Climate Change Is Real, Yet The US Press Is Not Reporting On The Urgency and Magnitude of the Problem
One can tell by how climate change policies are being debated around much of the world that few people, including many very educated people, understand the scale and urgency of the problem now being articulated by the most prestigious scientific international institutions. In this writer’s experience this is true not only of average citizens but also of most college students and academics that are not enrolled in climate science courses and by almost all press that periodically reports on this issue.
This entry describes what needs to be understood to evaluate the adequacy of the US response to climate change although the analysis contained here could be applied to almost any nation in the world. This is so because the adequacy of any national response to climate change must now be examined in light of the scale of the problem, yet few people understand the magnitude and urgency of this enormous threat.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and reports that 2012 was the warmest year in US history, climate change has been more visible in the US press recently. Yet despite this increased attention, for the most part, the urgency and magnitude of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions entailed by the mainstream scientific understanding of this civilization challenging problem is not being covered by the US press.
In fact, some of the recent climate change reporting could be understood as actually misleading US citizens that the United States is making acceptable progress in reducing the threat of climate change. For instance, a Scientific American Report of October 2012 was titled: “U.S. May Come Close to 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emission Target“. This article said that the United States is likely to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.3 % from 2005 levels by 2020, falling just shy of the 17 % target pledged by President Obama at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. Other projections of US emissions have found, however, that although the US emissions are dropping compared to 2005, it is not likely that the US will come close to achieving the 17% reduction goal without further legislative action because current reductions will lead a best to a 9% reduction by 2020. (See, for instance, WRI report)
For instance, the following graph from the World Resources Institute includes a projection of future US greenhouse emissions that predict US emissions will flatten out above the 17 % reduction goal by 2020.
Some media reporting on US emissions reductions leave the false impression that the United States is performing well in meeting its responsibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it is possible for the US to come close to meeting a US commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce its emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions. Missing from such reports is an analysis of projected US emissions reductions compared to the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming and the limited amount of time that the international community has to put global emissions on a reduction pathway that has some hope of avoiding rapid non-linear climate change. That is, to evaluate the US performance in reducing its greenhouse emissions one must compare US emissions both at existing and future commitment levels with what is needed globally to avoid harsh impacts.
The following chart shows the emissions reduction commitments individual nations have made thus far including the United States and what emissions are projected if the United States meets its projected target (there are two numbers shown on this chart for each commitment to take into consideration certain contingencies).
This chart shows that the US commitment is among the lowest emissions reductions from 1990 levels compared to other developed nations.
The following chart compares total emissions from major national emitters in regard to 1990, 2005, 2010, business as usual, and projected emissions in 2020 and projected based upon emissions reduction commitments.
Although China will soon be emitting total emissions at levels twice as much as the United States, the following chart demonstrates that the US will still lead even China in per capita emissions.
To make sense of the performance on greenhouse gas emissions of any nation one must understand the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.
The international community has agreed that future warming should be limited to 2 degrees C because greater warming is believed to create a risk of passing tipping points in the climate system that will trigger rapid increased warming with devastating consequences. Given this there is now a strong scientific consensus that the entire global community must limit its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change and that global emissions are still increasing between 2% and 3% per year, the challenge to the international community in regard to magnitude of emissions reductions needed is staggering. And so any national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must now be evaluated by examining whether the commitment is ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change given what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. A simple comparison of the US commitment with needed global emissions reductions clearly reveals that the US promise is woefully and utterly inadequate. That is, the US commitment of 17% below 2005 emissions is only a 4% reduction below 1990 emissions levels making it among the weakest of the developed nations’ promises to reduce emissions and far below of global emissions reductions needed to prevent rapid climate change.
Moreover, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 40 years. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any hope of limiting warming to 2 degrees Centigrade. The later the peaking of global total emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed. (The different colored lines represent different emissions scenarios in the years ahead)
And so, the US projected emissions reductions fall far short of the 25 to 40 % emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020 that are likely necessary to put the world on a pathway that gives any hope of limiting warming to the dangerous 2 degree C warming limit that has been agreed to. Furthermore there is some inconclusive evidence that to prevent dangerous climate change the warming limit should be 1.5 degrees C, a matter that will be investigated under the UNFCCC in the next few years.
If a 1.5 degrees C warming limit should be the goal of the international community rather than 2 degree C, the international community will need to dramatically increase it emissions reductions ambitions to hard to imagine levels. In fact, all of the commitments made by all nations under the UNFCCC fall far short of the emissions levels necessary to prevent the 2 degree C warming limit . The following chart describes the gap between the emissions reductions commitments that nations have been made under the UNFCCC.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program, to have any chance of limiting warming to 2 degree C total levels in 2020 must be no greater than 44 GtCO2e (with a range of: 41-47 GtCO2e). Afterwards, global emissions must steeply decline (a median of 2.5% per year, with a range of 2.0% to 3.0% per year) to 2050.
Because current global greenhouse gas emissions, based on 2010 data, are estimated at 50.1 GtCO2e the world is emitting emissions 14% higher than the median estimate (44 GtCO2e) of the emission level in 2020 needed to have any hope of limiting warming to the 2 degree C target and global emissions are currently increasing at 2 to 3% per year, the world is running out time to prevent dangerous climate change. (UNEP, 2011).
The following chart demonstrates the enormity of the challenge after 2020 to limit warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees Centigrade.
Not only must global greenhouse gas emissions be reduced at difficult to imagine rates to avoid dangerous climate change, the United States must exceed these global reduction rates for two reasons according to any sense of basic fairness. First, US per capita emissions are among the highest in the world as we have seen above. Second, the United States also exceeds all countries in the world in historical emissions. The following chart shows the proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions being emitted by the United States since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Therefore the US will clearly need to reduce its emissions to even greater levels than those required of the entire world because its per capita emissions are higher than almost all nations and its historical emissions have disproportionally contributed to the elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations already causing some climate change harms. And so, the United States is challenged to make rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions greater than most any other country. This is not only an ethical obligation, it is foundational to any hope of avoiding harsh climate change.
The US media has utterly failed to report on the scale of this challenge. Educators around the world have also largely failed to educate civil society about the urgency of action on climate change. To minimize the threat of climate change, the world needs an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to climate change that is mindful of the scale of the challenge.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law