By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

How many more reports from scientists will it take before we tackle climate change with the fervor we usually reserve for wars?

It’s anyone’s guess. Our inertia appears limitless as the reports stack up, needling us with dire predictions that are so frightening, they’re paralyzing.

Barbara-Kessler-name-300x188Many people may reasonably feel overwhelmed. Earth’s fever cannot be solved by conserving water or buying a Prius. We need a global climate treaty. Governments and corporations need to take strong action and politicians must put this atop of their agenda.

Should our leaders decide to get serious — President Obama took a solid step in sealing a carbon reduction plan with China last month — they’d need only look to this month for piles of published, peer-reviewed research to justify pushing climate action.

November opened with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), firing off a nerve-rattling Fifth Assessment synthesis report that reported carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have reached levels that are “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” Composed of the world’s top climate and earth scientists, the IPCC was telling us we’ve sullied the atmosphere and destabilized the climate beyond anything that happened naturally in the last almost 1 million years. Could there be a more powerful call to action?

This week brought another massive analysis telling us we’re already locked into 1.5 degrees of warming, which will bring major disruption to the planet. But even more concerning, we’re on track to hit 4 degrees of warming within the lifetime of teenagers living today.

“Without concerted action to reduce emissions, the planet is on pace for 2°C warming by mid-century and 4°C or more by the time today’s teenagers are in their 80s.”

So let’s take a closer look at this hefty, 275-page report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. It is the third in a series commissioned by the World Bank to help envision what Earth will look like if we fail to aggressively fight climate change; in other words, if we continue on the present path, emitting 2 or 3 percent more carbon emissions every year. That’s what’s happening at the moment, despite all the positive changes that are taking place, like countries moving to wind and solar power and that US-China agreement to slow emissions.

The gist of the Potsdam report: If we don’t get deadly serious about reducing greenhouse gases and preserving the rainforest and other things we can do to mitigate climate change, the world will be nearly 4 degrees Celsius warmer in about 65 years.

That doesn’t mean we’ll sunbathe more at the beach and frolic through lighter winters. You can file that image under “misinformation.” Rather, we’ll be roasting on a planet where it’s harder to grow crops because of heat and water shortages, people are grappling with epic health issues, and coastal cities are in crisis, inundated by a 2 meter average rise in ocean levels. Forget the beach, people will be building sea walls, or retreating to higher land.

Our legacy to our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren: A waking nightmare of climate-related disasters.

“As the planet warms, climatic conditions, heat and other weather extremes which occur once in hundreds of years, if ever, and [are]considered highly unusual or unprecedented today would become the ‘new climate normal’ as we approach 4°C—a frightening world of increased risks and global instability,” warns the report, Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal.

The report focused on Latin America and the Caribbean; the Middle East and North Africa; and parts of Europe and Central Asia — all places that would be hard hit.

It found that a 4 degrees-warmer world (above the pre-industrial average temperatures) would be especially challenging and inhospitable around the equator with terrible consequences.

Changes already underway all across the planet today and going forward would force these impacts. As leaking methane rises ever faster from melting permafrost and the Amazon rainforest is stripped away becoming a carbon producer instead of a carbon sink, the planet’s ability to absorb continued carbon emissions will be crippled, causing drought, wildfires and erratic weather.

OK, maybe you’ve heard that before. But it gets worse, actually: The loss of the Amazon would greatly reduce rainfall needed to raise food – making the preservation of this region, often called Earth’s “lungs,” critically important.

Old-growth rainforests in the Amazon basin store approximately 100 billion tons of carbon in their biomass (Malhi et al. 2006; Saatchi et al. 2011). Through evapotranspiration, Amazon rainforests recycle 28–48 percent of precipitation and contribute to local rainfall (van der Ent et al. 2010). A loss of these forest ecosystems due to climate change would release an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere and reduce their evapotranspiration potential (thereby reducing atmospheric moisture); this would lead to strong climate feedbacks (Betts et al. 2004; Costa and Pires 2010; Cox et al. 2004). These climate feedbacks, in combination with large-scale deforestation, put the Amazon rainforest on the list of potential tipping elements in the Earth system (Lenton et al. 2008)”

No one would be unaffected, but the changes in the regions studied could be so dramatic in a 4-degrees-warmer world that it would be impossible to address the resulting poverty and disease.

South America temps before and after 4 degree warming

At 4 degrees warming, mean summer temperatures would hit 90-100 degrees (F) in several areas of South America. Glaciers would disappear, freshwater would become scarce and agriculture would suffer.

Food would become increasingly hard to produce, with a 30-70 percent decline in soybeans and up to 50 percent decline in wheat production in Brazil alone, according to the report’s 4-degree scenario. Central America, the Caribbean and North Africa would face similar agricultural declines. These effects would produce global food shocks, and likely lead to export bans and conflicts.

And while higher CO2 levels could cause some plants to grow faster; it likely would reduce the protein produced by agricultural crops, making them less efficient as food. Some foods important regionally, like grapes produced in the Middle East, would be greatly threatened.

Diseases would advance into new areas, notably malaria and dengue fever, as warming extends their reach. Respiratory diseases would rise globally, almost certainly, according to the group of scientists who wrote the report. (These phenomena are already happening.)

Meanwhile, sea level rises would devastate island nations in the Caribbean as storm surges worsened, and generate salt water intrusions into freshwater aquifers in the Middle East and Africa, depleting drinking water sources. Landslides and flooding would increase, claiming more lives.

Had enough?

The report offers a sliver of hope. If the world’s human inhabitants take urgent action now to reduce GHG emissions, these climate impacts could be blunted, according to “Turn Down the Heat.”

Turn Down the Heat, graphic, World Bank

The report paints a grim reality, because the planet’s climate is already locked into certain changes. But hard work could avert runaway climate warming.

With a strong, consistent reduction of emissions, the world could possibly be held to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, producing a still-altered planet, but one with far less costly and irrevocable impacts.

The difference between 4 degrees warming and 2 degrees warming, could mean survival in many locations. For instance, keeping the planet’s average warming to 2 degrees could virtually save some regions from drought, as this one example illustrates:

“Reductions in precipitation are as high as 20–40 percent for the Caribbean, Central America, central Brazil, and Patagonia in a 4°C world. Drought conditions are projected to increase by more than 20 percent. Limiting warming to 2°C is projected to reduce the risk of drought significantly: to a one percent increase of days with drought conditions in the Caribbean and a nine percent increase for South America.”

The report was compiled by a large team at the Potsdam Institute, with scientific oversight by Rosina Bierbaum (University of Michigan) and Michael MacCracken (Climate Institute, Washington DC). Dozens of scientists acted as peer reviewers.