We are running out of time
Evidence of the potentially devastating effects of global climate change
keeps accumulating



With the time to move fast approaching, governments will need to be
prodded into taking action
Jul. 1, 2006. 01:00 AM

The world is at its tipping point — on the brink of runaway global
warming that will have devastating consequences. But the worst can be
avoided, and the world can remain prosperous and habitable, provided
massive cuts in carbon dioxide (CO{-2}) and methane emissions are
started immediately.

We have only 10 years to get it right, and it's going to take a
tremendous and concentrated global effort.

These aren't just my opinions. James Hansen is the one using the phrase
tipping point. I'm simply putting his language in briefer, more dramatic
form. But he's no less emphatic.

Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, is one of the
world's top climate scientists, and was one of the first to sound the
alarm about global warming. Recently, he defied efforts by White House
appointees in NASA to force him to remove postings on his website
(http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh) that contradict positions taken by U.S.
President George W. Bush.

His message comes as a particularly sharp reminder that Canada has an
enormous amount of ground to make up, since it has been lagging so badly
on reducing CO{-2} emissions.

Hansen's concern centres on the melting of polar ice caps, which is
occurring far faster than predicted. To prevent an unmanageable rise in
sea levels, he says increases in global temperatures must be held to no
more than 1 degree Celsius. That differs from a lot of other scientists
who have been saying an increase of 2 degrees is safe.

But the scientific community as a whole has not yet fully digested
what's happening at the ice caps. And Hansen has been right so often in
the past, it makes sense to accept what he's saying now.

He points out that in the warmest periods during the past 400,000 years,
temperatures were about 1C warmer than they are now, and in a couple of
cases seas were five metres higher. In addition, rapid increases in sea
levels of 10 metres of more occurred many times in the past.

If his targets are met, maybe seas won't rise nearly as high, or as fast
as they have in the past, Hansen says. In any event, with a 1C increase,
they wouldn't rise significantly in the lifetime of people who are now
teenagers, since there's a lag time between temperature increases and
polar melting.

However, if today's rate of increase were to continue unabated,
temperatures would be 2.8C higher by the end of this century. The last
time the Earth was this warm was 3 million years ago, when seas rose 25
metres above previous levels.

If that were to happen now, Hansen says, "the United States would lose
most East Coast cities ... (and) practically the whole state of Florida
.. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would
have 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would
lose the land of 150 million people."

No wonder he urges caution. If a 1C increase could produce a five-metre
rise, a 2C increase would be far too close to a watery Armageddon.

It's not just the level of seas that should worry people, Hansen says.
It's the destruction of coastal communities by storms matching or
surpassing last summer's Hurricane Katrina — and he adds firmly that
global warming is unquestionably behind the increasing frequency and
intensity of storms.

Catastrophic storms will continue to increase, he says, but they'll be
manageable if the temperature increase is held to 1C. As temperatures
rise beyond that, the destruction will become progressively less manageable.

If any should doubt him, all they need do is look at the graphic of
catastrophic damage prepared by Munich Re, one of the main international
reinsurance groups. It shows a dramatic increase since 1988 in insured
and uninsured losses.

A similar pattern is emerging in Ontario. Environment Canada's Impact
and Adaptation Research unit in Toronto checked 79 years of destructive
windstorms in Dufferin County and found an exponential increase in the
number and intensity of winds since the mid-1980s. What's more, as
intensity has been increasing, damage has been skyrocketing.

Hansen says to prevent temperatures rising beyond 1C, global emissions
of CO{-2} must be capped within 10 years. Then, they need to be cut a
further 60 to 80 per cent by 2050.

He also says human-caused methane emissions — for instance, those
released in oil and gas operations — should be cut immediately by 30 per
cent. Since methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas,
limiting its emissions offers a fast start toward his targets. (Methane
impact is calculated in terms of equivalent CO{-2} emissions.)

To underline how necessary these reductions are, I should point out that
the current warming momentum will produce an increase of 0.55C even if
not a single additional molecule of CO{-2} is added to the atmosphere.

There's a bright side, however: Hansen says that if the world meets the
cuts he's urging, the momentum can probably be slowed.

His greatest fear is that global warming will rise so high that
permafrost will melt and release methane. This is what caused intense
global warming 58 million years ago that resulted in mass extinctions,
he says. Temperatures then were about 5.5C above today's level.

Many of Hansen's comments are grounded in data from the U.S. National
Ice Core Laboratory, where scientists examined ice cores drilled in East

As the graphic of that data shows, there is great regularity to the
swing between warm and cold periods over the past 420,000 years, with
warm periods lasting about 10,000 years, and cold roughly 100,000 years.
It confirms several things:

We have only 10 years to get it right, and it's going to take a
tremendous global effort
First, it confirms the Earth is undergoing a regular, cyclical period of
global warming.

Second, it shows that global concentrations of CO{-2} and methane are
far higher than they were in any of the previous warm periods during the
past 420,000 years. This points to how forcibly the natural warming
cycle is being accelerated.

Third, the graphic indicates that if natural cycles had been allowed to
prevail, the Earth would be approaching a relatively rapid descent into
another, 100,000-year-long cold period.

The time scale for the graph is so long it doesn't show that the
drop-off in CO{-2} and methane occurred about 1,000 years ahead of the
drop in temperature. So, in the past, what caused the concentration of
greenhouse gases to drop and the Earth to cool?

The answer, Hansen says, has been primarily the Earth's orbital
variations. The planet moves from a circular to an elliptical orbit
about every 92,000 years; the tilt of its axis changes by about two
degrees on a 40,000-year time scale; and its closeness to the sun varies
over about 23,000 years.

None of this affects the total amount of radiation received from the
sun. But it does change the angle, so that the northern hemisphere
receives less heat — and less heat means lower CO{-2} and methane
emissions, and a lower greenhouse effect.

Again, Hansen says, there's good news: Never again will there be another
ice age, "unless humans become extinct." Human-made greenhouse gases
will offset cooling from orbital variations.

"Humans now control global climate, for better or worse," he says.

But this still leaves the other great threat: runaway global warming. A
quick glance at the graphic estimating emissions to 2025 shows just how
big a task capping them by 2016 will be. North America and emerging
Asian powerhouses, especially China, are already responsible for the
bulk of the annual 2.1 per cent average increase.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, this year there will be
about 27 billion tonnes (gigatonnes or Gt) of CO{-2} emissions, and by
2016, if current trends continue, there will be about 34 Gt of
emissions, an increase of 29 per cent.

Hansen wants to keep the atmospheric concentration of CO{-2} to between
400 parts per million (ppm) and 475 ppm. Any more and the world will
edge into the dangerous area of a 2C increase. The current concentration
of CO{-2} in the atmosphere is about 381 ppm, and it's increasing at a
rate of 2 ppm a year, which would get it to 550 ppm by 2090. If that
happened, it would send temperatures shooting well over a 2C increase.

Meeting Hansen's target is a matter of timing. The lower the level at
which emissions are capped by 2016, the lower will be the CO{-2}
atmospheric concentration, and the lower the need to cut emissions in 80
per cent range.

Make no mistake, however — a global capping by 2016 will be an enormous
undertaking. But the consequences of failure are so severe, it should
surpass everything else on international agendas.

Still, once again Hansen has some good news, and it coincides with
similar information in a report by Canada's National Round Table on the
Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) and ICF Consulting International of
Toronto: All the tools needed to achieve the cuts in Canada and the
United States are available; nothing new needs to be invented.

The report lists the tools in great detail (see: Advice on a Long-term
Strategy, at http://www.nrtee-trnee.ca/eng/index_e.htm.). They range
from upgrading homes, to improving fuel efficiency for motor vehicles,
to capturing carbon dioxide and storing it. One thing that Hansen urges,
but the report does not, is a carbon tax. Quebec already is introducing one.

Both Hansen and the NRTEE report stress that using the tools will
strengthen the economy, not impede it.

However, cutting CO{-2} emissions in China and India is another matter —
in fact, it's the most important issue — and Canada is ill-equipped to
help because the Conservative government in Ottawa is not enforcing the
Kyoto Protocol, and there's no effective cap on emissions. As a result,
there's no incentive to invest in projects in China and India that
reduce emissions because an investment won't count toward meeting
emissions caps in Canada.

Now, one final word about the environment. Because of current warming,
climatic zones have been moving northward at a rate of about 56
kilometres every 10 years. However, habitat ranges for everything from
trees to salamanders and lake trout are moving at a rate of only about
6.5 kilometres a decade.

So, there are going to be extinctions in areas where zones have shifted
and species have not. The only questions are how high will temperatures
be, how fast will zones move, and how extensive will be the extinctions.

Whether the world meets the challenge is going to be strictly a matter
of will. Hansen points out that in 1974, when it was discovered that
CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were destroying the ozone layer, nations
mobilized and CFC emissions were drastically reduced.

"How narrowly we escaped disaster was not realized until years later,"
Hansen says. If the growth rate of CFCs had continued "just one more
decade ... (they) would have caused a larger greenhouse effect than CO{-2}.

"Why is the same cast, which acted so heroically (with CFCs), failing so
miserably in the global warming crisis?"

That's a question I can answer: It's because there has been an appalling
lack of political will — and I think it's going take a determined
clamour from the grass roots before there's political backbone enough to
meet the challenge.

Cameron Smith can be reached at camsmith@kingston.net.