This is not going to be a happy post. Not exactly apocalyptic. But certainly a whiff of end of days about it. Because, if various experts are right, we are well beyond questions of whether climate change is going to impinge seriously on the lives of all of us alive today. No: the question now is not whether, but when.
And there is a growing consensus that when is no longer decades or even many years away, but months and days: as few, in fact, as 662. A shame, perhaps, i did not post this 4 days ago when we’d have had a most satisfying 666 days to go.
Allow me to introduce to you the concept of decade zero – and within that, year zero.
These are, in fact, two quite separate ideas, brought together recently in Naomi Klein’s pessimistic outlook on climate change “This changes everything”, extracted in the Guardian last weekend.
Let’s start with year zero. Over the last twenty years or so, the great and the good have worried away at the issue of climate change. Consensus was that we were easily on target to hit an average global rise in temperature of 2°C, and that the international community should put in place measures to ensure we did not exceed that. Because at that level, further consensus expects some pretty nasty weather events in the century to come.
Briefly, there were attempts to bring the target down to 1.5°C – not least by AOSIS, the Association of Island States whose numbers are likely to be much reduced if ocean levels rise. We have now long passed the moment when 1.5°C would be feasible.
So next up is that 2°C figure: not so much target as limit. The news is not good. Back in 2011, Fatih Berol, then Chief economist at the International Energy Agency, gave the following pessimistic assessment of climate outlook. He said:
“The door to reach two degrees is about to close. In 2017 it will be closed forever.”
That is neither shocking nor rocket science: Berol was simply using fairly widely accepted assumptions about the relationship between the amount of atmospheric CO2 and global temperature rise. As he explained in greater detail:
“…if you don’t do anything until 2015, 95 percent of the allowed emissions will be locked in. And if you do not do anything until the year 2017, we are going to use all the emissions which are permitted to us, we are going to consume them by the existing power plants, transmission lines, by the cars and everything. So therefore, we will lock in our future, which will be impossible to change, and the door to two degrees will be closed.”
So there is year zero for you. It won’t necessarily happen on 1 January 2017. It might be sooner. Could be a little later. The bottom line is that within less than two years – within 662 days as of 11 March 2015 – a level of climate change once believed to be at the limit of acceptability.
As for decade zero, that is the related, but unconnected observation that in this decade a number of atmospheric processes are likely to tip over into positive feedback. That’s positive, in the sense that they will now start to feed off and amplify themselves. Not remotely positive for us.
The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, when it happens, will release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, thereby adding a significant boost to climate change. Ditto dieback of major forests such as the Amazon, whose passing will reduce the ability of the planet to absorb CO2.
We are at that point in the roller coaster ride where the car has ground its way ever so slowly to the top of the track. Those last few feet and inches so slow that you might almost imagine it had spent all its energy before it started.
Shuddering, juddering so nearly to a halt – and then just as suddenly out over the edge and into a ride that is synonym for unpredictability.
That is where we are now. On the very edge. The last few inches have yet to run – but they will. They will. For all of us, the time to get off – to try a different, less inherently vomit-inducing ride – has long past.
We are locked in for the duration. It is too late for us to change our minds.