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The Climate Cliff

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By Bob Cesca:

Credit where credit is due, Matt Yglesias coined the phrase "climate cliff" via Twitter the other day in reference to the now inevitable 2°C global temperature increase. I liked it so much I thought I'd borrow it for a while.

Why a cliff? On the other side of this 2°C threshold, designated by the EU in 1996 and reinforced this month at the climate conference in Doha, Qatar, are unspeakably disastrous consequences. The 2°C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) breaking point indicates the total temperature increase from pre-industrial records. Since then, however, greenhouse gasses have already generated a 0.8°C hike. In other words, we're nearly halfway there.

Worse yet, the CO2 we're emitting right now will create another 0.7°C of additional inevitable warming. So we're really just 0.5°C away from falling over the cliff. As recently as two years ago, scientists placed the cliff at the year 2100, but since then, it's become clear that we'll hit the cliff much sooner, by around 2052.

It gets worse. We might actually hit 4°C by 2100 -- more than double the projections from just two years ago. And global C02 emissions continue to grow. Industrialized nations set a new record in 2011 with a 3.1 percent increase in CO2 emissions, and another 2.8 percent increase for 2012. Yay us!

In reality, therefore, we're looking at not one but two climate cliffs. The 2°C cliff and the increasingly likely 4°C cliff, with the accompanying climatological impact growing rapidly more calamitous as each milestone nears. In that regard, the word "cliff" doesn't quite suffice, implying that the descent over the cliff will precipitate all of the chaos when, in fact, the chaos will worsen as we near the cliff, with ongoing deterioration after that. But if we can somehow prevent one of the cliffs from happening, we will have ameliorated the worsening -- and we'll have to be satisfied with a "not as awful as it could've been but still awful" achievement.

In order to understand what will happen at or in the vicinity of the cliffs, it's important to evaluate the crisis as it stands right now. Record droughts, wildfires, storm events, floods and brain-melting heatwaves appear to be the new normal -- with otherwise ordinary weather scenarios exacerbated by rising CO2 emissions and the parallel acceleration of global warming. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ocean levels are rising 60 faster than earlier estimates. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the 12 month interval from July 2011 through July 2012 was the hottest on record in the United States, and July 2012 was the hottest month ever, beating out the hottest month of the Dust Bowl era. Also during July, the Greenland ice sheet thawed by 97 percent -- up from around 40 percent.

And what's likely to happen at around the time we hit the first climate cliff of 2°C?

At 2°C, the average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will be around 450 parts per million (ppm). At that point, a significant portion of the Earth's surface ice will have melted. Imagine for a moment the current weather "weirding" -- accompanied by droughts and floods and massive destruction -- and then imagine what'll happen when the global temperature increase is twice as high as it is today.

At 4°C, and 560 ppm of atmospheric CO2, the world will look remarkably different. In a report commissioned by the World Bank, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact determined that this particular cliff would bring:

...increasing risks for food production, potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, and wet regions wetter; unprecedented heatwaves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems. [...] And, most important, a world that is 4C warmer is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future needs.


By this point, flooding similar to or worse than Hurricane Sandy will hit Manhattan every several years as sea levels grow by more than three feet. Huge sections of farmland in poor nations like Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and certain African nations would be under water. The World Bank noted that the last Ice Age was around 4°C cooler, begging the question: what the hell will happen when temperatures move 4°C warmer?

The first cliff, 2°C, appears to be inevitable unless we take drastic action right away. China and India, in particular, absolutely must catch up with the rest of the world. Even the United States has made better efforts to curb CO2 emissions recently, but it doesn't appear to be enough. The 4°C cliff appears to be way off in the distant future, just beyond our foreseeable lifetimes according to current estimates, but what will the world look like at 3.5°C or 3.2°C? Horrible in comparison with the effects of today's climate crisis.

To be perfectly honest about my lack of optimism on the climate crisis, I don't really see how we can avoid this, especially given that we're literally in it right now. Though I constantly grapple with how to write about it without making the crisis seem totally futile and, essentially, a foregone conclusion that can't be stopped. There is, in fact, hope. I'm just having a tough time seeing it right now.

The biggest mistake we can make right now, however, it to give up, either by accepting the crisis or by procrastinating -- by viewing it as a distant potential event, like the possibility of getting cancer from second hand smoke... some day. The cancer is here and now. And the leaders who should've taken serious action a decade ago have obviously failed, while the current roster of leaders, including President Obama, are unable to take the radical steps required to prevent the cliff (steps, by the way, that could create an Industrial-Revolution-level economic boom). Instead of tackling the root cause of the problem, I fear that we'll focus on mitigating the symptoms: moving away from the coasts, adding sea walls, developing GMOs that are more resistant to drought conditions and so forth. Of course these steps will probably be taken anyway, but the bulk of our efforts have to be laser focused on keeping CO2 levels at or below today's 397 ppm.

But given how the American press continues to offer air time and column-inches to nonsensical climate crisis deniers/trolls; given how the conservative entertainment complex continues to spread egregious misinformation and ignorance; and given how unimportant the issue is to voters (it didn't even break 1 percent support in 2012 exit polling of the most important issues to voters), it's difficult to see a path to a real solution.

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