Without a dramatic cut in carbon emissions, earth systems will reach a point beyond the scope of any mitigation or adaptation, according to a leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The publication online of a draft of the report, 2014: Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerability, due out in September next year, coincides with news that concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases reached their highest ever annual level in 2012.
The World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin says there were 393.1 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2012, an increase of 2.2ppm over 2011. It was in May last that year that the 400ppm level was breached for the first time.
Between 1990 and 2012 there was a 32% increase in radiative forcing, the process that drives global warming. Carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil fuel burning, accounted for 80% of the increase but the WMO has also measured a big increase in methane.
The IPCC report summarises in graphic detail the result of continuing on this path. Some changes have already happened:
- Changing rainfall and melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources and quality
- Terrestrial and marine species have shifted their ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, and abundance
- Increased tree mortality has been attributed to climate change
- Permafrost is warming and thawing in mountain regions.
Human health is suffering mainly as a result of poverty and inequality, but climate change is making the situation much worse. And the greatest impact will be on food supplies which could decrease by 2% per decade for the rest of this century.
The New York Times, which first reported the IPCC leak report, summed it up: "The scientists describe a natural world in turmoil as plants and animals colonize new areas to escape rising temperatures, and warn that many could become extinct.”
Huge amounts of money are already being spent to mitigate these impacts by way of cleaning up after floods and tornados; new flood defences; higher food prices; higher insurance premiums; subsidies to drought-affected farmers; the cost of bringing marginal land into industrial food production; food aid and new agricultural methods.
The investment of public resources is massive, though far less of it spent in poorer countries where the impacts are greatest, the report finds.
But without immediate cuts in emissions lasting over decades, it may all be in vain. "Greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits… In some parts of the world, current failures to address emerging impacts are already eroding the basis for sustainable development."
So we could reach a point where nothing helps, and some areas of the world are almost there already. The IPCC hints at a solution to this eco-social crisis. Looking at actions that can help it states with "high confidence":
"Transformations in political, economic, and technological systems resulting from changes in paradigms and goals can facilitate adaptation and mitigation and promote sustainable development."
Such a change is crucial for taking decisions that have long lead in times, including "introduction of new technologies or practices, formation of new structures or systems of governance, or shifts in the location of activities”.
And the report warns: "Societal debates over risks from forced and reactive transformations as opposed to deliberate transitions to sustainability may place new and increased demands on governance structures to reconcile conflicting goals and visions for the future."
In other words, the collapse of earth systems and the descent of human society into violence and war is a clear and present danger as a result of the failure to tackle climate change in a planned way.
To prevent that catastrophe, we really need to carry through a social transformation to establish democratic governance as soon as possible. Capitalism as an economic and political system has clearly proved incapable of responding to the challenges outlined by the IPCC.