(35) Climate Science

The Kyoto Protocol


Human Civilization

The impacts of climate change will strike developing nations earlier and harder than developed nations. Part of this is due to location because developed countries tend to be in the middle and middle-high latitudes, so they will see less impact for a time. Developing nations have large populations with greater immediate exposure to risk. Most of these countries do not have the money to prepare for the anticipated effects of climate change such as rising sea level or to recover from extreme weather events such as storms. According to the IPCC, by 2100, the coastal regions of developing nations will have 30 times more people displaced and 12 times as much area inundated, and will need to spend three times the cost for flood protection when compared with the developed nations. The wealthier nations of the world may come to the aid of the poorer ones for a time, but the costs may eventually become too great.

In developed countries, the costs of climate change may be masked for a time. The effects of increasing the amount of land that receives irrigation or simply increasing the amount of water for irrigation will not readily be noticed. For a time, private insurance will pay for damage due to extreme climate events. Events such as the heat wave of 2003 in Western Europe and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in the United States may be seen as isolated events that are not due to a single overarching cause.

Ultimately, though, the costs of dealing with climate change all over the world will be very high. Swiss Re, the world’s second largest insurer, estimates that global warming could cost $150 billion each year in the next 10 years, including $30 to $40 billion in insurance claims. With that much money in claims, private insurers will be forced to increase costs or decrease coverage in high-risk areas.

When private insurers pull out, governments and individuals are left to repair the damage. This effect is already being seen in coastal Florida as insurers drastically increase rates or refuse to insure residents of hurricane-prone areas.

Positive feedbacks could keep the Earth in a warming trend for thousands or tens of thousands of years, as has happened in the geologic past. While such a long period of time is just a blip for the planet, it is potentially devastating for human society. The changes in climate will be far greater than anything seen during the course of human evolution, and while humans are smart and adaptable, it is unlikely that human civilization could survive unaltered. Just a small decrease in global food production or water availability could lead to famine, water scarcity, or political unrest-for several billion people.

Tim Flannery, in his 2006 book The Weather Makers, stated, “If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century, I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable.”

While some climate scientists disagree with Flannery’s “Chicken Little” tactic of screaming “the sky is falling,” few climatologists would disagree that big changes for human society are ahead, unless big changes in greenhouse gas emissions are made very soon.

None of these dire predictions is inevitable, but all are possible if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unchecked. Each of these The Tipping Point events has a tipping point, although the tipping point for each is different. Each tipping point, if passed, will have dire effects on human civilization, which relies heavily on the status quo for agriculture, development, technology, and other aspects of its existence. With so much at stake, the actions people take now are crucial.

This Human Response

Climates scientists say that human activities are responsible for rising greenhouse gas emissions, increasing temperatures, and the climate-related changes Earth is now experiencing.

The changes seen are consistent with climate model predictions.

Now that the problem has been identified and agreed on,

These scientists are increasingly calling for society to take action.

The longer people wait to make the necessary changes,

The more drastic hose changes will need to be.

According to NASA’s James Hansen, in a 2006 article in The New York Review of Books, “Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.”

Why Should People Protect Climate?

The climate has been warmer at various times in the geologic past. Even so oceans continued to circulate while storms stormed, landscapes changed, And life flourished – Earth was in balance.

This balance was different from today, but just as viable. So why should people attempt to maintain the climate as it is today? One reason lies in peoples’ relationship to the biosphere. In the geologic past, organisms adapted to changing climate biologically or behaviorally; and if they failed to adapt, they went extinct. When climate change was especially rapid, more species suffered, but many managed to make it through. Extinctions, whether from climate change or other causes, opened up the biosphere for new species to evolve. Scientists predict that the current greenhouse warming could cause the extinction of as many as 60% of Earth’s species. This large number is due to the stress people are putting on the biosphere in other ways, primarily by changing how land is used and overharvesting resources.

Although the human experience would be poorer without polar bears, condors, beluga whales, and monarch butterflies, life would survive; and in the long run, new species would evolve. But if temperatures go higher than ever seen in human history, people will bear the brunt of the changes. Agriculture, technology, and urban development have advanced radically during the past centuries while climate has remained relatively mild and reasonably predictable. Without a stable climate, the social structures and systems built by humans will be endangered. And with more than 6.5 billion people on the planet, this possibility is extremely serious. Andrew Revkin, a science journalist at The New York Times, said in 2006, “In fact, the planet has nothing to worry about from global warming. A hot, steamy earth would be fine for most forms of life. Earth and its biological veneer are far more resilient than human societies, particularly those still mired in poverty or pushed to the margins of the livable. Only we humans have to be concerned, and species like polar bears that, like the poorest people, are pushed to an edge-in the bear’s case the tenuous ecosystem built around coastal sea ice.”

Moving People to Action

Scientists and supportive political leaders are outlining the actions that must be taken to avoid a horrific future caused by rapid climate change. They advocate two types of responses: mitigation, which means making the changes that are coming less severe by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation, which means altering human behaviors to adjust to those changes that are inevitable. Motivating political leaders and people in general to take action on climate change is difficult. In a 2004 speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the foremost advocates for reducing green-house gas emissions, pointed out the two major problems with getting people and governments on board: First, the effects of climate change will not be fully realized for years or decades, making it difficult for political leaders, who are tied to election cycles, to take up the cause: “In other words,” Blair said, “there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact.” Second, any action taken must be international: “commonly agreed and commonly followed through.” Getting agreement from political leaders on climate change has proven to be extremely difficult.

Setting Limits

Assuming action will be taken, what should be the first step? Some leaders recommend choosing a temperature increase above which society will not allow itself to go and reducing greenhouse gases emissions so that global temperature does not exceed that value.

The authors of the report Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, published by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom in 2005, suggest that to avoid dangerous climate change, the temperature rise should not exceed 3.6°F (2°C) above preindustrial levels. Their models show that keeping atmospheric CO2 below 400 ppm would safely achieve this goal, but because 2006 levels were already above 380 ppm, that goal is virtually unattainable. If CO2 levels are kept below 450 ppm, there is a 50% chance of keeping temperatures below the target value. The strategy suggested by Rachel

Warren, one of the report’s authors, is for CO2 emissions to peak no later than 2025 and then come down by 2.6% per year. The CEO of British Petroleum, John Browne, has suggested a CO2 stabilization target of about 560 ppm, twice the preindustrial level. Many scientists think that to keep greenhouse warming in check, CO2 emissions must be cut in half over the next 50 years.

The Kyoto Protocol

The world’s first coordinated response to the climate change problem was the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty seeking “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The treaty was negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. After ratification by nearly every nation on Earth, it took effect in February 2005.

Kyoto regulates the greenhouse gases CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs. Under the protocol, 35 industrialized countries are obliged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by sometime between 2008 and 2012.

This value is 29% below what these nations’ emissions would likely be without the reductions. Kyoto’s rules call for emissions reductions by an internationally agreed upon cap-and-trade program. Each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions “cap” is set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCC). These cap levels are based on the nation’s size and the state of its economy: For instance, at this time, the cap is an 8% reduction from 1990 emissions for the European Union, a 6% reduction for Japan, a 0% reduction for Russia, plus permitted increases of 8% for Iceland.

With these caps, participating nations are then allowed to “trade” emissions credits amongst themselves. A country that will exceed its limit can buy credits from a country that will not use all of its credits. The trading scheme provides financial incentive for countries to meet and even exceed their targets. At this time Russia, which has far lower greenhouse gas than in 1990 due to an economic down-turn and has also easily achieved increases in efficiency, is selling credits for hundreds of millions of dollars to countries that are not yet able to reach their targets. Russia receives much needed money, and all participants have an economic incentive to improve their energy efficiency.

Developing countries are at this time exempt from greenhouse gas emissions reductions because they have historically contribute a very small share of emissions.

In addition, their per capita emissions are still relatively low, and they still have significant social needs.

Nonetheless, Kyoto requires that developed nations assist developing ones by paying for and providing technology for climate-related studies and projects.

Countries are also rewarded credits for protecting forests and other carbon dioxide sinks.

Unfortunately, Kyoto has many flaws, the most glaring being the countries that are not bound by it.

The United States, which produced 21% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2000 and would have a cap of 7% below 1990 emissions, refused to sign because politicians feared that emissions restrictions would slow down the nation’s economic growth.

Although the nation engages in voluntary cut backs, by 2005 greenhouse gas emissions of the United States were 19% over what they would have been if it had adhered to its Kyoto limits. Australia also refused to sign, even though it was awarded an emissions increase of 10%. A small overall emitter, the nation was the argest per capita emitter in 2005, suggesting that there is plenty of room for improvement in Australia’s energy efficiency. Although China’s greenhouse gas contributions are enormous, the country is exempt from emissions reductions because it is a developing nation. In addition, many of the treaty’s participants are not on target to meet their emissions goals.

Most importantly, climate scientists say that the Kyoto Protocol does not go nearly far enough. Even if all developed nations participated, the treaty would only result in a reduction in global temperature of between 0.04 and 0.5°F (0.02 and 0.28°C) by the year 2050. One climate model suggests that reductions of more than 40 times those required by Kyoto are needed to prevent atmospheric CO2 concentrations from doubling during this century.

Defenders of the treaty say that it sets the stage for larger emissions limits in the future. The first commitment period ends in 2012 and negotiators are now working to make sure that another treaty will be ready to take its place and that emissions standards will be tougher. Ongoing talks emphasize developing new technologies and adapting to environmental changes that are already inevitable.

Cap-and-Trade Programs

Cap-and-trade programs are a popular, market- based approach for encouraging entities such as businesses, cities, or countries to reduce emissions. A neutral body sets an emissions cap for each program participant, usually based on the participant’s past emissions. In most programs, the allowances can be used, traded to another participant, or banked for future use. Because allowances can be traded for cash, participants have a monetary incentive for developing emissions- saving technologies. If a participant exceeds its total allowances, it may be fined. In many programs, the emissions cap lessens over time until a permanent cap is reached.

A cap-and-trade program for sulfur oxide (SO2) emissions has been extremely successful in reducing this acid rain– causing pollutant in the United States. When the permanent cap is reached, in 2010, emissions will be approximately 50% below 1980 levels. Cap- and- trade systems have been proposed for wider adoption for dealing with other pollution problems. However, some extremely toxic pollutants that might concentrate in a single area, such as mercury, are not well suited for such plans


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