If all we’re after is 80% by 2050, it’s hardly worth the effort . . .

Everybody who’s anybody is coming up with ideas for turning down our earthly thermostat. From Al Gore who’s nudging us towards climate reality (1), to the aptly-named Nicholas Stern who has direly warned how many coins it will cost to continue cooking our Earth (2), to the business-sponsored website U.S. Climate Action Partnership for whom money speaks the truth (3), to some of the stars of the environmental movement such as pioneer Bill McKibben (for whom I have the greatest respect) (4), and many, many more – all of these voices are telling us that we have to cut back on our carbon emissions, “dramatically.”

Hot Steam

And of course they’re right. The crucial numerical question is how much?

Those devilish details! Driving all of the current calculations is economics: what will any given emissions reductions cost us. After all, if it isn’t practical there will be “unacceptable” disruption of our daily affairs, and besides, no one would do it. Therefore reasonable marketplace considerations are of central importance, and of course we all want to be reasonable. What all the above-named activists (and many more) in this climate bazaar seem to be selling us as “reasonable” is this: we need to reduce our anthropogenic greenhouse gas output by 60%-90% by the year 2050.

The only problem with this target range is that it’s a pointless, futile exercise . . .

. . . an act of feel-good symbolism that may – “may,” not “will” – postpone for a paltry few years the devastating lethal consequences of our recent global binge on dead dinosaurs (5). Since I’m going against the general consensus on what we need to do, let me explain. (I hasten add that I’m not the only one holding this view, there are a few notable examples of what I would consider clear thinking, references below.)

First, a preliminary clarification about reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) (6). The general and somewhat confused public impression is that lower emissions will automatically reduce the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere and thereby address global warming. This is absolutely incorrect.

Lower emissions only decrease the rate at which we add GHG to the sky above. Given that one third of the CO2 stays up there for roughly 100 years, and a quarter of it persists for up to 500 years (7), and that the planetary systems have responded so far to only half the GHG we’ve already pushed into the atmosphere, we have still yet to see the effects of our rapidly accelerating emissions output over the past several decades. That’s why scientists are saying that there is another degree or more in the offing no matter what we do (8).

Now, it is true that if were simply a matter of arithmetic, an 80% reduction by 2050 would stabilize the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. That’s because CO2 is naturally removed at a rate of approximately 0.5% per year. But climate dynamics are far more complex than that, since we set significant forces into motion that are beyond our control. Examples are releasing GHGs that have long been stored in the permafrost thereby accelerating the warming effect, or the decreasing capacity of the earth to absorb GHGs in oceans, soils and other sinks as it warms.

What are the implications? Consider what we are seeing today with a mere 0.76° C. (1.37° F.) rise in average planetary temperature so far (9). Since we finally hear about some of this in the news these days, I’ll just offer a quick list: massive melting of ice from poles to mountaintops, widespread droughts, desertification, huge raging forest fires, crop failures, acidification of oceans, extinction of species, migration of disease – and on and on. Not to mention that there are currently millions of environmental refugees. And there are new reports almost weekly of effects we had never anticipated. Do any of these qualify as an “unacceptable” disruption of our daily affairs? (New Orleans, anybody? Or everybody?)


Let me say it again: this is what we’ve got with only 0.76° C. (1.37° F.). What will another degree or two bring? We can only begin to imagine (I’ll give that a shot in a future post), and it doesn’t look good. And what are we actually doing about it?

Less than nothing: while the annual rate of increase in emissions was 1.1% per year in the 1990s, from 2000 to 2005 it had risen to over 3% per year (10). But let’s say we turn that around and head for an 80% reduction by 2050 – what does such a reduction mean?

It means that we do nothing to address the extraordinary harms that are already occurring and promise to get worse simply because of what we’ve already emitted. It means that we are pretending that far more problematic physical forces – the positive feedback loops, or “tipping points” – are not soon to be or already in play. It means that every year as we charge ahead towards 2050, we are making the situation far worse, not better – because we need immediately to start taking GHGs out of the atmosphere, i.e., net emissions of less than zero.

I can understand why corporate interests, always mindful of profits, are resistant to meaningful action and what it would cost them. Similarly for those of us with relatively comfortable first-world lives – why should we rock the boat beyond installing a few curly lightbulbs or buying a hybrid vehicle (as “Inconvenient Truth” suggested). Why indeed?

Here’s why: Nature doesn’t care one whit about our human deliberations, muddlings and wheeling-dealings. Economic crash, epidemic starvation and disease, uninhabitable planet – none of that is of any concern to physical laws. Heat up the oceans, get hurricanes. Heat up the land, get drought. Melt the ice caps, swamp the coasts. Period. No argument is of any consequence.

So – are we ready to get serious yet? Do we really want a life support system that works? What market “price” are we willing to put on human (or polar bear or frog or maple tree) survival?

When do we dispense with the truly inane short-term considerations of our mindless marketplace and do whatever it takes?

World is Closed


There are a handful of public voices of reason aside from many climate scientists who are beside themselves with alarm but find it awkward to say so publicly, or to intervene in matters of policy.

Here are four:

Ross Gelbspan is one of the first investigative journalists to report on global warming, and has been lecturing widely on the science, economics and politics. His website is one of the most informative around (11).

Zero Carbon Britain is a proposal by the Centre for Alternative Technology in the U.K., which recently published this concrete program for reducing British GHG emissions to zero by 2027 (12). Not enough soon enough (and I think they know this), but the best practical suggestions out there to date.

George Monbiot’s book, Heat, published this past summer in the U.S., aims at 90% emissions reductions by 2030. He goes through each economic sector and explores ways of arriving at the goal. The only hopeless sector, given his targets, is air travel (13).

Rising Tide North America is a grassroots network that confronts not only the urgency of curbing GHGs, but the cultural assumptions that prevent us from acting like rational human beings who would like to do more than pretend that we are concerned about our children’s (and our own) futures (14).

NEW! Calculate your own emissions reduction scenarios HERE.


1. http://www.climatecrisis.net

2. See the “Stern Review on the economics of climate change,”

3. http://www.us-cap.org

4. “America’s foremost climatologist, NASA scientist James Hansen, has said that we have just a few years to start reducing carbon emissions, and he’s endorsed our goal of 80% by 2050. That won’t prevent global warming-it’s already too late for that-but it may be enough to stave off the most catastrophic effects,” http://april.stepitup2007.org/article.php?id=29″

5. We might assume that some reductions in GHG emissions would postpone the effects of warming, but if positive feedback loops start spinning (and they seem to be starting already), we will have little if any control of GHG concentrations. More about this in a future post. You can read more than you want to know about such tipping points in With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, by Fred Pearce.

6. There are six significant greenhouse gases, with different atmospheric lifetimes; carbon dioxide is the primary one, but gases such methane and nitrous oxide exert a far more powerful greenhouse effect.

7. James Hanson et al., “Climate change and trace gases,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, May 18, 2007, p. 1938, http://www.journals.royalsoc.ac.uk/content/l3h462k7p4068780/fulltext.pdf

8. James Hanson, “Re-Energize Iowa: An Opportunity to Lead the Nation in Stewardship of the Earth and Creation,” August 5, 2007, http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/Iowa_70805.pdf

9. IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, p. 5, http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/Report/AR4WG1_Print_SPM.pdf

10. Raupach et al., “Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academcy of Sciences, June 12, 2007 _ vol. 104 _ no. 24 , pp 10288-93, http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/104/24/10288

11 http://www.heatisonline.org

12. http://www.zerocarbonbritain.com/

13. Monbiot has many excellent articles about climate and other pressing issues on his website at http://www.monbiot.com . “Eco-Junk” is a good place to start reading, http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/07/24/eco-junk/

14. http://risingtidenorthamerica.org/wordpress/what-is-rising-tide/

Copyright 2007 by Adam D. Sacks