Sunday, January 29, 2006

The "Tipping Point" of Climate Change

The global warming debate in the scientific community is shifting from whether it's real to when we will reach the point of no return.

This "tipping point" scenario has begun to consume many prominent researchers in the United States and abroad, because the answer could determine how drastically countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. While scientists remain uncertain when such a point might occur, many say it is urgent that policymakers cut global carbon dioxide emissions in half over the next 50 years or risk the triggering of changes that would be irreversible.

There are three specific events that these scientists describe as especially worrisome and potentially imminent, although the time frames are a matter of dispute: widespread coral bleaching that could damage the world's fisheries within three decades; dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century that would take tens of thousands of years to reverse; and, within 200 years, a shutdown of the ocean current that moderates temperatures in northern Europe.

The debate has been intensifying because Earth is warming much faster than some researchers had predicted. James E. Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, last week confirmed that 2005 was the warmest year on record, surpassing 1998. Earth's average temperature has risen nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past 30 years, he noted, and another increase of about 4 degrees over the next century would "imply changes that constitute practically a different planet."

"It's not something you can adapt to," Hansen said in an interview. "We can't let it go on another 10 years like this. We've got to do something."

Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also advises the advocacy group Environmental Defense, said one of the greatest dangers lies in the disintegration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, which together hold about 20 percent of the fresh water on the planet. If either of the two sheets disintegrates, sea level could rise nearly 20 feet in the course of a couple of centuries, swamping the southern third of Florida and Manhattan up to the middle of Greenwich Village.

Most climate change experts feel that it makes sense to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions even if we don't yet have absolute certainty on the pace of global warming and how well (if at all) humans could adapt to it.

David Warrilow, who heads science policy on climate change for Britain's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that while the science remains unsettled, his government has decided to take a precautionary approach. He compared consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to the strategy of the Titanic's crew, who were unable to avoid an iceberg because they were speeding across the Atlantic in hopes of breaking a record.

"We know there are icebergs out there, but at the moment we're accelerating toward the tipping point," Warrilow said in an interview. "This is silly. We should be doing the opposite, slowing down whilst we build up our knowledge base."

But the Bush administration doesn't see any need to get all preemptive about the threat of climate change.

...President Bush's chief science adviser, John H. Marburger III, emphasize[s] there is still much uncertainty about when abrupt global warming might occur.

"There's no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change," said Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions. "We know things like this are possible, but we don't have enough information to quantify the level of risk."
Marburger said that though everyone agrees carbon dioxide emissions should decline, the United States prefers to promote cleaner technology rather than impose mandatory greenhouse gas limits. "The U.S. is the world leader in doing something on climate change because of its actions on changing technology," he said.

Okay, and how does that work? Sure, individual innovators and product developers come up with ideas for environmentally friendly corporate designs, but they are under no requirement to do so.

What is the United States, as a government, doing to develop "clean technology"? What is the Bush administration doing, beyond launching empty initiatives like the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, "an international non-treaty agreement between Australia, India, Japan, the People's Republic of China, South Korea, and the United States ... [in which] partner countries agreed to co-operate on development and transfer of technology which enables reduction of greenhouse gas emissions... [by agreeing on] a Charter, Communique and Work Plan that 'outline a ground-breaking new model of private-public taskforces to address climate change, energy security and air pollution' "? [Emphases mine.]

You know what that is? A big bunch of nothing, that's what. Where are the goals, and the strategies for achieving them? Where is the timetable? Where are the targets; where are the incentives? Where are the deadlines? Where are the penalties for not meeting deadlines? If Pres. Bush is so gung-ho on the power of private industry and the "free" market to come up with solutions to any and all human problems, then he should also recognize that free markets work on incentives and disincentives, not voluntarism. They respond to demands, not "agreements to cooperate," as a January 10 Reuters article pointed out.
Many experts doubt that companies will invest enough in new clean-energy technology, unless they get a carrot-and-stick approach to help stave off what could be disastrous climate changes ranging from desertification to rising sea levels.

"The new partnership has no real drivers," said David Doniger, of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "A problem of this size is not going to be solved by a small amount of money and cheerleading."

Doniger, who was a U.S. climate negotiator under President Bill Clinton, urged the creation of environmental markets, like in the European Union, to give clean-energy producers an advantage over burners of dirty fossil fuels.

"Technologies do not just appear from nowhere; they have to be developed, mostly in response to new markets," echoed Jonathan Kohler, an economist at England's Cambridge University. "The Americans are right that technology will be the solution...but this plan is not enough."

No comments: