Forget About That 2-Degree Future

The opportunity to limit the rise in average global temperatures this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels — corresponding to a CO2 atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm — has pretty much slipped away, says climate scientist Robert Watson.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, Dec. 5, 2012 — Renowned British climate scientist Sir Robert Watson pulled few punches today during a talk about the warmer world humans will face in coming decades.

Watson, who was IPCC chair from 1997 to 2002, all but dismissed the possibility of keeping the rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a temperature rise that corresponds to an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 450 parts per million. It now stands at about 390 ppm.

“Fundamentally, we are not on a path toward a 2 degree world,” Watson told a packed hall at Moscone Center for a talk entitled: “A World Where the Atmospheric Concentration of Carbon Dioxide Exceeds 450 ppm.”

If the international community wanted a world in which the rise in average global temperatures this century peaked at 2 degrees C above pre-Industrial levels, CO2 emissions in the developed world should have peaked in 2010, Watson said. Globally, they would need to peak by 2014.

Instead, CO2 emissions in 2010 were up 5.9 percent relative to 2009 — and that was in the midst of an economic downturn for most industrialized countries. Total carbon emissions as well as carbon intensity (often described as the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of a nation’s GDP) have gone up.

“It’s totally clear we’re changing to composition of the atmosphere …” [but] “politicians have not listened to the scientific message,” Watson said.

Average global temperatures could rise 2 to 7 degrees C by the end of the century, driving a litany of environmental changes, Watson said. Already, the climate of the 2020s and 2030s already is locked in, or as Watson put it, “pre-ordained.” “Therefore, we must adapt,” he said.

In a quick moving lecture, Watson outlined several challenges the world will confront. Among them:

  • Rainfall: Changes in precipitation are difficult to predict. Generally, a warmer atmosphere becomes loaded with more water vapor, but where it rains out is tough to estimate. Climate models generally show higher latitude regions and parts of the equator getting wetter, and the sub-tropics getting drier.
  • Sea-level rise: The latest IPCC assessment, AR4, was criticized for underestimating how much sea levels could go up by 2100, and the forthcoming assessment should include more up-to-date information that more completely incorporates contributions from melting glaciers and ice sheets, particularly in Greenland. But Watson emphasized that rising sea levels will vary considerably from region to region. Tidal effects and variations in the globe’s gravity profile matter; Australia, for example, is expected to see much higher sea levels than the coast of South America. Globally, a one-meter rise on average is expected — “very significant for low-lying areas,” Watson warned. Once sea levels are rising significantly there’s a huge amount of inertia in the system “and it’s hard to slow it down,” he added. The notion of inertia in the climate system is a concept that governments “have not come to grips with,” Watson said.
  • Melting ice: Watson offered some harrowing statistics, saying that 90 percent of the Greenland ice sheet was subjected to some amount of melting by early July — the highest percentage ever seen. The extent of Arctic sea ice, meanwhile, was not only the lowest ever seen this year, the thickness of the ice is also diminishing.
  • Tropical storms: Some studies show that by 2100, there could be a doubling of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic.
  • Heat waves: Heat waves akin to ones that have scorched much of Europe in recent years are expected to become more common. Poor, undeveloped nations will be particularly vulnerable.
  • Continued warming will devastate biodiversity around the globe, and climate change could become the primary driver for the loss of biodiversity.
  • Ocean acidification: at an atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 450 ppm, coral reefs stop growing, Watson said. At 550 ppm, they begin dissolving.
  • Food: Get ready for higher food prices as warming temperatures stress rice, wheat, maize, soybean and other grain crops.
  • Security: Tens of millions of people could be displaced by the effects of a warming world, where low-lying delta regions could become inundated, small island states drown, and shortages of food intensify.

The challenge of lowering greenhouse gas emissions won’t merely require a shift away from carbon intensive fuels and industry, Watson continued. Methane emissions from ruminants and rice production must be lowered, deforestation addressed and agricultural practices reformed.

Coal remains the dominant single source of energy worldwide, but natural gas — while extracted by controversial “fracking” techniques — could reduce the global dependence on coal. Still, Watson said, “it’s not a solution; it may (only) buy us a bit of time.”

Developed nations also have to come to grips with their carbon footprint — and an accounting that includes “embedded carbon” generated by their consumption of goods produced in carbon-intensive nations such as China.

While listing the familiar steps needed to decarbonize the world economy — a shift away from carbon intensive fuels, higher fuel efficiency, the development of renewables and nuclear power, placing a price on carbon through emissions trading or taxation, and mobilizing behavioral change — Watson appeared skeptical about the prospects, at least in the near term.

“The only way to get to a 2 degree world is to de-carbonize immediately, and I see no political signs we’re doing this …. We need moral leadership and political will, and they are in short supply.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail:, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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One Response to Forget About That 2-Degree Future

  1. Arno Arrak says:

    Sir Robert Watson – a real decarbonizer, what with being a former head of IPCC. He has quite a wish list for changing the world, most of which cannot be justified by reality. Lets study his most fundamental error first: it is his irrational and irrevocable belief that the globe is warming and that decarbonization efforts will hold it back. Nothing could be further from the truth as science tells us. The future warming he expects is all based on predictions by climate models that use the greenhouse theory to tell us how much warming to expect. These people realized early on that carbon dioxide has a sensitivity to raise global temperature only 1.1 degrees Celsius per century. That’s not enough to to frighten anybody so they introduced the idea that warming caused by carbon dioxide is amplified by positive water vapor feedback. Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas and if the atmosphere warms because of carbon dioxide it will hold more water vapor which will then add its own greenhouse warming to that of the original carbon dioxide warming. According to this theory the feedback can actually produce more warming than carbon dioxide originally did. How much more depends on how their climate models are written but two, three, five or more degrees is possible. They want decarbonization to keep it down to two degrees and wring their hands over uncontrollably increasing CO2 that will make that impossible. Hence the need for more radical curbs on fossil fuels and related sources of CO2 that they are talking about. These are all irrational demands because greenhouse warming that they are based on is not working. Nor has it worked anytime within the last century. Why do I say that? Because this is what observations of nature tell us. Right now, this minute, there is no global warming whatsoever. And there has not been any warming for the last sixteen years as the Met Office tells us. But you probably have not been told that this is not an exception but the rule for more than a century. Thus, there was no warming at all for eighteen years from 1979 to 1997. There were temperature oscillations, up and down for El Nino and La Nina phases of ENSO, but global mean temperature remained the same. And there was also no warming for the 26 years from 1950 to 1976. This has always puzzled climatologists who have invented ingenious devices to explain it away. One such excuse invokes aerosols from WW II war production blocking out the sun. All these non-warming periods add up to no global warming for more than half a century since 1900. And as to the believability of their warming predictions, IPCC in 2007 used the greenhouse effect to predict what warming we shall see in the century ahead. Twenty-first century warming, they said, shall proceed at the rate of 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. We are now in the second decade of his century and there is no sign whatsoever of their predicted warming. Did you know that the fate of scientific theories that make wrong predictions is to be consigned to the trash heap of history? The greenhouse theory has made a prediction that is directly contradicted by observed facts and thereby it has earned itself a place in that trash heap of history. Nor is this the only wrong prediction from it. Climate models predict that in the tropics, at ten kilometer height, there is a concentration of water vapor that should create a hot spot due to its large positive feedback effect on greenhouse warming. NOAA has launched thousands of radiosondes into the atmosphere since the forties but none of them have ever observed any such mythical hot spot. Is it possible that the enhanced greenhouse effect that depends upon thay positive feedback from water vapor simply does not exist? Hungarian scientist Ferenc Miskolczi thinks so. His theory predicts that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cooperate by means of feedbacks to keep the infrared transmittance of the atmosphere constant. For example, according to IPCC, if more carbon dioxide is added to air it starts to absorb more IR and less is transmitted by the atmosphere. Miskolczi theory denies that. According to him, this extra absorption by the added carbon dioxide is simply balanced out by a reduction in the amount of water vapor in air. This is negative feedback from water vapor, the exact opposite of what IPCC wants us to believe. In 2010 he found a way to put this to an experimental test. Using NOAA weather balloon database that goes back to 1948 he was able to show that the IR transmittance of the atmosphere remained constant for 61 years while carbon dioxide at the same time went up by 21.6 percent. This means that addition of all that carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has had no effect whatsoever on the absorption of IR by the atmosphere. This is a decisive victory for the Miskolczi theory. It proves that posive water vapor feedback used in the greenhouse theory of IPCC is a myth. It follows that all predictions of warming made by their greenhouse theory are wrong. Since many of them were used to justify passing emission control laws these laws have been passed under false premises. Now they must all be voided.