Two Degrees of Change

The last bit of rotted sea ice melts on the shore of Cape Krusenstern. Wall tent frames in the background are locations of summer subsistence camps.Accessibility statement: Chunks of melting sea ice along a shoreline and subsistence camps on the beach in the background.

February 8, 2016

By: Samuel Hampsher

According to new research from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2015 had the hottest global average temperature since records began, shattering the previous record set just last year. Scientists blamed the spike in temperatures in part on El Nino, a natural meteorological event that occurs approximately every seven years, warming the waters of the Pacific and dictating weather across the planet. However, El Nino does not explain the consistent rise in average global temperatures since the late 1980s, and meteorologists from NASA and NOAA have been quick to explain that 2015’s record is further evidence of man-made global warming resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

Worryingly, the warming trend appears to be speeding up. The record for warmest year has been broken in sixteen out of eighteen years since 1997. In 2015, Earth’s average land temperature was 2.39 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, and the combined temperature across land and ocean surfaces was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average. According to the NOAA press release, the 2.9 degree Fahrenheit jump in 2015 was “the largest margin by which the annual global temperature record has been broken.” All this points not just to a warming trend, but an accelerating trajectory.

The cause of the warming is increasingly undisputed. In April 2014, the World Meteorological Agency found that the average amount of carbon dioxide across all measuring stations in the northern hemisphere was above 400 parts per million, the first time such a level has been recorded in human history. Despite the axiom ‘correlation does not equate causation,’ it is difficult to deny that carbon dioxide and temperature levels are unrelated, as 2015 was also the first year in which the average global temperature was more than one degree Celsius above pre-industrial averages.

The statistics for 2015 had not been released when the Paris Agreement (COP 21) was signed. The agreement committed 195 national signatories to limiting temperature increase to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages. Despite the herculean efforts of climatologists to persuade the international political establishment of the importance of the two-degree-Celsius target, it may be too late. According to David Victor, professor of international relations and an expert on climate-change policy at the University of California, San Diego, “Given the world’s historic emissions, combined with a continued reliance on fossil fuels to power humanity for the foreseeable future, limiting the increase to two degrees Celsius is all but impossible.” And even if it is met, the two-degree target is, according to father of climate change awareness Dr. James Hansen, not without risk. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models sea level rises based on linear projections of warming. However, Hansen’s research suggests that warming is bolstered by feedback mechanisms in the Arctic and Antarctic, which cause logarithmic warming trajectories. Actual sea-level rises may be several times greater and faster than those projected by the IPCC.

However, accurate predictions are hard to come by, which complicates efforts to make policy decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. Industrial entities produce CO2, which produces warming. This is bad for all. But economic limitations are hard to justify against the known and immediate lost opportunity costs they would cause. This may go some way to explain the historical reluctance to pursue activities that could have prevented climate change. Paradoxically, as global warming becomes increasingly evident, its social costs become easier to assess. However, as the costs become easier to assess they also become harder to mitigate. Man-made climate change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Future impacts of climate change are likely to include, among other things, severe weather events such as flooding and droughts, habitat destruction, resource shortages, reduced food security, detriments to public health, forced migration, and conflict. The cumulative cost of these losses is unknown; however, when governments fail to incorporate it into their decision-making processes, they commit a classic and fatal error, one that reduces the amount of time we have to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and increases the future cost of adaptation.

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