A new report published by the World Bank suggests the new rhetoric we heard from President Obama on Tuesday may simply be too little, too late.
President Obama’s Tuesday speech on the need to do more to combat climate change is a breath of fresh air for the deep morass that comprises U.S. climate change policy. A new report published by the World Bank, however, suggests this new rhetoric coming out of Washington may simply be too little, too late.
The report, prepared by Potsdam Institute for Climate Research and Climate Analytics, paints a grim picture for the state of the global climate. In short, the report states that without further commitment to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate,” and there is a 1 in 5 chance that the world will experience a 4°C increase in global temperature by 2100.
If the international commitments currently pledged aren’t met then a warming of 4°C could occur as early as 2060, with more than a 6°C in warming possible by 2100. At present, global temperatures have increased by .8°C since preindustrial times, driven largely by the burning of industrial fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. This burning of fuel has increased atmospheric carbon concentration from 278 parts per million prior to the Industrial Revolution to nearly 400 ppm today.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now increasing at the rate of 1.8 ppm every year, which could grow larger going forward as economic growth and a lack of commitment to reduce emissions further means global production of CO2 will surge from around 35,000 million metric tons today to over 41,000 metric tons by 2020. What this means for the future, when today we are experiencing CO2 concentrations higher than that in the past 15 million years, is a world where sea levels are a meter higher, droughts and heat waves endemic, and a “normal” climate where the coolest months are “substantially” warmer than the warmest months of the 20th century in many parts of the world.
Think about what that last statement means. In 2100, or 2060 if nothing is done and things get worse, February in Egypt, Florida or India could be on average much warmer than were any of those places during July of, say, 1999. That’s mind-boggling, but it gets worse – much, much worse. Atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by the world’s oceans, which increases in acidity as a result. This increase in acidity, in turn, means death for coral reefs and will put immense pressure on already stressed marine ecosystems — where fish stocks are collapsing the world over due to unconstrained overfishing by a hungry globe’s fishing fleets.
So, to sum up – coastal cities from Miami to Mumbai will be lost to the waves, agriculture will be severely disrupted, deserts will march across the globe like conquering legions, marine life will be devastated, the polar ice caps will be gone and going, and Earth in general could be uncomfortably warm – even in the winter.
How will human civilization survive in such a hostile environment? Even the Pentagon, that bastion of anti-capitalist environmentalism, warns the societal consequences of such environmental changes could be overwhelming – constituting a severe threat to U.S. national security.
Yes, it’s that bad
Take Africa, for instance. The World Bank report argues that climate change on the continent could be devastating. Agricultural losses from heat waves and droughts could increase the number of malnourished children on the continent by 10 million or more by 2050. Africa’s croplands, meanwhile, could be reduced by nearly 90 percent by 2100 with rainfall over the continent reduced by 40 percent. What rain remains would come in the form of torrential downpours that, in turn, will cause massive flooding like that which inundated Pakistan in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Such floods, in addition to causing crushing damage to homes and business, will also erode fertile soil – washing agricultural productivity away with it. A ravaged continent, filled with desperate, starving refugees, does not seem conducive to global stability.
In Asia, meanwhile, coastal cities in the world’s most populous regions will be inundated. Low-lying floodplains, like the Mekong Delta, could see a reduction in rice production by 11 percent or more. The monsoons, which provide water for South Asia’s 1.5 billion-odd inhabitants, might also become very erratic – threatening the livelihood of hundreds of millions. Meanwhile, in the Himalayas, loss of ice could threaten access to drinking and irrigation water for just as many in both India and China. India, China and Pakistan, it should be remembered, all possess nuclear weapons.
All this makes Obama’s renewed focus on combatting climate change, which has been described as a “kitchen sink” approach that uses all the power that can be mustered by U.S. executive branch, a welcome development. By far, the most important part of the President’s plans is his directing of the Environmental Protection Agency to finish writing carbon pollution rules for new and existing power facilities, a move that would greatly restrict the ability of utilities to build new or upgrade existing coal-fueled plants.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon under the provisions of the Clean Air Act, but political resistance and the economic effects of the Great Recession have meant that first the Bush administration — and until now, the Obama administration — were reluctant to wield the EPA’s regulatory power. A threat to use this power by President Obama was thought to be enough to pressure Congress to pass a carbon cap-and-trade plan, but such hopes have been thwarted by paralysis in the House and Senate.
Unfortunately, this is ultimately why the president has decided to move now. With Congress all but useless and bought off by the fossil-fuel lobby, the only hope for any American movement on climate change at all between now and after Congressional elections in 2014 is whatever the White House can cobble together on its own. This includes, in addition to setting the EPA loose on power plants, a series of executive orders to increase and promote the use of renewable energy, increase vehicle fuel efficiency, create a “Quadrennial Energy Review,” set new energy-use standards for appliances and federal buildings, and other such initiatives to nibble away at the problem.
It’s possible that all these things could have a meaningful impact, but the fact remains that Congressional inaction remains a huge obstacle to accomplishing much more than taking small bites out of America’s current carbon emissions. Only Congress, for instance, has the power to institute a carbon tax, establish an emission-trading scheme, open the funding floodgates for renewables or ratify a global climate-change treaty.
Absent these things it is difficult to see how the White House’s efforts to combat our warming atmosphere will be anything more than symbolic. The President has even punted on whether the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will bring ultra-dirty oil produced from the Canadian tar sands, to American markets further south, will be approved. Obama instead vaguely stated in his speech on Tuesday that the pipeline will only be approved if its construction and operation will not, “significantly exacerbate,” carbon pollution. Such weasel words by the President hint at a White House that is simply not willing to risk important political capital by derailing a project most environmentalists vociferously object to.
Given the dire warnings about the consequences of a 4°C increase in global temperatures that have been issued by the World Bank, what President Obama and the Congress ultimately do may end up being academic. A 1.5°C to 2°C increase is probably already on the way no matter what we do, largely because our past ignorance over the consequences emitting so much carbon for so long has prevented Washington — and the world — from acting.
We’re no longer ignorant, however, which makes Congressional unwillingness, and Presidential cowardice, to move on this issue all the more reprehensible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.