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Awkward facts about climatic disruption

Cautionary words on climate from a May 1 statement by George Woodwell, the founder and Director Emeritus of The Woods Hole Research Center.

I explore below paths that might, if followed, lead out of the chaos of an open-ended climatic disruption. Unfortunately the issues are complicated, the time for action is now late, and effective action is growing more difficult daily. Effective action is possible, however….

The changes in climate are far more serious than they may appear…. These changes, the warming of the higher latitudes, the destruction of forests, the accelerated decay of organic matter in forests and tundra soils, the melting of permafrost, the change from a reflective frozen white to black open water in the Arctic Ocean, and the warming of the surface water of the oceans all point to an acceleration of the warming trend. These are “positive feedbacks” which dominate as the earth warms and accelerate the disruption. Despite their importance, they have not been included in appraisals that suggest that a two degree average change in the temperature of the earth might be acceptable. The fact is that the feedbacks will almost certainly take the disruption beyond human control well before the temperature rise is two degrees C. Stopping at 2 degrees will not be possible.

Worse, there is now a common suggestion that a two-degree change – one-degree more than that at present — in the temperature of the earth would be acceptable and might be achieved by an 80% reduction in emissions of fossil fuels by 2040 or 2050. A two-degree change in the average temperature of the earth would be 4-6 degrees or more in higher latitudes, a catastrophic warming that would risk the mobilization of massive stores of carbon in forests and soils of the north, and a further release of methane as permafrost thaws and coastal waters warm. The positive feedbacks would own the earth and the warming would be beyond human control. Such assertions such as the two-degrees assumption are the ultimate in fallacy despite their popularity. An 80% reduction in emissions must be a much earlier objective. If it were set for 2012 it might be effective in avoiding run-away feedbacks.

It is clear that continuing on the present course of accelerated use of fossil fuels will lead to an open-ended climatic catastrophe whose earliest effects are underway now and accumulating in number and severity. These changes will inevitably produce a new, progressively impoverished world, a chaos that no one wants.

The era of fossil fuels must end abruptly. The immediate challenge for the first years of a responsible United States administration is clear leadership, first, in stabilizing the atmospheric burden of heat trapping gases in preparation for a major global program of reduction toward 350 ppm carbon dioxide or less.

Stabilization globally can in fact be achieved through reducing the use of fossil fuels combined with management of land to favor forests. No other action offers short term corrections in the range of billions of tons of carbon. One combination of actions that would meet the need would require:

  • Preserving all remaining primary forests globally, worth about 1.5 billion tons of carbon
  • Reforestation of 1-2 million square kilometers of abandoned or impoverished land,1.0 -1.5 billion tons per year
  • An immediate global reduction in the emissions through use of fossil fuels of 25% of the current 8.5 billion tons about 2.1 billion tons per year.

The important step at the moment is to realize that the emergency exists, requires immediate stabilization of the atmosphere, and that the stabilization is possible. While such steps seem at this late date heroic, they are small relative to the chaos assured if we continue to fail to take them.

From awkward facts at http://www.whrc.org/resources

Worsening Amazon deforestation embarrasses Brazil’s government

June 3 — Alarming new figures showing worsening deforestation in the Amazon have embarrassed Brazil’s government, which is accused of making concessions to the powerful food producer lobby.

Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, which uses satellites to calculate how much of the vast rainforest has been destroyed, this week announced that another 1,132 square kilometers (437 square miles) had been cut or burned down, based on April imagery.

A Greenpeace representative in Brazil, Sergio Leitao, told AFP that the April data were “extremely worrying.”

Brazil’s new environment minister, Carlos Minc, acknowledged that “the deforestation this year will be greater than that of last year.” He blamed high world prices for soya and beef — two major Brazilian exports — for the increased clearing of the Amazon by farmers.


About Dr. Woodwell

Dr. Woodwell is an ecologist with broad interests in global environmental issues and policies. Prior to founding the Woods Hole Research Center, he was founder and director of the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratories. He was also a founding trustee and is vice chairman of the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is a former chairman of the board of trustees and currently a member of the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund, a founding trustee of the World Resources Institute, a founder and honorary member of the board of trustees of the Environmental Defense Fund, and former president of the Ecological Society of America. Dr. Woodwell is the author of more than 300 major papers and books in ecology. He holds a doctorate in botany from Duke University and is the recipient of several honorary degrees. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of “Forests in a Full World.”


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