1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius? Life or death for Tuvalu?
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (cc photo by Greenweek2009)
Ian Fry, the delegate from Tuvalu (a small island state in the Pacific Ocean), had a voice broken by emotion in the COP15 Plenary room Saturday morning when he pleaded for his country’s proposal for a Copenhagen legally-binding agreement limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial. “The fate of my country lies in your hands”, he said. The plenary room was suspended to his words. Every normal human being had to be moved. At least I was. Is climate science providing a basis for this emotion? Should the world accept a 2°C rise, a value which seems gaining ground, or is 1.5°C, now advocated by the Alliance of Small Island States and many developing countries, a better target? Does the IPCC provide useful information on this question?
We all know (at least those who understand the scientific methods) that the burning of massive quantities of fossil fuels has destabilized the carbon cycle, since we are emitting every year approximately 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide more than what ecosystems and oceans can absorb. These contribute to thicken the layer of heat-trapping gases around the Earth, and warm its climate. The average warming over the last 100 years is of the order of 0.8°C, and has been called “unequivocal” by IPCC in its last report (www.ipcc.ch). After assessing hundreds of articles, the IPCC concluded that most of the observed increase in global temperatures since 1950 is very likely due to the observed increase in human greenhouse gas concentrations. If emissions continue unabated, global temperatures are likely to rise between 1.6 and 6.9°C above pre-industrial before the end of this century (except noted otherwise, all warming or sea-level increase values given below will be expressed with respect to the pre-industrial values.)
The physics behind this is extremely solid, and those who are not convinced either have not read the IPCC reports in good faith, or are blinded by the short-term interests they defend.
Climate warming over the last three decades has likely already had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems. It is likely that the summer 2003 European heat wave (70000 additional deaths over the summer) and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were both intensified to some extent by warming. But these are nothing compared to the impacts in store. In the future, human health, many ecosystems (both terrestrial and marine), water resources, agriculture, and low-lying coastal systems are likely to be especially affected by climate change. This is true also for small islands, where there is high exposure of population and infrastructure to sea level rise.
The UN Framework Climate Convention, adopted in 1992, states in its Article 2 that its ultimate objective is to “… prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The first policymakers who gave a quantitative interpretation to this article are the European Council of Ministers, who decided, in June 1996 that, in order to avoid this “dangerous interference”, we should never allow a global warming that exeeds 2°C above pre-industrial. This was decided 13 years ago, on the basis of the second IPCC Assessment Report.
The Third IPCC Report, published in 2001, contained the “burning embers” diagram synthesising the severity of risk associated with five “reasons for concern” (RFC) in function of the global temperature increase, using a colour scheme easy to understand: a graduation from white (low risk) to yellow (significant risk) to red (severe risk). In retrospect, it kind of justified the political choice made by the EU leaders in 1996: the transition between the yellow (significant risk) and red (severe risk) zones was located for the first two RFCs around 2°C (about 1.5°C above the 1990 temperature).
The last IPCC report (2007) contained an updated assessment of these RFCs, and an updated diagram was published in 2009 by PNAS (look for Smith et al. on www.pnas.org or on www.climate.be/vanyp ). This diagram clearly shows that the red zones are entered in at a lower warming threshold than in the 2001 version for each RFC. The downward movement is by at least 0.5°C. In other words, the 2°C threshold that could be considered somewhat “safe” on the basis of the 2001 report urgently needs a political update. My guess is that if the same European Ministers who decided, thirteen years ago, that the target ought to be 2°C would look at the evidence in the last IPC C report, they would have to conclude that a lower target, probably 1.5°C, is warranted. Please note that when I say this, I am not policy-prescriptive, I only highlight the evolution of knowledge that has taken place over the past 13 years, and suggest that using the same criteria they used in 1996, those Ministers would likely pick a lower target. I hope this is policy relevant.
Another way to look at the same issue, to understand the 1.5 versus 2°C debate, is to check what the IPCC writes about sea level changes for a 2°C warming. For a 2 to 2.4°C warming, the last IPCC report gives a sea-level increase at equilibrium of the order of 0.4 – 1.4 metres above the pre-industrial level for water thermal expansion only, but did not give a total estimate. A total number should take into account, in addition to water expansion, the melting of glaciers and small ice caps, and more important, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Glaciers and small ice caps contain the equivalent of 15 to 37 cm of sea-level increase, and have started to melt already. The Greenland represents 7 metres, and Antarctica 56 metres of sea-level rise. Given that the threshold for the long-term viability of the Greenland ice sheet has been assessed to be between 1.9 and 4.6°C global warming, and noting the uncertainty about the long-term sea level contribution from Antarctica (Oppenheimer and Alley have suggested in 2005 that a sustained global warming of 2.5°C would be a threshold beyond which there would be a commitment to a large sea level contribution from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but there is no consensus on this value), one can easily understand why Tuvalu and Small Island States are concerned: 2°C means ultimately at least 40 cm from thermal expansion, plus at (the very) least 10 cm from the melting of glaciers, plus potentially 7 metres from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, plus some contribution from Antarctica!
Tuvalu’s highest point, Ian Fry told the Plenary, is less than 4 metres, with its entire population living at less than 2 metres above sea level.
One can therefore understand why choosing 1.5 or 2°C for the ultimate goal matters for him, and why he was crying Saturday morning, preparing his intervention for the COP Plenary.
There are many other reasons why a 2°C world might not be so safe after all. The last IPCC report also contains these sentences, which I find terrible: “Approximately 20 to 30% of [plant and animal] species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if warming exceeds 2 to 3°C”. Those species don’t have a Ian Fry to speak on their behalf, but wouldn’t the fate of our human species be better, wherever we live, if these other species, who provide so many ecosystem services, were allowed to survive?
I rediscovered an old book the other day. It is the report written by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos in preparation of the 1972 UN Conference on environment, in Stockholm. It contained these visionary sentences: “The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the air means that, at the present rates of use, the earth’s temperature could rise by 0.5°C by the year 2000.” (Well, this is precisely what happened.) and: “We [need to] wonder whether the sum of all likely fossil fuel demands in the early decades of the [21st] century might not greatly increase the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere and by doing so bring up average surface temperature uncomfortably close to that rise of 2°C which might set in motion the long-term warming-up of the planet.”
So, the science disputed by some today was already so clear 37 years ago!
We should remember the title of that visionary 1972 report (and revisit the numbers it contains, on the basis of the latest science): “Only one Earth”.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is a Professor of Climatology and Environmental sciences at the Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium) and IPCC Vice-chair.
Climate change is an enormous scientific, political, and economic challenge. Scientifically, what are the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change? What does the study of past climates tell us about our potential future? What are the key tipping points of abrupt climate change within the dynamic complexity of the global climate system? What new energy sources, smart grids, transportation systems, and urban designs are required to cut the Gordian knot of climate change and fossil fuels?
Politically, what are the most effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resiliency to now-inevitable impacts? How can we forge a global deal between the developed and developing worlds? How do we motivate political leaders to solve a problem that stretches well beyond the short time horizon of the next election cycle?
And economically, what are the most cost efficient ways to reduce global emissions? How do we discount the future? What is the best way to incentivize technological innovation? How do we de-carbonize the global economy, while improving standards of living–particularly in the developing world? All of these–science, politics, and economies–are critical to the successful resolution of the climate crisis.
Climate change is also, however, an enormous education challenge. At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings. Of course, not all have equal impacts on the global climate – the 15-fold difference between the carbon emissions of the average American and the average Indian is a stark reminder of the vast differences in wealth and well-being across the planet. Likewise, the decisions of individual political and business leaders can ripple across entire countries and generations. Yet the ultimate source of power in a democracy is located in its citizens–the public–through the leaders they elect (or throw out of office), the issues they demand their leaders address, or the policies they support or oppose (or at least tolerate). Successfully addressing climate change will require an unprecedented degree of committed public support for difficult climate policies over long periods of time amidst the rise and fall of other competing priorities.
Economics too is ultimately rooted in the individual and collective decisions of the public (now styled “consumers”). Will consumers reward those companies that provide products and services with smaller carbon footprints and punish those that do not? Are they willing to pay more (or the “real”) price for goods and services with climate change externalities into the price of everything from milk to exotic travel? Will companies and mass consumer markets adequately respond to the price signals of carbon taxes or cap and trade systems?
Even the projections of climate science are rooted in mass human behavior. One of the greatest sources of uncertainty in climate model projections is human behavior–the decisions that we as individuals and collectively as a global community make today and over the next decade will largely determine which climate scenario comes to pass.
So how does the world public currently understand and perceive the threat of climate change? Do they understand the urgency of action? Will they support aggressive policies and treaties? Are they willing to change their own climate change-related behaviors?
Unfortunately, we are only beginning to develop the research tools and methods to investigate these simple, but vitally important questions. What little we do know, however, is deeply troubling. I advise the Gallup World Poll–a new and unprecedented annual global survey of the health, well-being, attitudes, and behaviors of citizens using nationally representative samples in over 150 countries, representing 95 percent of the world’s population–which now includes a set of questions about climate change. The responses to just one question demonstrate the enormity of the education challenge we confront, yet have done relatively little to address. The question is simple: “How much do you know about global warming or climate change?” Possible answers are “I know a great deal about it,” “I know something about it,” or “I have never heard of it.”
Fortunately, the vast majority of the public in developed countries has heard of climate change, reaching a high of 99 percent in Japan and 96 percent in the United States. Yet other studies (my own included) demonstrate that great confusion about climate change causes, consequences, solutions, and urgency continues even in these wealthy countries, with small, but vocal minorities (especially in the United States) still denying the reality or seriousness of the threat.
More problematic, however are the many developing countries where even basic awareness of climate change is completely lacking. For example, 75 percent of Egyptians, 71 percent of Bangladeshis, 65 percent of South Africans, 65 percent of Indians, and 63 percent of Indonesians have never even heard of climate change. By my rough estimate, over 1.9 billion people on Earth are unaware of this threat.
This lack of even basic awareness has enormous implications for science, politics, and economies. Many of these countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to the myriad impacts of climate change. Vulnerability is a function not just of physical hazards (e.g., sea-level rise, drought, disease, etc.), but of individual and social adaptive capacity and resilience. Human beings can often mitigate, adapt, or prepare for hazards–if they know they are coming. Without even basic awareness of the threat, however, they are even more vulnerable.
Moreover, many of these countries are now major emitters (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, South Africa) and therefore critical players in the international negotiations to reduce global emissions. Yet large proportions of their populations have never heard of climate change. It is unlikely that these societies will support substantive and potentially painful efforts by their own governments to slow or reduce national emissions as part of a new global deal, if they don’t understand why they are necessary. Finally, many of these countries now have a rapidly growing consumer class–hundreds of millions of newly affluent individuals and families who justifiably desire the same material success found in the developed world. Thus we see a surging global demand for energy, imported goods, automobiles, electronics, etc.–a demand that in turn generates spiraling carbon emissions. Will these new consumers choose products and services that leapfrog over the highly carbon-intensive lifestyles of the developed world? The choices and decisions of these new consumers will greatly determine our collective fate, yet many are unaware of climate change.
The climate crisis has been called a problem of “political will,” but this phrase only hints at the changes required–including changes in household energy use, transportation, diets, consumer preferences, land use, and last, but certainly not least, demand for political action. Billions of dollars have been spent and enormous efforts made to understand the dynamics of the climate system, to develop and negotiate regulatory and economic policies, and to invent new non-polluting technologies–and much work remains to be done. But we now also need a complementary global-scale effort to understand, educate, and encourage mass behavioral change–including defined targets and timetables, new institutions, and adequately-scaled investments. Knowledge is power–including the power to make different choices. We must empower the people around the world with a clear understanding of both the threat and the opportunities this crisis presents.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D. is Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He is a widely recognized expert on American and international public opinion on global warming, including public perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, political, and geographic factors that drive public environmental perception and behavior.
The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD 2005-2014) provides a framework for enhancing and promoting active learning and innovative ways of framing the climate change issue so that it makes sense in people’s daily lives. This relates largely to the UNFCCC-COP15 agenda. Indeed, climate change is an issue which needs to be part of public awareness, learning, and education for a sustainable future so that sustainable behaviors become daily habits. The following interview of Philippe Saugier is part of DESD’s efforts to give Education for Sustainable Development experts a voice in the climate change debate. He has kindly agreed to share his interview with us.
What does climate change mean to you?
Climate change is the most blatant example of imbalance in people’s relations among themselves and with their environment, and the gravest threat to the pursuit of the human adventure on Earth. It is also, though, the greatest opportunity that has ever arisen to supplant national, economic, and identity-based interests and to build at last the mechanisms of solidarity and world governance which humanity needs, not only to preserve the environment on which it depends but also to contain its violence and cruelty. It will no longer be possible to find a way out through dominance of private interests. It will certainly not be achieved smoothly, but the imperative of survival will compel us to come up with new forms of global regulation capable of restoring the balance.
What do you expect will result from the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen, December 7-18, 2009?
From a rational point of view, at both the scientific and economic levels, the most urgent need is, of course, to reverse the GHG emission curves worldwide. However, the transition from the rational to reality, via politics, faces vertiginous obstacles. In my view, the first among them, the number one issue in Copenhagen is the matter of global justice. The industrialized West bears historical responsibility for the problem. The prerequisite for the involvement of the rest of the world is without any possible doubt the massive reduction in emissions by the most affluent fringe of the world’s population. Otherwise, the outcomes of international negotiations will always fall well short of the level of the problem – like the Kyoto Protocol which, even though it represents an important step politically, has to date been unable to counter the exponential increase in global emissions.
Is Education in general and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in particular providing answers to climate change related problems?
Just as we will not extricate ourselves from the climate impasse without world governance, we will not manage to build true world governance without drawing support from a global citizenship. In my country, France, education forged the national consciousness and identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Education in the 21st century must now forge the global consciousness and identity. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), in its fullest sense, is the shaping of global citizens conscious of the challenges that loom over our shared future and capable of addressing them. With regard to the climate issue, in a project such as CarboSchools, young children are trained in a scientific approach to understand not only the facts of the problem but also to seek solutions. Faced with a very anxiety-provoking situation, the educational challenge is to overcome the feeling of guilt and impotence by developing critical thinking, global consciousness, and the desire and ability to take action.
Why aren’t education and awareness-raising on the agenda of the conference in Copenhagen?
My theory is that it is basically for the same reason as that which has thus far brought about the failure of the negotiations: namely, the failure to take a step back, of long-term political vision among government leaders who by definition, in their majority, have short-term mandates. With regard to the central themes of the negotiations, i.e. mitigation and adaptation, governments have great difficulty in agreeing on decisions that have a short-term cost for a long-term benefit. The problem is the same with education, which is an investment on which there is no return in five or even 10 years. Paradoxically, this difficulty in investing over the long term may also be linked to the sense of urgency, to the need to find solutions that are immediately effective and to the idea that education will not produce swift results. The most urgent of urgent needs is clearly, however, to fit short-term solutions into a movement that is far-reaching and long-term. Anyway, it is impossible to turn off the coal and petroleum taps suddenly.
If you had the opportunity to give a speech in front of the delegates in Copenhagen, what would you emphasize?
Since it is vital that the solutions be raised to the true level of the problem, and since that requires commitments not only for five-year periods, as provided for in the Kyoto Protocol, but also for 20, 30, and 50 years, I would strongly urge the delegates to the conference to now include education as one of the pillars of the agenda for the negotiations, because these long-term commitments will never be kept if society is not thoroughly prepared for them. The dominant training systems in the industrialized world have led to unsustainable development. We must now radically change them so that henceforth they will lead to sustainable development. Owing in particular to the work carried out during the United Nations Decade for Sustainable Development, we know how to undertake these transformations, and the climate change challenge is exacerbating the urgency.
At the present moment, in practically all the world’s education systems, sustainable development is still on the sidelines. We must place it in the center and, then, the very term education for sustainable development will vanish, as it will be obvious that the purpose of education, taken as a whole, in the same way as reading, writing, and numeracy skills, will be to restore and preserve the balance in people’s relations among themselves and with their environment.
Philippe Saugier designs, coordinates, and evaluates international educational projects aimed at promoting learning towards sustainability. He is currently employed by the Max Plank Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany as the EU funded Science in Society project CarboSchools coordinator. CarboSchools promotes teacher-scientist partnerships about global change research in Europe.
On Saturday, September 26, groups of ordinary laypeople in over 40 countries around the world will deliberate and make recommendations in the first concurrent global citizen consultation on climate policy. This project, World Wide Views on Global Warming (WWViews) will provide public input for the upcoming December 2009 United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. COP15 is a convention aimed to produce an international consensus on climate policy.
The Museum of Science, Boston is hosting one of the five U.S. deliberation sites for WWViews. The program is presented in collaboration by the Science Museum, the Brookfield Institute, and Boston University’s School of Environmental Health. To date, four main areas of work have been involved in bringing this event to fruition: fundraising, recruitment and selection of a diverse and representative group of participants, meeting logistics, and networking with policymakers, media, and other stakeholders to disseminate local and global results. Now that all the participants have been selected and planning for the events is nearly complete, Museum of Science, Boston is focused on plans to disseminate results in a way in which they will be heard. As a collaborative project between IGLO and WWViews, the Museum of Science, Boston and La Cité des Science in Paris will host a transatlantic conference between top climate policymakers from the European Union and the United States Government to share recommendations of WWViews participants and to consider how those results could impact negotiations in Copenhagen.
As the host of COP15, the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), with a long-standing history of including discussions and recommendations from the public in the formulation of public policy, is organizing conversations among laypeople to provide direct input to climate policymakers. This represents a new step in the public engagement work done by science centers around the world. Rather than focusing on public understanding of scientific principles, programs like WWViews engage the public in learning about, considering, and making informed recommendations on issues and policies that directly affect them. The importance of this work is being increasingly recognized in the informal education community. On June 19, 2008, delegates at the 5th Science Centre World Congress signed a declaration that proclaimed: We will actively seek out issues related to science and society where the voices of citizens should be heard and ensure that dialogue occurs.” WWViews is more than dialogue facilitation, it provides a well-informed and standardized method for the public to comment on one of the most pressing issues of our time.
David Sittenfeld is the regional project manager for WWViews-Massachusetts and manages the Museum’s Forum program, which engages citizens, scientists, and policymakers in deliberate conversations around emerging scientific and technological issues.
On December 14 at 8:15AM EST, ASTC will partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to host an international web cast from the US Center in Copenhagen. Students at science centers from around the world will be joined by a panel of experts, including the Deputy Chair of the IPCC, the Communications Director of NOAA’s Climate Program office, and a scientific team from France.
Students will present their experiences with Clim’City, an interactive climate change game developed by Cap-Sciences, Bordeaux, France. Experts on the panel will comment on the students’ results and place them in the context of the COP15 negotiations.
This project was partially supported by the National Science Foundation, Arctic Science Section, Office of Polar Program, NOAA Education Office, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.