Doom or disaster?

August 30, 2008

Nearly every projection for the future of civilization made in the IPCC reports has been exceeded. Events that were projected to emerge by the end of the century have been moved back to 2070, then to 2040, and even now to ‘within the next few years’.

The goal posts are moving towards us at a terrible pace.
The most obvious is the visible state of the summer sea ice in the Arctic that was expected to still be there in the lifetime of my grandchildren, but is now well on the way to disappearing by 2012. What was to have deteriorated slowly over 80 years could now be gone in four.
It is the same with global temperatures, loss of species, sea-level rise, and aggravated drought. Wherever we look at the figures we are, on nearly every front, approaching Armageddon at an appallingly fast rate.
Why were the IPCC projections so wrong? Why were 2500 contributing scientists from over 130 countries unable even 2 years ago to get their projections right?
Projections are established through computer modeling. The climate is so complex, and the factors that affect it are so interdependent that only computers can handle the mass of material required to make these predictions. Even then, the smallest change to the parameters can have huge consequences to the outcomes.
This is why many scenarios are run on each issue, which is why projections give a range of possibilities. For example, the Gulf Stream is driven by cold water flowing out of the Arctic. Naturally there is concern that the end of sea-ice would reduce this flow and could lead to a collapse of the warm waters that heat the countries around the North Atlantic Ocean. As only a small percentage of the computer models predicted total collapse, the IPCC reported there could be a diminution of flow and that there was little risk of the Gulf Stream actually stopping.
It now seems that many models were wrong. How could this have happened? How come that reality in the Arctic is so exceeding expectations that the world is moving towards doom rather than disaster?
The IPCC reports had to be approved by all the participating governments, and that included the U.S. and the Howard administration in Australia, two nations that were committed to sabotaging effective action against global warming.
Their tactic was simple: include in every model the assumption that there would be a 60 percent reduction in projected emissions through the voluntary efforts of business. This, we now know, has not happened in spite of small yet significant moves in some areas. Up to now the voluntary reduction to emissions may amount to 5 percent, a long way from the assumption built into the models.
This is one reason why most computer projections are now being exceeded.
As a result, James Hansen told the U.S. Senate that we now have three alternatives before us, none of them encouraging. The future may be bad, disastrous or fatal to any civilized life.
It depends on us.
As greenhouse gas emissions are increasing every year, as more and more coal-powered generators are being built, as larger trucks are carrying goods over longer distances and as the population continues to increase, it is blindingly obvious that Hansen’s best scenario is now extremely unlikely.
We are left with disaster (that will be bad enough) or doom.
We need to understand what Doom means. There is no possibility that Frodo will drop the ring into the crater and suddenly save us all. Doom means anything over 4 degrees temperature increase. It means the loss of most of the world’s best agricultural land to rising seas, the end of trade as docks and cities are flooded, and the displacement of billions of men, women and children.
It means nuclear war and genocide, enormous suffering and the end of diversity in both human cultures and living creatures. It means the end of civilization and a return to the most primitive way of life imaginable for the few thousand scattered survivors.
It means that we will have long passed the point of no return, and that even if we do stop emitting more pollutants into the air we will have begun the unstoppable release of methane from permafrost and undersea clathrates that will quite rapidly take the world to even higher temperatures at which little life will remain.
We could end up like Mars or Venus. At the speed at which things are changing, this could happen in our lifetime.
Let me repeat, so this goes home into our consciousness: THIS COULD HAPPEN IN OUR LIFETIME.
Though there is a delay of some twenty years between the emission of greenhouse gasses and the full consequences, we know that today’s temperature must more than double from what has already been emitted. Were we to immediately end all pollution worldwide today, and do it instantly, global temperature would rise 2 degrees within a few years. That is inevitable and cannot now be stopped.
By spreading the idea that we had time, that 4 degrees would not come until the end of the century so that we could go on living in luxury and leave it to our grandkids to sort out, we have been criminally misled.
Two years ago I wrote that we had ten years to end all emissions everywhere. Now we have eight left. What are you going to do to protect your children?
Dr. John James is president of the Crisis Coalition, founder of the Footprints bi-weekly newsletter and webmaster of