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Without Drastic CO2 Cuts Immediately, the World Faces a Massive 'Oh Shit' Moment

A frightening new climate change study says the United States must eliminate its enormous rate of carbon emission within ten years.

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There is a fundamental political assumption underlying the WBGU study: that the right to emit greenhouse gases is shared equally by all people on earth. Known in diplomatic circles as "the per capita principle," this approach has long been insisted upon by China and most other developing countries and thus is seen as essential to an agreement in Copenhagen, though among G-8 leaders only Merkel has endorsed it. The WBGU study applies the per capita principle to the world population of 7 billion people and arrives at an annual emissions quota of 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person. That's harsh news for Americans, who emit twenty tons per person annually, and it explains why the US deadline is the most imminent. But China won't welcome this study either. China's combination of high annual emissions and huge population gives it a deadline only a few years later than Europe's and Japan's.

"I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers," Schellnhuber told me. He urges governments to agree in Copenhagen to launch "a Green Apollo Project." Like John Kennedy's pledge to land a man on the moon in ten years, a global Green Apollo Project would aim to put leading economies on a trajectory of zero carbon emissions within ten years. Combined with carbon trading with low-emissions countries, Schellnhuber says, such a "wartime mobilization" might still save us from the worst impacts of climate change. The alternative is more and more "Oh, shit" moments for all of us.

Mark Hertsgaard , a fellow of The Open Society Institute, is The Nation magazine's environment correspondent. His new book, Living Through the Storm: How Our Children Can Survive the Next 50 Years of Climate Change, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin.

 
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