The Fast-Approaching ‘Point of No Return’ for Climate Change

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Venice Weather
(AP Photo/Luigi Costantini)

For the first time, the world’s top climate change scientists have endorsed an upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions, establishing a target level for curbing emissions that if not achieved could lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climatic changes.

In a report released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate panel, scientists also said that the target is likely to be exceeded in a matter of decades unless steps are taken soon to reduce emissions. To contain these changes will require “substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions,” the scientists said.

The panel hopes that its latest report will help move international policymakers toward agreement on a new climate treaty, as negotiations have stalled in recent years. The report also concluded that many of the observed changes in climate since 1950 were “unprecedented over decades to millennia” and that over half of the temperature increases were man-made.

“Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and that concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased,” said Qin Dahe, co-chair of the IPCC working group that produced the report.

In reaction to the news, Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, said: “The IPCC warns of an alarming escalation of impacts but also shows that preventing climate chaos is still possible.”

“The IPCC warns of an alarming escalation of impacts but also shows that preventing climate chaos is still possible.” — Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International
Speaking at a press conference in Washington, DC, Naidoo added that the panel’s warnings call for immediate action. He also pointed to the on-going situation regarding Greenpeace activists who are being held in Russia after they protested oil drilling in the Arctic.

“Unfortunately those who are taking this action are now in prison in Russia, while those that are most responsible are protected by governments around the world,” Naidoo said. One of the main obstacles to addressing climate change is a lack of political will, in particular on agreements that would create legally binding and internationally enforceable targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Window of opportunity

Naidoo talked about the urgency of these issues in this weekend’s interview with Bill Moyers. As the Arctic melts and sea levels rise, Naidoo said bold steps are needed on the part of policymakers in the international community to create an “energy revolution” to ensure carbon emissions drop dramatically.

“There is a small window of opportunity in terms of time. I would say no more than five to ten years,” Naidoo told Bill. “And, based on current practices of governments, if we continue like that over the next coming years, then sadly, I think it will be too late,” Naidoo said.

The IPCC concluded in its report that to keep emissions below the internationally agreed upon target of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) no more than one trillion metric tons of carbon can be burned and the resulting gas released into the atmosphere.

More than half that amount has been emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. According to calculations by one of the report’s authors, the trillionth ton of carbon will be sent into the atmosphere around 2040.

A separate study released earlier this year found that, to give humanity a 75 percent chance of not exceeding the 2 degree Celsius mark, global emissions will have to peak by 2015 and decline by five percent annually thereafter.

Point of no return?

The Greenpeace International study, “Point of No Return,” pinpoints a number of enormous planned energy projects that would “cause massive climate threats,” which would likely cause humanity to exceed the 2 degrees Celsius point.

“Burning the coal, oil and gas from the 14 massive projects would significantly push emissions over what climate scientists have identified as the “carbon budget,” the amount of additional CO2 that must not be exceeded in order to keep climate change from spiraling out of control,” Greenpeace said in a statement.

Reducing and eventually phasing out emissions through a variety of measures is the cornerstone of Greenpeace’s policy recommendations. The organization is also calling for investment in renewable energy sources and establishing legally binding targets for their use.

Greenpeace said moving forward with these planned projects could lead to dire consequences in the coming years. “The costs will be substantial: billions spent to deal with the destruction of extreme weather events, untold human suffering, and the deaths of tens of millions from the impacts by as soon as 2030,” Greenpeace said.

Last week, at the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on President Obama’s climate action plan, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz suggested a time frame similar to that given by Naidoo to act on climate change. “In my view, this decade is the critical one [because] the CO2 problem is cumulative. And every ton we emit, you can check it off against our children and grandchildren,” Moniz said.

Obama’s plan

In June, President Obama revealed a plan for tackling climate change in hopes of meeting the pledge he made in 2009 to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

The core of his strategy calls for reducing carbon emissions at power plants while also allocating new federal funds to advance renewable energy technology. Obama said he would use his executive powers to require carbon reductions at the nation’s power plants.

Many agree that continuing with business as usual in terms of climate change would be disastrous, with widespread changes in weather patterns and sea level rises that will submerge many coastal communities.

The poor around the world will be hit the hardest, and we will see a growing number of conflicts in already-unstable regions exacerbated by the shifting climate. In fact, Americans — and others around the world — are already noticing the devastating effects.

What can you do? Head over to our Take Action page to find out –>

Karin Kamp is a multimedia journalist and producer. Before joining she helped launch The Story Exchange, a site dedicated to women's entrepreneurship. She previously produced for NOW on PBS and WNYC public radio and worked as a reporter for Swiss Radio International.
John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Anonymous

    Personally & professionally I believe that we have passed the tipping point and our climate system is beginning a painful wobble toward a different equilibrium state that will be unattractive in the extreme. Tundra & permafrost are thawing which will.release
    massive amounts of methane.

    Nut cases looking to harvest methane bound up in ice at the deepest parts of the ocean will destabilize large deposits and add more gas to the atmosphere. Coastal cities maybe under water or behind huge dike systems much
    sooner than we think.

    Glad I live well above the high water mark.

  • mtflis

    The “Take Action” page link appears to be broken.

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, I agree. I think we passed the tipping point years ago. And with the lack of political, social and economic will to do anything, we are now roaring past the mile markers towards that cliff.

  • Michael H

    Naidoo said…. “One of the main obstacles to addressing climate change is a lack of political will.”

    It’s not a lack of political will, it’s that the political will has been purchased. I guess, tangentially, that means the ‘will’ is gone, thus a lack. But let’s be real here. This is about Big Business, actively and even viciously seeking to derail the science and evolving accuracy of climate change and effect prediction, as well as purposefully blocking actions around source tracking. And Big Business is doing this for only one reason, which comes RIGHT back to the 1% (or the 5%), not just in this country, but those holding disproportionate wealth globally.

    What is so unbelievable in this particular scenario is that those with excessive wealth and power also live on this planet; also require air and water. They are, arguably, human after all. I won’t bother to express concern about their food, since their money can buy whatever food, and how much, they choose, at the most premium prices necessary, even as others starve each day. But they can’t buy air, or at least, not atmosphere; and they can’t buy off superstorms, unpredictable floods, droughts, etc. At some point, and at some level, they too must live with those consequences. Yet, the urge to acquire ever-greater, monumental wealth, at the expense of the very planet, only shows how deep and, frankly, how psychotic that urge and addiction actually is.

    What about the children? Successive generations. To those of you who put wealth, whether unwittingly, or VERY wittingly, above everything else, can you not think, at least, of the children? What must they endure for your golden toilets?

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised you quoted the IPCC, the intergovernmental (political) organization. Out of 73 climate models they use, NOT A SINGLE ONE has been correct to date. We are now entering our 17th year of no global warming, and the latest research shows the IPCC overstating the effects of CO2 by more than 200%.

    In terms of an upper limit on CO2, this is meaningless. The effect of CO2 on temperature is logarithmic. This means that every time another molecule CO2 is put into the air, it has less effect than the preceding molecule. Amazingly, the first 20 parts per million of CO2 has a greater effect than the entire 400 parts that follow. (We’re at about 400 ppm now.) This is why the Earth won’t see runaway warming. CO2 only ‘soaks up’ its favorite wavelengths of light and it’s close to the saturation point. So, there’s an ever-diminishinge effect. We could double to 800 ppm now and we have no instrumentation that can measure such a small effect it would have.

    Sea level rise is slowing, not increasing, with the rate from 2005 to 2012 below
    the range from 1954 to 2003. (Sea level rise occurs naturally as we came out of the Little Ice Age in the 1850s.) “Nature” magazine reports that drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less frequent and covers a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.” The U.S. is currently experiencing the longest absence of severe
    landfall hurricanes in more than a century. The U.S. count of strong to violent
    tornados (F3+) has decreased from 1954 to 2012. There is no increase in
    floods in the U.S in frequency or intensity since 1950. We’ve just finished the
    coldest summer on record at the North Pole and a record high August Antarctic
    ice extent. U.S. climate is become less extreme, with 14,793 record maximums
    and minimums set in 1936, by example, versus only 2,903 so far this year.

  • Vorcaos Terra

    Those ecoterrorism zealots is just the new world order shortcut for implementation of communism and one world government. Open your eyes sheeple!

  • Vorcaos Terra
  • Anonymous

    We need a Constitutional Amendment mandating the ownership of Folding Bicycles.

    Also, people have to eat their vegetables, subsidize lower carbon electricity, wear a sweater indoors during cooler seasons, etc.

    China and India are pursuing this technology…

  • Kyle Britz

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    Materials will be supported with application for process, each term supports & grants constructive collaborations. Personal Marketing opportunities encouraged with personal models & will allow for patent rendering, moreso supporting public education and opportunity for reform, employing interested parties :: civil grants gov stipends for living support__ civil works project :GiA: apply your talents, ally your skills and techniques for remedy-measures..
    artiszen therapy
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  • Kyle Britz

    “mycoremediations by guerilla gardening, including spacious plantings of edible fruit trees, berries, roots, mushrooms and molluscs (clams, oysters, muscles) help tythe the feverish conditions attempting to synthesize the remission” … “the seashores need more viable shoreline hatchery space, implementing healthy organic means ” .. ” what nematodes neuros the scene?” .. “if we implimented a no-drive-petro industry days, could we subsidize time management to repair, -ifso how long, how many subsequent days” … ” Fish & WildLife, WildLife & Recreation, demand the need for edible wildlife corridors ” ..”public officials need more Lab Technical Artists to Camera-Record-Express conditions, micro’scopic relationships, denounce the dialogue, statistics sound synergy..”

  • Philip Galindo

    Evolving accuracy…….lmao

  • Anonymous

    I hope to live two decades more from my current age of 54, Gaia willing, and I will take bets on whether or not humanity, hurtling toward 10B population and showing NO signs of being able to reduce it’s voracious consumption since in a debt-money based economy contraction of demand for precious resources is equal to recession. The only way to pay the interest on the money we borrow into existence is to grow. Growth requires resource consumption, but when people have wealth they consume, voraciously, greedily, without any compunction, at least in the USA, the most avaricious society on Earth. So, I’m taking bets, and I’m hoarding heirloom seeds, water, and fuel,…in other words, consuming and conserving against the catastrophic failure of the crony capitalist cancer that has created the monster, that in my mind, is beyond the stage of critical mass. The reaction, cannot be stopped because there is no reason to stop. The freedom of fatalism is, if I’m so small as to be insignificant in my contribution to the heaving mass of consumption, and the powerful don’t show any signs of giving a damn about any of it, then why should I. If the Adam Smith economic model is for me to aspire to richness, but I realize the game is rigged against me on that front, then all that remains for me to aspire to copying, is selfishness. Which is really the Randian ideal anyway, when reduced to it’s simplest terms, right?

  • Peter Mizla

    avoiding 2 degrees above the PI level is really off the table now- we can only hope not to shoot past 3 degrees- with 4 degrees now a 50/50 possibility— we are headed for a very uncertain rest of the century-

  • Michael H

    “lmao”…. that’s constructive. How about a counter argument to, if not climate change, then to the effect of corporate influence on government policy and long-term socio-economic effects? You have hundreds of examples to pick from.

  • JS

    Your comment is filled with holes and misstatements. You tried to sound smart, but you definitely fell short. If you’re going to quote the “latest research”, then you should quote the academic literature. As far as I can tell in your comment, you’re quoting ‘research’ from climate change denier blogs.

  • John Hatchins

    Amazing that our so-called Christians here in the USA (and elsewhere), who are more than ready and willing to embrace Creationism, are the same folk who resent the responsibility of having to be stewards of that which GOD created.

  • Ambrose

    One goal I hear is cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020. What has changed so drastically since 1990 that this is now a desirable goal? Seems like most have been living the same lifestyle regarding consumption. Such a complex issue but I wonder how much since 1990 can be attributed to the actions of the 1% and their greed fest.

  • Anonymous

    Go to YouTube, look up the BBC documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” and watch scientist after scientist from NASA to MIT explain why man-made global warming is pure fiction and goes completely against science. In the documentary, even the founder of Greenpeace is disgusted by all the deliberate misinformation propagated by corrupted scientists (on the payroll) and climate change extremists.

  • Anonymous

    The IPCC report is interesting for many reasons, one of which is the fact that their planetary warming and sea-level rise forecast is well below the prediction made by International Energy Organization just last June if we were to continue burning fossil fuels worldwide as our primary energy source.

    The IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook and their June, 2013 climate study entitled “Redrawing the Climate Energy Map”, a 134-page document with governmental and scientific contributors from the IEA’s 28 member countries, called for a temperature rise (average, global) of between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees Celsius, and a sea-level rise of between 4 and 6 Meters, by 2100 if we can’t quickly arrest fossil fuel use by 2050.

    While the World Energy Outlook is fairly expensive, their follow-up climate change piece is free:

    Another very interesting recent futures document put out by the National Intelligence Council, an arm of the US Government is the “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” study, which is a study issued every 5 years focused on upcoming trends for the next 20 years. This study is one of many recent studies that predict an unsustainable rate of population growth and severe water-supply shortages across most of Mexico and the Southwestern US, a problem that will eventually render an ever-larger surrounding area unsustainable if climate warming and declining annual runoff continues for just another 3-4 decades, and also trigger an immense humanitarian and economic crisis too.

    This is a 2011 study entitled “The Last Drop: Climate Change and the Southwest Water Crisis” by Ackerman and Stanton of the Stockholm Environment Institute-US in Somerville, MA, which also predicts an immense water supply shortage with a potential for human and economic disaster too:

    Ackerman and Stanton also have a 2013 piece entitled “Climate Change and Agriculture” which doesn’t have much good to say either.

    While the Ackerman & Stanton 2008 piece “The Costs of Climate Change” is a bit old already, it is a good inclusion if we want to begin to discuss this subject from a position of knowledge rather than a position of emotion.

    Another very recent piece concerns the potential for a warming Arctic to cause methyl hydrates trapped in sea-floor sediment to begin to melt, releasing a huge amount of methane into our atmosphere, which could eventually cause a rapid runaway in temperature rise as well as $60 Trillion worth of economic damage annually, or about world GDP today. The original study that was published in Nature Magazine this past summer made the prediction, while this Guardian piece from August explores the theory in greater detail. The problem is that shallow depth methyl hydrates are already melting and releasing huge amounts of methane.

    Did we all know that this past summer all previous temperature records were shattered in Fairbanks, AK, which enjoyed 37 days this past summer of 80 degrees or above, including several days in the 90s too, which is weather remarkably similar to what the Minneapolis/St. Paul region used to enjoy 20 years ago. The previous record from just 2012 was only 30 days. Do we all know that if just Greenland’s ice sheet melted that sea-levels would rise by over 10 meters, or almost 35 vertical feet? I wonder what that would do to Florida, Houston, New Orleans, New York City, Bangladesh, and a few thousand other heavily-populated coastal cities too?

    I hate to have to say this, but the recent IPCC report is basically an outlier on the low side of recent climate change science. I realize that an awful lot of work went into it by highly-qualified people, but why are its results so far outside of the median of recent climate change scientific analysis?

    Here is another Dutch climate change piece that I discovered recently that I feel is also an outlier, this time on a bit on the high side of recent average scientific prediction. So does the truth lie somewhere in the middle (most likely) or somewhere a couple of standard deviations from the mean, (quite unlikely)???

    This piece describes in great detail what may happen on a degree by degree basis as our planet warms, and the piece only covers a global temperature rise of between 5 and 6 degrees Celsius, or between 9 and 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit, after which, life on Earth will basically be virtually impossible. It is a Dutch piece translated to English so sometimes the wording seems incorrect:

    All of the money in the world won’t save anyone if we reach 4 degrees Celsius in average planetary warming, so we can’t continue to lie to ourselves over the continuing practice of burning fossil fuels to power continuing economic growth. On our present pace of developing a 100% renewable energy standard worldwide we will only have 100 to 150 years left before 2/3rds of the people then alive will have to die so that the rest can attempt to live ever more marginal lives.

    Is that the kind of future that you want your grandkids to be forced to go through, or are you one of those fossil fuel industry wealth addicts that could care less about the long term consequences of your continuing addiction?

  • Anonymous

    The one problem is that a 1990 standard would still be ruinous to our common environment. We should really cut back to an 1800 standard because the carbon emissions already in the atmosphere will take many decades to actually clean-out substantially enough to make much progress toward environmental recovery from climate change.

  • Anonymous

    Four degrees Celsius would basically be the end of 80% of humanity, and due to several factors such as trees giving off carbon rather than oxygen, as well as melting methyl hydrates, the chance of then avoiding a fairly rapid rise to five degrees Celsius would be extremely small. At a rise of five degrees Celsius global sea levels could rise by as much as 100 meters or more, which would be as high as the 15th floor on the Rockefeller Building. Beyond that point it would only take another 15-20 years to reach a six-degree Celsius rise and the only people left alive would be below ground.

    I posted this rather interesting Dutch piece on the effect of each degree in rise in global temperatures above. It is translated so some of the wording may seem odd.

  • moderator

    Sorry you are having problems Anna. Not sure, that link works when clicked on for me. Try it again and let us know.

    Sean @ Moyers

  • moderator

    Hi nikobanbiko,

    Sorry you are having problems. The link appears to be working now. Please click directly on the link and let me know what happens.

    Sean @ Moyers

  • Anonymous

    The author in Holland, as well as those in the the IPCC and IEA climate change predictions, are referring to degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit. The Dutch author wrote that piece in 2006. so my guess would be his prediction is based on one degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit from a 2006 base, not a 1900 base.

    By the way, the summer of 2012 saw a ruinous drought hit Nebraska, and the current prediction is that the Ogallala Aquifer will be depleted in southwestern Nebraska as soon as 30-40 years, which is about the same time frame predicted to see an additional degree Celsius in global temperature rise starting from a 2006 base.

    Sure we had recent flooding in Colorado caused by a tropical storm off of the Pacific and an unusual weather pattern that brought that moisture northward off of the Gulf of California, but that runoff does us surprisingly little good as the growing season is already winding down.

    We might be able to store that flood water until we see how much winter runoff to expect, but if we get a lot of snow this winter along with rapid snow-melt in the spring, and there is still ice on the Platte downstream, we could see immense damaging flooding and ice jams downstream on the Platte when we have to let all of that stored floodwater go to accommodate the rapid snow-melt.

    The Dutch reference is the oldest of these and I generally don’t like using references of this age, however I did preface my inclusion with a statement to the effect that I considered the Dutch piece an outlier on the high side of average prediction too, just as I also consider the new IPCC prediction on temperature and sea-level rise to also be an outlier on the conservative side of average prediction too.

    The Dutch piece is rather handy however to show just what science expects might happen once we hit a global temperature rise of above 4 degrees Celsuis or even at just 3 degrees Celsius. If you would like a full scientific discussion of the absolute need to keep global temperature rise below 3 degrees Celsius there is also the full 2009 Rockstrom, et. al,, Planetary Boundaries piece out of the Stockholm Resilience Center, which with its supplement runs about 80 pages, and was written by 27 senior PHD types too.

    The full 55-page Planetary Boundaries study and its 25-page supplement are available for free here under the “related info” menu on the right side of the page:

  • Jim Osborne

    I will bet, in less than 100 years, the increase in the average, world temperature will literally create hell on earth in the form of severe climate. At that time all housing will have to be reinforced to withstand high wind. Also, mankind will have to rely more on the sea for food supplies… the same sea which extreme pollution is attacking today.

  • jim cowan

    Fat chance of any change in policy here in Canada as long as the current government remains in power. We have a pedant of a Prime Minister ,a man devoid of imagination elected by a minority of the Canadian public. He doesn’t do science and ignores anyone who does.

  • Jack Wolf

    I know no one wants to read this, but climate change was found to be irreversible back in 2009. (see PNAS) And because the lag between emission and impact is about 30-40 years, there will be a rapid increase in impacts as the emissions from 1970-1980 start to catch up. Even when emissions are reduced to zero we will see changes and accelerating heat for 30, 40 years. Humans have cardinal limits to temperature, let alone trying to find food and water. If people start framing it as the human extinction event that it is, maybe that will create the change that Obama failed to deliver on. And, one last thing – his plan is a joke. Scientists are calling for an immediate reduction of 80% (with their fingers crossed wishing good luck). Obama want a frigging 17%, Whoa, like that’s going to do anything.

  • Anonymous

    Dr. James Lovelock would agree. It’s to late! I’ll be extinct before the rest of humanity though! I feel bad for the children!

  • Rene’ Abril

    But Michelle, Sarah, Beck, and Limbaugh all say everything is so…… cool!