Current Trajectory from COP15: Chicago Turns into Texas
December 9, 2009
So far, our paltry COP15 emissions targets would lock in a much warmer world, and a much-changed United States.It's finally here. "The most important meeting in history." The Copenhagen Climate Conference. COP15. The time when world leaders will come together to secure for future generations a safe and stable climate similar to that in which all life has evolved and modern societies have developed. Or will they?The past couple of weeks have brought a flurry of activity as nations posture and present their starting positions for the negotiations. Some of the last cards to land on the table were long-awaited mitigation commitments from China, India, and the United States. So now, for really the first time, there's a pretty clear view of what everyone is offering going into the talks. And from the proposals currently on the table, with the help of a couple remarkable tools and reports, we can get a good sense of what kind of world they would create.First stop is the Climate Interactive Scoreboard, which collects all current mitigation proposals, runs the numbers through a finely-tuned simulation (built by MIT researchers and the Sustainability Institute), and spits out the projected global temperature rise by 2100. As things now stand, we're looking at about a 3.8 degree Celsius (or 6.8 degree Fahrenheit) increase over historic averages, as you can see in the widget below. (This embedded graphic will automatically update as countries shift-and hopefully strengthen-their proposals, so hopefully it'll read even lower than 3.8 degrees by the time you're seeing this.) For some reference, as of 2005, temperatures had already increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and "business as usual" with no national mitigation efforts would warm the world by 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.Want a second opinion? Another similar tool, the Climate Action Tracker built by the folks at Climate Analytics, puts the projected rise under current proposals at 3.5 degrees Celsius.It's important then to remember that back in July, leaders of the world's 17 largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, including the United States, agreed at the G8 meetings to work together to keep warming under 2 degrees. The contradiction between the rhetorical "shared vision" goals of the planet's worst climate polluters and their proposed efforts is obvious. And this is before we consider that there's plenty of evidence that this 2 degree benchmark is already too high, as I wrote awhile back. In fact, here at the climate talks, many of the most vulnerable developing countries have adopted the slogan: "1.5 to stay alive."But forget impacts in some far off place-let's drill down on the U.S. proposal and what it actually means for life here. The importance of the American mitigation numbers really can't be overstated, both because we're far and away the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gasses, and because literally every other nation's commitments hinge on them. If the United States commit to greater cuts, so will the European Union, Australia, Canada, China, India, you name it. America's rather weak target of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (a mere 3 to 4 percent below 1990 levels, the benchmark year used by every other country) sets the stage for 3.5 to 3.8 degree rise.What does such a seemingly insignificant rise mean for life in America? Things are going to get a lot hotter. A look at a recently-released major consensus report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States-one that was, it's well worth mentioning, commissioned by the Bush administration and conducted entirely by scientists they selected-shows just how dramatically such a temperature rise would affect the country.
In the Northeast, we'd be looking at about 24 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every year by the end of the century. The climate in New Hampshire would resemble that of North Carolina today.Chicagoans still talk about the great heat wave of 1995, which killed about 600 people. Under the current U.S. proposals, President Obama's home town would be facing 60 such heat waves every decade. Water levels in Lake Michigan would drop two feet. Illinois would feel like south Texas. How about Los Angeles? L.A. would get a lot hotter and drier, with average temps rising about 8 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and spring rains in Southern California-already slight, but crucial to water supplies-would drop about 30 to 40 percent.And I'm just skimming the surface of the impacts of a 3.5 degree Celsius rise on our country. When you hear leaders defending America's positions here in Copenhagen-or the current Congress proposals in Washington, for that matter-take a moment to look over the predicted impacts and think about whether that's a country you want to leave to your children.