoid damage from climate change) are directly connected:
“This ‘systems approach’ tries to connect, for example, how adaptation and mitigation strategies are themselves dynamic and interrelated systems that intersect with the sectors described here, like the way adaptation plans for future coastal infrastructure are correlated to the kinds of mitigation strategies that are put into place today.”
— Draft NCA p105, Introduction to the Sectors
However, based on an initial review, the mitigation and sector-specific chapters of the draft report — where the rubber hit the road — are badly substandard — lost inside the box of business-as-usual — compared to the excellent and more mature climate science section.
The President’s science advisor, John Holdren, writes that the report “does not make recommendations regarding actions that might be taken in response to climate change.”
Yet, given that mitigation, adaptation, and impacts are “themselves dynamic and interrelated systems,” what kind of relevance can the sector analysis provide without addressing mitigation?
What kind of relevance can the mitigation chapter have, relative to the needs of the nation inj 2013, if it doesn’t define specific strategies to meet specific scenarios? If the concept of climate wedges, for instance, is not even discussed in the abstract?
At this stage of draft, hundreds of contributing authors and the 60-person NCADAC advisory committee, considered as a team (whatever their individual perspectives) appear to be still keeping their heads buried in the sand with regard to what has to be done.
If we’re in 2013, pretending to add up potential damages due to climate change as if industrial business-as-usual can actually continue indefinitely — as if, for example, an issue to be concerned about is a shortened Arctic oil drilling season due to melting permafrost — well, I guess we really have our work cut out.
If the draft report acknowledged the technical reality that there is now in effect a fixed budget of CO2e that can be put into Earth’s atmosphere — a fixed total carbon budget with a size somewhere in the range of half to one-fifth of the stated reserves of the top 100 fossil fuel companies — then perhaps with a little “systems thinking” it could determine that obstacles to oil and gas drilling that has to be stopped anyway are not in themselves a big cause of concern.
Granted, to say that we’re actually going to leave 50%-80% of already-known reserves in the ground is probably one of those dreaded “policy issues,” at times considered off-limits to the rank and file of federal science and bureaucracy.
However, in 2013, to simply say that we have to leave 50%-80% of already-known reserves in the ground, in order to have a reasonable chance of stabilizing the global climate at a survivable level, is not policy. In 2013, this is simply science.
If the U.S. “Third National Climate Assessment (NCA) Report” doesn’t define what we need to do technically, in order to meet reasonable potential policy goals, then what federal project will?
At the same time as the draft NCADAC report shows stunningly how bad things will get if we don’t act, it seems to embody the very institutional blinders that tend to prevent us from acting.
If not us, then who?
Global greenhouse gas emissions need to be permanently shrinking by 2015 or 2016, and then drop by about 5% per year, every year, for the next four years or more.
The global shift we need, away from fossil-fueled growth-as-usual, will not happen without the leadership of decisive action within the U.S.
It takes real time to turn the ship of state, to first make concrete policy projections, to turn policy projections into policy proposals, to enact strong policies, and finally to implement them. If the U.S. somehow manages to decide in this critical year to mobilize effectively for change, then significant physical results can still show up, as permanently and substantially shrinking greenhouse gas emissions, just in time.
Activating local, state, and national elites in government, business, and media is absolutely critical to achieving this decisive change. With huge institutional inertia to overcome quickly, it will probably take everyone, who can help to make the case for change, each giving their own best push, to break things loose.
This means us — in our work as design professionals, and in our engagement as citizens. And this means now.
Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.