In the chaos accompanying the start of the academic year (not to mention the recent uproar over the shutdown of our federal government), you may have missed the news that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released its 2013 assessment report on—you guessed right—climate change.
The report is essentially a condensed version of all the significant climate science research that’s been published in the past few years, and an updated one is released every five to seven years. It’s meant to provide apolitical recommendations that set a baseline for decision-making on climate change.
Created in 1988, the IPCC is a collection of the world’s leading climate scientists who also have the power to act as delegates for their respective governments. As neither a solely scientific nor political body, the IPCC does not conduct original studies, but instead evaluates recent climate research and digests it into one very long report, the first of which was released in 1990.
In the 2013 report, a new line has been drawn in the proverbial sand.
For the first time, the IPCC has established what I’m terming a “carbon ceiling.” Basically, it’s the upper limit on how much total carbon can be released into the atmosphere without triggering the most dangerous effects of climate change.
This limit—according to the 2013 report—is around one trillion metric tons of carbon.
The trillion-ton limit on CO2 emissions keeps global temperatures from increasing beyond the established benchmark of 3.6°F (2°C).
To go beyond that, researchers say, would be to invite changes that would increasingly threaten the safety of society and the natural processes it depends on.
One of the most important things to know about environmental science is that very few things happen on a gradient. Basically, you can have cause X and effect Y, but increasing X tenfold won’t necessarily increase Y tenfold. In fact, increasing X tenfold might not show you any Y at all. However, if you increase X fiftyfold or a hundredfold, you might see increases in Y on the scale of thousands or more. And even if you stop increasing X or even remove it completely, increases in Y might just keep going once that tipping point is reached.
This phenomenon can be seen from glacial melting to desertification to greenhouse gas driven-warming and beyond.
For example: climate skeptics often point to the slowdown in global temperature change over the past fifteen years as evidence that climate change has stopped.
This, however, doesn’t account for the abilities of oceans and glaciers to absorb heat energy up to a certain point.
Beyond that point, though, the effects of absorbing all that heat will become eminently clear.
About half a trillion tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere since the late 19th century. In some ways, this is good news.
We haven’t hit the tipping point yet, and there’s still time to change our trajectory.
But let’s not get too comfortable. If we (speaking globally, since most new emissions come from developing nations that rely largely on coal power) stick to our current rates of energy consumption, we’re set to hit the trillion-ton mark around 2040.
By that time, current Bowdoin students will be between the ages of 45 and 50, slightly younger than most of our parents are right now.
It’s interesting to note that the earth’s crust still contains an estimated three trillion tons of carbon-rich fuels.
If we’re to observe the trillion-ton limit, most of these reserves will have to either remain untapped or be harnessed in a way that does emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants.
From the right point of view, this situation can be seen as a gateway to revolutionary technological innovations in renewable energy production, greenhouse gas sequestration or (hopefully) both.
The 2013 IPCC report includes very little in the way of new discoveries.
The authors simply note that, as opposed to being 90 percent confident in human-caused climate change in 2007, they are now 95 percent confident.
If this can’t end the so-called “climate debate” and usher us into an era of groundbreaking new green technologies, I don’t know what will.
After all, there are no 100 percent guarantees in science, and we probably aren’t going to get much closer.