5 Crucial New Findings About Climate Change

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

This just in: The planet is screwed. Well, if you ask Bill McKibben (and you should) we still have a fighting chance. But that’s only if we actually start fighting. This week proved a holiday downer with multiple reports coming in about how quickly we're losing the battle to stave off the effects of catastrophic climate change. Here’s a quick recap:

1. UN Report: We’re Really Bad at Cutting Global Warming Emissions

It would be one things to say that we are working hard, but not quite hard enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But the sad fact is, we’re not really working on it at all in any meaningful way. Fiona Harvey reports at the Guardian

The world is straying further away from commitments to combat climate change, bringing the prospect of catastrophic global warming a step closer, a UN report said on Wednesday. ...

The gap between what world governments have committed to by way of cuts in greenhouse gases and the cuts that scientists say are necessary has widened, but in order to stave off dangerous levels of global warming, it should have narrowed. There is now one-fifth more carbon in the atmosphere than there was in 2000, and there are few signs of global emissions falling, according to the new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This is incredibly troubling news and means our hope of staying near or below a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius — which scientists have deemed the upper level of preserving life as we know it on this planet — is quickly slipping out of reach.

2. World Meteorological Organization: Here’s How Bad We Are at Cutting Emissions

Just a day before the UN report, the World Meteorological Organization calculated just how much greenhouse gases are actually in the atmosphere right now. Here’s what they found: 

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

This doesn’t measure greenhouse gas emissions — like how much CO2 is released from things like burning fossil fuels -- but indicates how much is left in the atmosphere after greenhouse gases are absorbed by sinks such as oceans and trees. Going forward, this is even more troubling as WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud explains

Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future. We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs. 

3. World Bank: We’re Headed to a Really Bad Place

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics did a report on behalf of the World Bank and it concluded that if we hit 4 degree Celsius warming things are going to get really bad: “extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” They also found that we are headed there if we don’t drastically change course. 

According to the World Bank, “The report says today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.”

As you remember from above, countries aren’t even hitting those pledges, so we’re woefully off-base.

4. Center for American Progress: We’re Especially Screwing Over the Poor and Middle-Class

The U.S. is getting hammered by extreme weather events. “Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, found that North America is experiencing a tremendous rise in extreme weather disasters -- a nearly fivefold increase over the past three decades,” reported the Center for American Progress. And this is thanks to climate change.

Knowing this, CAP took a look at how climate-related disasters such as drought, wildfires, winter storms and tropical storms affected people living in the U.S. What they found was, “Most of these extreme weather events typically harmed counties with household incomes below the U.S. median annual household income of $51,914”:

  • Floods damaged households in affected counties with average household incomes of $44,547 annually -- 14 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Drought and heat waves affected counties with households that earned an average of $49,340 annually -- roughly 5 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Wildfires, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms devastated areas with households that earned an average of $50,352 annually -- 3 percent less than the U.S. median income

As we know from Superstorm Sandy, the starkest contrasts between economic classes are often revealed in the aftereffects of disasters; those with fewer resources are often unable to flee areas ahead of coming disasters and poorer neighborhoods, including public housing complexes (as Steven Wishnia wrote for AlterNet), are among the last to have services restored. Nowhere is this disparity more clear than the story of Anthony Narh, a parking attendent at a posh TriBeCa building in New York City (in the evacuation zone), who was called to work during the storm and drowned when the garage filled with water.

5. World Resources Institute: Blame King Coal (and Ourselves)

Here’s a basic fact: the biggest contributors to climate change are coal-fired power plants. So if we’re staring down the barrel of the climate change gun, what makes the most sense? Cut down on our coal burning, of course. But what are we planning to do? According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, 1,199 new coal-burning power plants have been proposed across the world.

China ranks first in the world in coal production and consumption — by a great margin. The U.S. and India are second and third respectively, in both categories as well. When it comes to new capacity, India has the most number of proposed new projects at 455, while China is second in the number of projects (363) but tops the list in what the installed capacity would be. The U.S. is seventh in installed capacity with 36 new coal-burning power plants proposed.

Stephen Lacey writes for Climate Progress:

The report outlines virtually every coal plant announced around the world. That does not necessarily mean that every one will get built. In the U.S., for example, it is highly unlikely that many — if any — new coal plants will move forward as cheap natural gas, growing renewables, and legal pressure from environmental groups trips up the pipeline. (Also, as Justin Guay of the Sierra Club points out in a piece today, local resistance in communities around the world is also hindering many of these projects).

But the tally is still staggering. If all these plants were built, they would amount to generation capacity four times greater than the entire U.S. coal fleet. 

Time to get our heads out of the sand and get to work.

Editor's Note: If you're depressed by the conclusions from these new reports, read AlterNet's interview with Osha Gray Davidson, author of a new book on Germany's renewable energy revolution and what the U.S. can learn from it.


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