Twelve Years Till World’s End?

The Earth’s climate is changing.  It is getting warmer, the ice caps are melting, and the seas are slowly rising. The average Earth temperature has risen 1 degree centigrade since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  A further rise is inevitable, and the harmful effects are being experiencing world-wide. Experts are predicting that any increase beyond another .5 centigrade could be devastating.  With temperatures registering 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, extremely hot days, such as those experienced in the northern hemisphere in the summer of 2018, would become more severe and common, increasing heat-related deaths and causing more forest fires. But the greatest difference would be in the impact on nature. Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops and plants, are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat with a 2°C rise compared with 1.5°C. Corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures, but more than 10% have a chance of surviving at 1.5°C. Furthermore, those devastating effects would be experienced for centuries to come. Scientist further predict that we will go above that 1.5°C figure within twelve years unless some drastic actions are taken to reduce carbon emissions. From this prediction arose the alarming cries about Earth’s end in twelve years.

I do not wish to contradict the scientists.  There are a few outliers who challenge these predictions, and I believe that many of the forecasts are overly pessimistic.  Nevertheless, I tend to support the scientific majority that insists we are in trouble.  The only real question is what we do about it.

There have been several international conferences that addressed the issue. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in  Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997.  Its objective was to reduce the onset of global warming by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The US signed the Protocol on 12 November 1998, but it was never submitted to or ratified by the Senate.  When George W. Bush was elected US president in 2000, he said that he took climate change “very seriously” but opposed the Kyoto treaty because “it exempts 80% of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy.”

As a follow-up to Kyoto, in 2015 the Paris climate accords were negotiated and agreed to by most nations, including the United States.  The aim was to cooperatively pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, thus significantly reducing the risks and impacts of climate change. A 2°C rise would be the absolute limit. Targets were set for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and signatory nations were to pursue these reductions as soon as possible. There was no enforcement mechanism, so all was dependent on the honesty and good-intentions of those nations signing the agreement. Certain countries, including China and India, were given more time to reach their target levels.

Many experts expressed serious doubt that achieving the targeted reductions would do that much good. It soon proved that signatories were moving slowly to meet their commitments, and, even if the targets were met, serious scientific studies suggested that it was highly likely that temperatures would still rise to 3°C above pre-industrial levels, far above the 2°C limit set by the Paris accords. Some scientists are even more pessimistic and believe that we may have reached a threshold at which temperatures could rise to 4 or 5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels because of self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system.  They predict that even the entire cessation of greenhouse gas emissions will not prevent the Earth’s from warming to a potentially catastrophic temperature.

On August 4, 2017, the Trump Administration delivered an official notice to the United Nations that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as it is legally eligible to do so.  That effective date could be as early as November 4, in 2019. Those people in the United States and other nations who had pushed so hard for these climate accords were horrified.  Truth is, we continue to work on greenhouse gas reductions, and our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may have very little effect on the overall situation.

What can be done?

  • Nations of the world must cooperate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If the United States went at it alone, our competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis non-cooperating countries would cause us severe economic distress, and there would be little to no worldwide reduction in emissions. Adherence to any cooperative international agreement must be verifiable and enforceable.
  • Development of alternative sources of energy (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) is important, but we must not neglect nuclear power. France has the largest concentration of nuclear power plants in the world, and their carbon footprint is significantly smaller than other nations of similar size and equivalent industrial development. Nuclear power production should be vigorously pursued.
  • Reforestation must be emphasized, along with the protection of existing forests.
  • Fossil fuel burning vehicles must be phased out as quickly as possible.
  • Science must develop better systems to control harmful emissions from fossil fuel burning engines, factories and power plants. It is estimated that carbon control applied to a modern conventional power plant could reduce COemissions to the atmosphere by approximately 80–90% compared to a plant without such control mechanisms.
  • We should expand nascent efforts relating to direct air capture, which refers to the process of removing CO2directly from the atmosphere (as opposed to from point of origin).  A few engineering proposals have been made for direct air capture, but work in this area is still in its infancy... A pilot plant has operated in British Columbia, Canada, since 2015, and the cost of recovery have shown a gradual and significant decrease. Once costs further decrease and incentives for climate change mitigation rise, direct air capture may become a viable approach to a healthier climate..
  • We should also vigorously pursue other scientific approaches to solving the greenhouse gas problem.

As we have shown here, the situation is not entirely hopeless.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have a very high regard for the inventive capacity of the human mind.  Solutions can be found.

By 2031, twelve years from today, I shall have moved on to an environment where weather is of no concern.  I believe that most of you will still be around to savor the fact that Earth somehow survived.

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