Decisions about climate change must be made

By By Edwin Firmage

By Edwin Firmage

This week was notable for two news stories about climate change. The first, published in Thursday’s The Salt Lake Tribune, reported on the melting of continental Antarctic ice.

Until recently, Antarctica appeared to be the one place on Earth that wasn’t warming. No more. Summarizing their study of satellite images, British researchers now report that Antarctica is melting, and rapidly. As a result, these scientists predict sea levels will rise by the year 2100 from 3 to 5 feet more than predicted just two years ago in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report.

What most people who have heard about rising sea levels don’t realize is that everything we’ve seen so far, and everything predicted by the IPCC, is the result of nothing more than the thermal expansion of water, which, above 4 degrees Celsius, expands when heated. No melting of the ice sheets has been or was projected to be involved. The IPCC had dared to hope that the melting of the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland might be far enough down the road to be avoidable. That hope has been dashed, and the implications for humanity and the biosphere are staggering.

Just a few days before this story appeared, The Tribune also reported that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wants to keep oil shale development in Utah on the table. There is a complete disjunction between climate reality and U.S. energy policy, even under President Barack Obama.

Here is the bottom line, or what we thought was the bottom line, for mitigating climate change: It comes in the form of two dates with destiny. According to the IPCC, global CO2 emissions must peak by 2015 or we will lock ourselves into a trajectory of almost certainly catastrophic climate change that will haunt us for centuries. The second date is 2050, by which global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent compared with levels in 2000. These numbers correspond to CO2 concentrations of between 445 and 535 ppm, and temperature increases of 3.6 to 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit8212;severe but, we hope, manageable numbers.

Even to reduce emissions by 50 percent would be a daunting challenge, given that neither of the world’s largest polluters, China and the United States, has done anything to slow emissions growth, much less turn it around.

But the truth for the United States is scarier still. The IPCC’s 2050 targets represent a range of probable outcomes. With 50 percent reductions, the world stands a 15 percent chance of holding temperature increases to that 3.6 to 4.3 degree range. At 85 percent reductions, the probability increases to 85 percent. Given the stakes involved, clearly 85 percent should be the world goal. But, in order for the world to reach even a 50 percent emissions reduction, the United States must cut its emissions by 88 percent, and for the world to reach 85 percent, the United States must reduce emissions by 96 percent.

In other words, in just 40 years, the United States must reinvent its entire energy economy to put zero carbon into the atmosphere. Every coal-fired power plant, natural gas plant, natural gas heater and internal combustion engine must be replaced with something radically new.

But, as we have seen in the case of the Antarctic, the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios seem unlikely to keep pace with climate reality. Everything the IPCC said about rising sea levels assumes that the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica would stay put. Nor is this the only case in which the IPCC has proved to be too conservative in its estimates.

Arctic ice is also melting far faster than assumed by the IPCC. This will not contribute to rising sea levels but it will accelerate global and especially Arctic warming. The IPCC likewise does not factor into any of its models the melting of the Arctic permafrost, which stores 1,670 billion tons of carbon8212;much of it in the form of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. Nor do IPCC models take into account the fact that the biosphere’s ability to absorb CO2 is itself climate-dependent, and that climate-coupled models suggest that the biosphere, which today absorbs half of anthropogenic carbon, could itself become a source of atmospheric carbon by 2050.

In a host of ways too numerous to discuss here, the IPCC’s climate change scenarios and mitigation strategies should be considered conservative minimums that leave no margin for error. Those interested in more detail can consult my petition to university administrators at

So, in truth, America doesn’t have until 2050 to completely eliminate carbon emissions. Al Gore has spoken with greater truth than the IPCC when he said that we can and should set the goal of accomplishing this in 10 years. The likelihood that we almost certainly will not do this, and the fact that decision makers such as Salazar don’t even dream of this, is a measure of the degree to which we seem likely to crash and burn.

I therefore put it to the U administration that if we fail in addressing climate change, no other decision we make will matter. Every decision we make today will be undone by the decisions we fail to make today about climate change.

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Editor’s Note8212;Edwin Firmage Jr. is an environmental writer and photographer, a board member for HEAL Utah and co-founder of Be the Difference.