No Hope for Averting Catastrophic Climate Change
Of all the findings in the 2012 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the one that merits the greatest international attention is the one that received the least. Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in "a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C."
This should stop everyone in their tracks. Most scientists believe that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius is about all the planet can accommodate without unimaginably catastrophic consequences: sea-level increases that will wipe out many coastal cities, persistent droughts that will destroy farmland on which hundreds of millions of people depend for their survival, the collapse of vital ecosystems, and far more. An increase of 3.6 degrees C essentially suggests the end of human civilization as we know it.
To put this in context, human activity has already warmed the planet by about 0.8 degrees C—enough to produce severe droughts around the world, trigger or intensify intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, and drastically reduce the Arctic ice cap. "Given those impacts," writes noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, "many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target." Among those cited by McKibben is Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes. "Any number much above one degree involves a gamble," Emanuel writes, "and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it this way: "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much."
At this point, it's hard even to imagine what a planet that's 3.6 degrees C hotter would be like, though some climate-change scholars and prophets—like former Vice President Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth—have tried. In all likelihood, the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets would melt entirely, raising sea levels by several dozen feet and completely inundating coastal cities like New York and Shanghai. Large parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the American Southwest would be rendered uninhabitable thanks to lack of water and desertification, while wildfires of a sort that we can't imagine today would consume the parched forests of the temperate latitudes.
In a report that leads with the "good news" of impending US oil supremacy, to calmly suggest that the world is headed for that 3.6 degree C mark is like placing a thermonuclear bomb in a gaudily-wrapped Christmas present. In fact, the "good news" is really the bad news: the energy industry's ability to boost production of oil, coal, and natural gas in North America is feeding a global surge in demand for these commodities, ensuring ever higher levels of carbon emissions. As long as these trends persist—and the IEA report provides no evidence that they will be reversed in the coming years—we are all in a race to see who gets to the Apocalypse first.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left (Metropolitan Books). A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
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