Good and Bad News on Global Warming

by Scott London

Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — joint winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — are back in the spotlight.

Al Gore was quoted in The Guardian yesterday, saying that he believes we’ve reached a “political tipping point” regarding global climate change and that “a very impressive consensus is now emerging around the world that the solutions to the economic crisis are also the solutions to the climate crisis.”

Al GoreIt was Gore’s first newspaper interview since the November elections in the U.S. Part of his optimism, he said, is tied to the willingness of the Obama administration to tackle the issue of climate change head-on — in stark contrast to the Bush administation. Evidently, Gore met with Obama in December to discuss some of the green components of the $787 billion stimulus package that was passed last month.

But he also attributed some of his optimism to what he described as a shift taking place in the business community. Many business leaders “are seeing the writing on every wall they look at,” he said. “They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years. They’re seeing the new U.S. administration. They’re seeing Gordon Brown and David Cameron both advocating dramatic changes here in the U.K.” In short, he said, more and more business leaders now recognize that addressing this global crisis will require “a change in business practices.”

He went on to say that he was hopeful an agreement can be reached in December when nearly 200 nations will meet in Copenhaged to try to seal a new international climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012.

Meanwhile, another conference has just wrapped up in Copenhagen where members of the IPCC issued some fresh statistics — most of them deeply worrisome — about the state of global warming. Reporting from the conference, The Guardian’s George Monbiot says it’s now clear that the world’s policymakers have fallen behind the scientists and that global warming is already catastrophic.

Presentations by climate scientists suggest that we’ve underestimated the effects of global warming in three important respects, he says:

1) Partly because the estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) took no account of meltwater from Greenland’s glaciers, the rise in sea levels this century could be twice or three times as great as it forecast, with grave implications for coastal cities, farmland and freshwater reserves.

2) Two degrees of warming in the Arctic (which is heating up much more quickly than the rest of the planet) could trigger a massive bacterial response in the soils there. As the permafrost melts, bacteria are able to start breaking down organic material that was previously locked up in ice, producing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane. This could catalyse one of the world’s most powerful positive feedback loops: warming causing more warming.

Rajendra Pachauri

3) Four degrees of warming could almost eliminate the Amazon rainforests, with appalling implications for biodiversity and regional weather patterns, and with the result that a massive new pulse of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Trees are basically sticks of wet carbon. As they rot or burn, the carbon oxidises. This is another way in which climate feedbacks appear to have been underestimated in the last IPCC report.

“The world has very little time,” IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri said at the conference after the new findings were presented.

George Monbiot says that it’s time to stop calling it “climate change.” Using a term like this to describe events that are having devastating impacts on global food security, water supplies and human settlements is like describing a foreign invasion as an “unexpected visit,” or bombs as “unwanted deliveries.” “Climate change,” he says, is a ridiculously neutral term for the biggest potential catastrophe that the human race has ever encountered. A better term, in his view, would be “climate breakdown.”

I think he has more than a point.

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(The photos of Al Gore and Rajedra Pachauri were taken in December 2007 when they arrived in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.)