What happens if the climate change talks fail? Botswana bakes, Shanghai submerges etc

March 4, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

For a chilling view of what is at stake in the climate change talks that culminate at Copenhagen this December, read a new report from the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (thanks to Cat Pettengell for pointing it out). (A similar doomsday tone is conveyed in the latest New Scientist cover story on what the world would look like with a 4 degrees temperature rise.)

The IME report’s rather defeatist point of departure is that we are unlikely to be far more successful at curbing our CO2 emissions in the near future than we have been over the past decade or so. What would this mean?

· Average global temperature rises of about 5 degrees Celsius by the start of the next century, rising to 8 degrees by the middle of the 23rd century (see chart)
· Sea level rises of 0.5m by the end of the 21st century and of 1.5m by the end of the 22nd and then further rises

In the really long term ‘By the year 3000, atmospheric CO2 has dropped to 1430ppmv. However, global temperature has cooled only slightly, having peaked above 8°C, and is still 7.75°C above pre-industrial levels. Sea levels have risen by more than 7.3m and there is little left of the Greenland ice sheet, which is still melting.’

The report looks at the implications for the UK, the Shanghai region, and Botswana. As you can imagine, all are drastically affected – Shanghai disappears under the sea by the end of the millennium, Botswana’s temperatures actually increase by more than the global average – by an additional 13-15 degrees in an 8 degree warmer world. I’m not sure that Botswana would actually be habitable at those kinds of temperatures, but the report doesn’t go into that.

The report’s rather limp recommendations fail to match up to this disastrous picture of a baking, half drowned world:

‘• Sink or save? Rising sea levels and increased flooding will be the most noticeable impacts of climate change over the next few centuries. Therefore, investment needs to be made in the consideration of the long-term viability of many settlements, transport routes and infrastructure sites, planning for either their defence or ordered abandonment. Large populated areas, or locations with critical national assets such as power stations or ports, need to be a priority.

• Be prepared. Government should place more effort and emphasis on climate adaptation, realising that global effort on mitigation, to date, has been less than successful. This more realistic approach may be the only effective way for a nation to begin to protect its citizens without reliance on other nations to agree and implement mitigation targets. (It is our belief that in time, all nations will realise the need for mitigation, however, this will take centuries to implement.)

• Break the fossil habit. We need to increase investment and effort with regard to research, development, demonstration and commercialisation of new energy sources for electricity generation, such as fusion, including a significant search for as yet unknown technologies. This will help the world offset the use of fossil fuels before they become exhausted.

• Clean up our act . We need to invest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to demonstrate feasibility and ensure its commercialisation by 2030.

• Help others. Lead the industrialised world in taking responsibility for assisting economically vulnerable nations to anticipate and adapt to future climate change impacts in the centuries ahead.’

Why aren’t the recommendations adequate? Because organizing a massive evacuation of coastal areas is both a remarkable admission of defeat, and begs all sorts of questions about whether you can feed those you save, given that large areas of fertile land would also end up under water. Nuclear fusion has been the energy of the future for at least the last 40 years (I was fascinated by it as a kid), and probably always will be. And it’s just as feeble to pin your hopes on ‘unknown technologies’, while crossing your fingers and hoping CCS becomes viable and effective any time soon. These technological ‘get out of jail free’ cards offer leaders a seductive and apparently painless solution to climate change, but one that unfortunately is unlikely to work within the necessary time horizon, or on the scale needed.

I’d say that the most compelling conclusion is actually, ‘blimey, large chunks of humanity are probably unable to survive change on this scale. Drop everything and make sure Copenhagen and the UN process delivers on both mitigation and adapation – it may well be our last chance.’

March 4, 2009
Duncan Green