National Commentary

The Great Energy Transition: Temperatures Continue to Climb

This is the first in a series of columns exploring the status of climate change and the paths that may, or may not, lead to a solution to our rapidly deteriorating climate. 

It is now over 30 years since we first began to pay serious attention to the role of carbon emissions in raising global temperature. In May 1992, the United Nations held a conference that led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty (UNFCCC). The goal of this treaty was to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The parties to the convention have met annually since 1995 in the “Conferences of the Parties (COP)” to assess progress and to negotiate agreements on reducing carbon emissions. 

In the early years, there was general agreement that taking action to deal with climate change was a good thing, which we should all be happy to support. However, it did not take long for controversy to arise. Carbon emissions come primarily, but not exclusively, from the combustion of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas. Without affordable and timely replacements for these sources of energy, civilization as we know it is going to have trouble existing, much less continuing universally desired economic growth. Moreover, the people running the fossil fuel industries, which gross trillions of dollars each year, soon realized that any practical way to significantly reduce emission was to regulate their industries heavily.  

We now know that the fossil fuel industry spent millions of dollars in the last 25 years to convince people and their politicians that carbon emissions were not causing global warming. Much of this pushback dwelt on the notion of disagreement among climate scientists as to whether there was global warming. The industry held that regulation and efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels would bring about economic disaster and the loss of millions of jobs. These efforts to stop the control of fossil fuels were remarkably successful in some countries such as the U.S., where polls showed for a while that over half the populace had doubts as to whether human activities were causing temperature rises. 

The acceptance of the need to do something about global warming varied widely across the world depending on factors such as the country’s consumption of fossil fuels, history of fossil fuel use, domestic availability of fossil fuels and alternatives, susceptible to the effects of climate change, and numerous others. In recent years, life-threatening air pollution, which also comes from burning fossil fuels, is another facet of the situation. The impetus behind resisting the regulation of fossil fuels is that every government in the world is committed to never-ending economic growth. While the full impact of global warming may still be decades away, the consequences of regulating fossil fuels will be immediate and perhaps harsh. 

Some 70 countries export oil. Two dozen are almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel exports and have few or no other sources of income. As we see in the case of Venezuela, some would quickly become poverty-stricken without fossil fuel export income. The major unknown in the global warming problem is the speed at which devastating effects from increasing temperatures will come. So far, intense storms, forest fires, floods, and droughts have been widely scattered and of short duration, but even these events are slowing the realization that something radical and expensive must be done.

There is so much evidence that much of climate change comes from fossil fuels that the political debate between believers and non-believers is becoming ridiculous. The non-believers know this but feel obligated to stick with the notion that regulating carbon emissions will cause unacceptable economic hardships. The real issue is how soon it will be necessary to take costly steps to slow increasing temperatures. 

So, where is the world in its efforts to reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions? The short answer is nowhere near far enough. Currently, the more affluent part of West Europe is the only region of the world that is making sincere and expensive efforts. There are occasional drops in carbon emissions such as in the U.S. where cheaper natural gas is leading electric power companies to close inefficient coal-burning stations, but this is likely to be a temporary occurrence. All indications are that cheap coal will last for many years ahead. Unless something changes, all the projections say we will be pumping out more greenhouse gases 30 years from now in the search for economic growth.

Recently there has come to light some disconcerting information about temperature projections for the end of the century. For decades climate scientists have been running models to simulate how warm the earth is going to be when the atmosphere contains double the amount of carbon it had at the beginning of the industrial age. Until recently these models have been agreeing that the average world temperature is going to climb by 3 degrees Celsius. At present rates of emission, this doubling is supposed to happen before the end of this century. Even a 3-degree increase is generally held to be a disaster with flooded cities, failing crops, and deadly heat. These models, however, are not static; new temperature highs, ice melt rates, sea level rise, and atmospheric data etc. are being fed into them continuously.

Last year, however, after years of stability, some of these models started “running hot.” Instead of projecting a 3-degree Celsius temperature rise, they began producing projections close to, or over, a 5-degree increase, which would be a calamity. The scientists involved modeling our climate can’t agree on why — or if the results should be trusted. “The question is whether they’ve overshot,” said Mark Zelinka, a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

It will take months at best to settle the question as to whether the temperature might rise beyond 3 degrees Celsius. in this century and on how to interpret the hotter results. One reason for worry is that these same models have successfully projected global warming based atmospheric carbon for a half-century. If carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are bringing on dangerous levels of global warming faster than previously thought, we all may be in a lot of trouble.

To be continued.