Sunday, December 11, 2011

Durban: Disaster # 17

Durban:  Disaster # 17

George M. Woodwell and Richard A. Houghton[1]

          There are many ways to destroy nations and spread human misery in this world, already crowded and struggling with seven billion human occupants. One of the most effective is by simply moving the climate out from under all of them, in all latitudes and corners of a wide, wide world. Recognizing that possibility in the latter decades of the 20th century scientists managed to persuade governments to meet under auspices of the UN in Rio in 1992 and to sign, and ultimately universally to ratify, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).  All the governments agreed to collaborate in “stabilizing” the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases at levels that would protect human interests and nature. As treaties go in the international realm, it was a highly successful initiative.

          Seventeen Conferences of the Parties to the FCCC have utterly failed in meeting the clear goal set forth in the treaty despite mighty efforts and various schemes designed to protect specific national interests. The most recent discussions in Durban have focused on accommodating with financial aid crises of nations that see themselves especially vulnerable to, for instance, the flooding and storms now clearly a problem.  Negotiators and others have assumed, first, that the world can tolerate a two-degree C rise in the average temperature and, second, that stability can be achieved at that level.  Neither assumption has any basis in science or in fact. The assumption is a dream advanced, not from science or any sure knowledge, but from wishful thinking from political and economic interests. Stabilizing at two degrees is almost certainly impossible. The world has already warmed by nearly one degree. Feedbacks are already conspicuously engaged and contributing to the acceleration of warming that may quickly proceed beyond human control.

          The potential for political, economic, and environmental chaos and misery is almost unimaginable.  The time scale is not a century. It is now, as we experience spreading continental droughts that devastate agriculture, violent storms that destroy dwellings including cities, and floods such as those in Pakistan over the past two years and those of the eastern US of 2011and elsewhere. And heat alone kills, as it has done annually with greater and greater frequency over the last decade.

          What is clear is that there is no plan and no action possible at the moment as long as economic and political issues float to the top of all agendas. Venality rules much of the corporate world.  Politicians are cowed…or purchased.

          The FCCC was a direct product of scientific research and insights followed by public initiatives. It is time for a new set of insights and initiatives quite beyond what has become the agenda of governments. “Adaptation”, now popular, is absurd as a conclusion and totally unacceptable as a solution. There is no possibility of “muddling through”. There is only disintegration and chaos, the seeds of which we see germinating now. The objective set forth in 1992 was sound and is achievable now, substantially immediately.

          The net annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is currently about 4 billion tons of carbon, the residual of a total release from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation globally of about 10 billion tons. Reducing emissions globally by 4 billion tons would, for the moment, achieve the stabilization needed as the first step. It is necessary and important and possible. Deforestation, a change in land use from forest to non-forest,  produces about 1 billion of the 4 we seek.  Preserving all primary forests remaining globally would be a great blessing in any context and should be done if only to preserve water supplies.

          Restoring natural forests to  2-4 million square kilometers would store an additional billion tons of carbon annually on land.

          The remainder, 2-3 billion tons of carbon must come from a reduction in the global use of fossil fuels, now 8-8.5 billion tons of carbon annually.  It is not a trivial change, but it is not at all impossible immediately simply on the basis of conservation and improved efficiency. A 25-30% reduction in use of oil and coal and gas is possible almost immediately, given the will and the means.  The industrial nations are already shifting electrical loads from fossil fuels to renewable sources rapidly, largely on the basis of costs.

           This immediate effort must be followed by further reductions in emissions but immediate success will bring insights and energy and time for the future steps.

          It is time for the scientific community again to rise to the challenge and enable governments and other public agencies to rise above the present morass of subsidiary problems and demands and purposes by showing how to bring the core purpose of the 1992 treaty into effect and the consequences and extraordinary costs of failure to do so. 

          John M. Broder, writing in the December 11 New York Times (p11), quotes  the  redoubtable Mary D. Nichols of the California Air Resources Board as asserting, correctly, that effective action must come now from the bottom up.



December 11, 2011




[1] Woodwell is Director Emeritus and Houghton is Senior Scientist, The Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, MA.