Welcome to the New Emergency

They call it the ‘Greenhouse Gamble’. I’d call it the Wheel of Death. Either way, it’s a gizmo that looks like a cheesy prop from the National Lottery show, but in fact it has been developed by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to offer an easy way to visualise the risks and probabilites of climate change (see below):

Wheel of Death?

Wheel of Death?

To make it clear, they developed two wheels, the one on the left is the Business-as-usual model, the other looks at the effects of varying levels of significant reductions in emissions in the coming years. Bottom line: global warming may well be twice as severe as previous estimates indicate. That’s the finding of a new study released in May in the Journal of Climate, published by the American Meteorological Society.

The research, conducted by the MIT, predicts a 90% probability that worldwide surface temperatures will rise more than 9 degrees (F) by 2100, compared to a previous 2003 MIT study that forecast a rise of just over 4 degrees. The projections in the MIT study were arrived at using 400 applications of a computer model, which MIT describes as the most comprehensive and sophisticated climate model to date. It looks at the effects of economic activity as well as the effects of atmospheric, oceanic and biological systems.

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed, “there is significantly more risk than we previously estimated,” say the MIT research team. “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks.”

Commenting on the MIT study, IPCC lead author Kevin Trenberth said: “The results appear to be credible and quantify a certain unease many scientists have on the real magnitude of the climate problem ahead of us, one that is not adequately appreciated by most politicians. The difficulty of dealing with inertia in human systems and infrastructure, and the lack of current incentives and a global approach to the problem means that reducing emissions will be a major challenge for humanity,” he added.

Mr Trenberth’s understatement is masterly. Allow me to translate (I prefer to work in Centigrade): assuming we continue doing what we’re doing right now, the study predicts a 1-2% chance of global temperatures rising by 3 degrees C or less by 2100. Since we know for fact that anything over 2 degrees C is going to propel us into a new and entirely dangerous climatic era, this study says there is at least a 98% chance of climate hell on Earth within 90 years.

In fact, global average surface temperature rises of in the region of 3-4 degrees C look positively balmy in this MIT report, which reckons temperatures will more likely rise by anywhere between 5-7 degrees C.

Even if we do somehow collectively come to our senses and try to halt this climate juggernault, the MIT study says that we may or may not manage to hold temperature increases at or just below the 2 degree C danger mark, but rises of 3-4 degrees C are well within the scope of probability. So, if the people of the world quickly and collectively agree firm, wide-ranging actions, we have a chance, admittedly with many risks, but a chance nonetheless.

If we blunder on regardless, we are, for want of a better way of putting this, toast. All of us. We and pretty much every other critter on the surface of the earth, given the severity of the temperature increases, and the near-certainty of them provoking a catastrophic cascade of tipping points that will render this planet uninhabitable to all but the hardiest of extremophiles for millennia to come.

Feasta are hosting a conference in Dublin next week called The New Emergency. It will be opened next Wednesday (10th) by Energy Minister, Eamon Ryan and features an interesting line-up over three days of experts in the fields of sustainability, resilience, transition, energy and much more besides. I hope to make it along for at least some of the sessions, but first, off to Cloughjordan in Co. Tipperary tomorrow for a weekend course in Permaculture.

If I survive a couple of days of camping and learning in the (relative) wild, hope to report back some time next week… Meanwhile, have a look again at those two wheels above. Whether we collectively choose the wheel to the left or the right will determine if we are indeed in the dying days of life on Earth.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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