Tipping point looms for Earths climate

Global warming is leading towards a “tipping point,” where rising oceans, droughts, and weather change would become irreversible by the end of this century, says a new study by the International Climate Change Task Force.

The report, titled “Meeting the Climate Challenge,” cites economic threats caused by global warming but says “the social and human costs are likely to be even greater, encompassing mass loss of life, the spread or exacerbation of diseases, dislocation of populations, geo-political instability, and a pronounced decrease in the quality of life.”

The report states that if nothing is done, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will eventually melt, causing island nations and highly populated coastal areas to be destroyed. Irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforests and coral reefs would occur. Also, the Gulf Stream would disappear.

For these reasons, the report argues that climate protection must be seen in the context of national security and public health.

However, ensuring that average global temperatures by the year 2100 are not more than 3.6 degrees higher than in pre-industrial times can prevent all of this. This goal is entirely possible and economically feasible, the report concludes. “By taking action now,” it says, “we can ensure that the benefits of climate protection are achieved.”

Environmentalists worldwide say that the Bush administration is a roadblock to environmental protection. Though the Kyoto treaty on global warming is being implemented, the U.S. — which by itself emits about a quarter of all greenhouse gases — has refused to participate.

“Without our government taking action, we’re going to undermine what other countries are trying to do. We’d hurt the rest of the world as well as ourselves,” Ana Unruh Cohen, associate director for environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, one of the three organizations making up the task force, told the World.

While environmentalists still see the need to demand that Bush accept the Kyoto agreement, the report was written assuming that he won’t, and seeks to bring the U.S. into climate protection in other ways. Many see this as possible for a couple of reasons. The co-chair of the task force is Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. This suggests that members of Bush’s own party are willing to work within the report’s guidelines. It also comes at a time when Britain is set to assume presidency of the European Union and the Group of 8, both of which can have an impact on U.S. policy. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an ally of Bush, has said that he intends to make environmental issues one of his top concerns during Britain’s presidency of both these bodies.

“The goal of the task force was to make policy recommendations to break the impasse on climate change action at the international level,” says Cohen. “One of the report’s recommendations is for the G8 — the eight richest nations — to set up a climate protection working group, which would include the G8, as well as major developing economies like China, India, and Brazil. They can sit at a table and hammer out policies that they can all work on together that will help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.”

The report makes a number of specific recommendations for keeping the world below the 3.6-degree mark, but it devotes much of its time to recommendations on involving the U.S. after the Kyoto treaty expires in 2012.

In contradiction to what has been reported by mainstream news sources, the report is not alarmist. It focuses on ways to prevent ecological disaster. Many major news agencies have reported the study as saying the world has “10 years until we reach a point of no return.” Authors of the report are worried that when this is shown to be wrong, it could discredit the report in the eyes of many, even though “Meeting the Climate Challenge” makes no such claim.

“Climate change is a serious risk,” says Cohen, “and we need to take action now. There are many actions that are economically feasible that we can take that would help us deal with greenhouse gas emissions. The report is based on the best existing science, and sought to spur action and the next round of negotiations, and it was important to have a real, tangible goal.”

The report is available at www.americanprogress.org.

dmargolis@pww.org