12:00 AM, September 12, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 12, 2008

What would a 4 degree rise mean for the planet?

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Billy I Ahmed

PROFESSOR Bob Watson, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and a senior UK government adviser warned of the risk of a rise in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius.
He said: "There is no doubt that we should aim to limit changes in the global mean surface temperature to 2 digree above pre-industrial (levels). But given this is an ambitious target, and we don't know in detail how to limit greenhouse gas emissions to realise a 2 degree target, we should be prepared to adapt to 4 digree."
But what would a 4-degree rise mean for the planet? According to the 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change, up to 300 million people would be affected by coastal flooding yearly.
Water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean could drop by half, and agricultural yields in Africa may be cut by up to 35%, with devastating effects for millions at risk of starvation, malnutrition and disease. Many species could face extinction.
Worse, rapid runaway warming could be triggered -- for example, by the release of methane hydrate deposits in the Arctic -- rapidly increasing the temperature rise far above even 4 degree. The idea that we should somehow "adapt" to such cataclysmic outcomes is deeply irrational.
Sir David King, the government's former chief scientific adviser, has backed Watson's call to "prepare for the worst." King said that even if a global deal could ever be agreed to keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million (ppm), there is a 50% likelihood that temperatures would exceed 2 degrees and a 20% chance they would exceed 3.5degrees.
By contrast, Professor Neil Adger of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has rejected the call for "adaptation", describing it as "a dangerous mindset."
Unfortunately, it is considered "far-fetched" by some scientists that, under current policies, global warming will even be kept below 4 deegrees.
A new report says that stabilising carbon dioxide at the required atmospheric concentration of 650ppm would need industrialised nations to "begin to make draconian emission reductions within a decade".
The report also warns the G8 promise to cut emissions by half by 2050, to limit the global temperature rise to just 2 degrees, has no scientific basis. Instead, this delusion could lead to "dangerously misguided" policies: "Political inaction on global warming has become so dire" that "nations must now consider extreme technical solutions."
These "geoengineering options" include dumping iron into the oceans to boost the growth of plankton (which absorbs carbon dioxide) and injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight into space. As humanity teeters on the brink, the corporate media are sure to give increasing coverage to these dubious and risky "technofixes."
This much is clear: after more than twenty years of ever more urgent scientific warnings, and government and corporate obstructionism, have arrived at the edge of the climate abyss. Professor Watson's response to his own dire warning to "prepare" for a 4 degrees rise was to call for the UK to take a lead in research on carbon capture and storage (CCS).
This would need an "Apollo-type program" akin to the huge resources devoted by the US in the 1960s space race. So what does CCS entail? First, carbon dioxide is "captured" by separating it out from the waste gases emitted by power stations.
The CO2 is then liquefied and pumped into underground geological formations, such as former oil reservoirs, and thus "stored." Proponents of this technology claim that carbon emissions from power stations could be reduced by as much as 90%.
The words "carbon capture and storage" have now become a standard buzz-phrase with "pollution permits", "joint implementation mechanism" and "tradable energy quotas.
Nexis newspaper conducted a database search for "carbon capture and storage" in the British press over the 12-month period of Sep 1, 2007 - Aug 31, 2008. The article reported that people who had been interviewed about CCS had, understandably, never heard of it: "They said it sounded dangerous and unnecessary... They don't like the idea of a quick fix or burying the problem. Most people would rather see a move to renewables and improved energy efficiency."
But when "the problem of emissions was explained", Nexis was told, "they came round a bit" and understood that "CCS could solve a problem over the next few decades. People are more inclined to accept it as part of a package of measures, policies and ideas.
As pointed out by its rapidly increasing media profile, CCS has been hyped into the foreground with serious discussion of alternative "measures, policies and ideas" left trailing in its wake.
Corporate energy chiefs have pushed CCS hard, a green-washing strategy to protect business interests, profits and power.
A recent report from Corporate Watch warns that CCS technology is unlikely to be proven, scaled up and in widespread use until 2030 at the earliest, and possibly not until 2050 -- too late to prevent climate chaos. A welcome, but entirely inadequate, note of caution about corporate claims appeared in a Guardian editorial: "The idea of stripping pollution from fossil fuels is seductive - a quick fix to an overwhelming crisis." However, the paper added, "for countries that develop it there could also be big profits."
Corporate media coverage has buried the truth that CCS would be exploited to increase oil recovery: pumping carbon dioxide into ageing oil reservoirs causes forcing out oil that would otherwise stay underground.
CCS and other technical "solutions" to impending climate chaos are thus being used to prop up the fossil fuel industry which remains committed to massive exploration and exploitation efforts for decades to come. David Hone, climate change adviser for Shell, concedes that fossil fuels will remain Shell's core business "for some time."
The push for CCS then and, indeed, for nuclear power is yet another outcome of pathological business greed. It is a fatal display of short-sightedness and arrogance which relies on technical fixes to tackle symptoms, rather than the systemic sickness at the heart of global capitalism.
One might as well feed beta-blocking drugs to an obese person with heart disease in an effort to prevent heart attacks, rather than address fundamental issues of health, diet and lifestyle.
If we can loosen, even a little, the crushing chains of corporate power and thought control, and then we still have a chance of averting disaster.

Billy I Ahmed is a tea planter, columnist and researcher.

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