Avoiding the Nightmarish “Four Degree World” of 2060: We must Act Now (Giesen)

Tom Giesen writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Global warming’s disasters once seemed far off and science-fictional. It is now becoming clear to the scientific community that, to the contrary, very bad things could happen beginning relatively soon. For Baby Boomers, from the the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s till now does not seem like such a long period of time. But in a similar span of years, taking us to about 2060, the world could well experience an increase in global average temperatures of some 4 degrees Centigrade[1]. If we consider the likely effects of this steep warming trend carefully, it becomes clear that the resulting “four degrees” world (as scientists call it) is far less hospitable for humans than our own, a world so inhospitable that we must avoid creating it at any cost.

This rapid change in the earth’s climate is being caused by massive dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly by industrialized societies. Cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions has to date been an abject failure. Political leaders have, in general, taken the position that cut-backs must happen, but “not during my term of office”. About half of emissions are produced by about 1% of the population. 70,000,000 people are the problem. Because you are reading this, the odds are that you are part of that 1 percent.

If every country in the world actually met its pledges to limit or cut back on emissions, it is not impossible that in 2060 the temperature increase will be only 3 degrees C. But we’d likely get to the “four degree world” by 2100. If the world’s nations do not meet their pledges, warming by 4 degrees C. may occur even earlier, by 2060. Those are not end-points in warming; they are snapshots. Warming is a continuous process, not an event.

A four degree-extra (C.) world does not sound so bad on the surface, especially to Americans used to Fahrenheit. But for them, it actually could be a 7 degree-extra (F.) world in 2060, and it won’t be nice. Remember that the extra heat is not distributed equally everywhere.

Consider these scenarios, thought highly likely by scientists:

A temperature increase of 4 degrees C. will cause a 40% reduction in corn and rice crops, and loss of other agricultural produce, as well. The world doesn’t have fewer mouths to feed over time, and a decline in these key staples will likely produce widespread starvation..

People will be forced from their homes, like so many Syrian refugees, on a grand scale — from coastal areas because of rising seas; from areas no longer habitable due to high temperatures or drought; and from changing industrial and commercial practices.

Other effects include ice melting, weather extremes, ocean acidification, loss of coral reefs, changes in stream flows, large losses in biodiversity, water shortages, forest dieback and fires, and so on – the list is very long.

A temperature increase of 4 degrees C is now thought likely to cause the disintegration of an organized global community. A four degree world will likely be so altered that human society cannot adapt to it.

Temperatures are lower over the oceans (70% of global area), which absorb heat and carbon dioxide. Over land they are higher. So a 4 degrees C.-extra world would actually imply the following:

Up to 6 degrees C (10.8 degrees F.) average increase over land;

Up to 8 degrees C (14.4 degrees F.) increase over China;

Up to 10 degrees C (18 degrees F.) increase over central Europe;

Up to 12 degrees C (21.6 degrees F.) increase over New York City (and people think they have to flee to the Hamptons in August now!)

Scientists have been warning about global warming since the middle of the last century; James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Space Center addressed Congress on the topic in 1988. A policy goal established in the 1990s, based on scientific evidence at the time, was to hold warming at 2 degrees C above the preindustrial (~ 1850) average. In 2002, a policy of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic [i.e. human-caused] interference with the climate system” was adopted by the United Natioins, and 2 degrees C of warming was the maximum allowable.

Mitigation of warming via reduced emissions has been a global goal, but very little of practical value has been accomplished. Emission levels continue to rise, and hence the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is rising as well. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere recently reached 391 parts per million (ppm); the preindustrial level was 278; the increase is 40.6%. The global average temperature has now increased by almost 1 degree C above the preindustrial average.

Recent scientific papers have shown that the impacts of a 2 degrees C. rise are much greater than were indicated earlier. Impacts for a 1 degrees C. rise are now expected to be as great as those previously assumed for a 2 degrees C. rise. Worse, there is a scientific consensus today that holding warming to 2 degrees C is no longer possible given the emissions to date and the failure to cut back.[2] Hence, avoiding dangerous human-caused interference with the climate system is no longer possible. Now the question is, to what level will global average temperatures increase by (say) 2060, and at what time, temperature and total emissions will the global temperature average peak?[3]

While total historic emissions were disproportionately caused in recent history by the United States, China’s current annual emissions are the highest of any nation and are growing faster than any other large polluter.

Recent global emissions increases include:

1990s: 2.7% increase in emissions each year (average)

2000 – 2007: 3.5%/year

2009 – 2010: 5.6%/year

Can this nightmare any longer be averted?

To limit the maximum global average temperature rise from warming to 4 degrees C, we must reduce emissions 3.5 % per year – now. To be specific, we must reduce global emissions 3.5% in 2013 and each year thereafter. If China and others do not agree to do that, the rest of the world must reduce more to compensate, for an annual reduction globally of 3.5%. Postponing any annual reduction appears to be a fatal mistake, as we have seen – it is tacit admission that missing targets is OK. Missing targets is not OK.

Admittedly, a 3.5% annual reduction in fossil fuel energy use may initially be hard on the economies of the industrial and industrializing countries. Fossil fuels provide 87 percent of our energy. But solar, wind, geothermal and other alternatives are increasingly competitive, and big governmental programs to implement them could pump more money into economies now suffering from austerity policies, and increase employment. But even if it is economically painful, we must do it anyway. Winning World War II required drafting millions and massive government requisitions from factories, as well as a Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. We face a far more dangerous enemy today than the Axis of fascist states. We face a threat to life as we know it. A four degree world is worse than some temporary economic slowdown, and it is the fate staring us in the face if we go on with business as usual. We must start actually reducing our carbon dioxide production on January 1, 2013.

Sources for the above:

The World Bank. 2012. Turn down the heat: why a 4 degree warmer world must be avoided. A Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

Anderson and Bows. 2010. Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 369 20-44.

Anderson, Kevin. 2011. Climate change – going beyond dangerous. Brutal numbers and tenuous hope or cognitive dissonance. Tyndall Centre. U Manchester. A slideshare found at: http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professor-kevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyond-dangerous?from=share_email

International Energy Agency. 2012. World Energy Outlook 2012. Executive Summary.

[1] Note: 1o C = 1.8 dgree F; 3°C = 5.4 degree F; 4 degrees C = 7.2 degrees F, etc.

[2] In theory, 2 degrees C can be accomplished with reductions in emissions of 40% by 2015, 70% by 2020, and 90% by 2030. That scenario is not thought realistic; it could bring economic activity to a halt, and is not thought politically feasible.

[3] Energy availability interacts intimately with global warming. However, uncertainties with regard to energy availability preclude considering it here.


Tom Giesen has a BA, MFA, MS (forest biogeochemistry), and has been teaching a course on Global Change at the University of Oregon as an adjunct.

15 Responses

  1. There are two questions here: what the impacts would be if temperature went up 4degC and what is the likelihood of the temperature going up 4degC?

    The second question merits a single sentence in the whole article: “But in a similar span of years, taking us to about 2060, the world could well experience an increase in global average temperatures of some 4 degrees Centigrade[1]”. Wanting to know what “could well” might mean, I went looking for the report referred to.

    In similar vein to this article, the report spends a lot words talking about the effects of a 4degC rise but it isn’t until page 44 that you find any statement about the probability of this. On page 44 it says there is a “10 percent possibility of this occurring already by the 2070s, assuming emissions follow the medium business-as-usual reference pathway”.

    Therefore this whole article is about how to avoid the consequences of something that has 10% possibility of occurring.

    This can only lead one to wonder why this information has been omitted, as it seems crucially relevant to the debate.

    • Because the assumption of a below the medium pathway already clearly does not hold.

      The latest estimates are that we will get to 5-6 degrees C. increase by 2100, so obviously there is more like a 100 percent chance that we will get to the Four Degree World before then.

      link to juancole.com

  2. And the United States is stuck with a major political party which will double down on coal advocacy, in the hopes of winning electoral votes in places like Pennsylvania. A party that is a menace to the planet.

  3. It is clear and undeniable that global warming is a reality; a reality that will adversely affect human civilization to a greater and greater degree. But I am baffled by the intent of many not to consider the only genuine technology that is capable of mitigating it.

    That technology is nuclear power.

    The capacity of nuclear energy to mitigate global warming while maintaining global energy supply is such that it is the only technology that can be taken seriously on the scale required.

    Renewables such as wind and solar simply do not withstand critical analysis; and while the percentage of electricity provided by them will slowly increase it is impossible for renewables to provide the baseload power that is now produced by fossil fuels. Wind and solar are simply too unreliable and too diffuse.

    It is regrettable that many academics are not able to ‘swallow the red pill’ and devote some time to a skeptical but open-minded consideration of nuclear power.

    • It is impossible practically to build as many nuclear plants as quickly as would be needed to make an impact on this problem. They are very expensive, and very unpopular, plus they produce great amounts of poisonous waste that can’t be disposed of. Wind and solar and geothermal are the future, and any problems they present are technical problems that can be solved with the proper investment in them. It is crazy to build a new nuclear plant in Nebraska when there is so much wind around.

      • I agree that some places are more suitable for nuclear power than others. Nuclear plants need a lot of water and most are placed near the coasts, so Nebraska might indeed be better off with wind power.

        On the other hand, the suggestion that nuclear plants necessarily take a long to build is regrettable, as they are regularly constructed in quite short periods of time; for example a plant in Qinshan, China was recently completed with 2 728MW CANDU units. Constrution took 51.5 months from concrete pouring to criticality.

        The price of nuclear power is comparable to fossil fuel-produced energy, and is certainly cheaper than renewables such as wind and solar. Germany is experiencing this as we speak.

        It is true that nuclear energy is at present unpopular with many people, but I don’t feel that is a reason to avoid taking on climate change.

        The amount of nuclear waste produced is not great, far far less than, say, coal. As for disposal, the issue, rather than being engineering or health, is politics. Obviously a lot could be said about this, but I will restrict myself to mentioning that nuclear waste is contained and controlled, rather than being simply spewed into the environment by coal plants through leaks that are actually designed in the form of smokestacks.

        Coal dust alone kills more than 1 million people every year, a destruction orders of magnitude greater than all of history’s nuclear accidents combined.

        When it comes to the fight against climate change, nuclear power is the elephant in the room.

  4. I confess I’m uncertain what the point of this article was.

    I’m in agreement with most of the points made, but that was true yesterday: I did not detect anything new in here. I’m not sure what would be new to anyone, at any rate to anyone who would read it and believe it.

    I’ve been paying fairly close attention to climate politics for most of my adult life, now, and I just don’t perceive anything that’s going to make an emissions-reduction strategy viable in the foreseeable future. I wish it were otherwise; I write letters to my representatives every year encouraging that they do more. But I don’t see how they’re going to. Mr. Giesen brushes close to the nature of this impossibility when he writes “If China and others do not agree to do that, the rest of the world must reduce more to compensate,” but this is building castles in the air.

    Even if the Republican Party vanishes tomorrow, the United States is not going to agree to do anything which cedes economic advantage to China. Meanwhile, acknowledging that Chinese politics are rather more opaque to me, I have serious doubts that there are any circumstances at all in which China is going to reduce its own GHG production. And without either of these economies involved, no remotely realistic path to adequate carbon emissions reductions is possible.

    And this situation has long been calcified; I do not see any factor which is going to change it. Saying “it must change or else disaster,” will not work, because people have been saying that the entire time and it hasn’t worked.

    Bless Mr. Giesen, but I think it’s time that we recognized that building the political will for an effective international program of carbon emissions reductions (sufficient to meet a timetable which gets more radical every year) is a dead end. It isn’t going to happen. Which has very distressing implications, but as reasonable people we need to avoid falling into the trap of simply denying that things can be real because they are too distressing. That doesn’t play into it. Time to start working through the five stages of grief so that we can move on to more productive conversations.

    What those are, precisely, I do not know. Adaptation, geoengineering, a Martian colony perhaps? Everything I can think of is rather far-fetched–but no more far-fetched than the idea that the governments of top polluting nations are going to completely overturn their firmly established policy of doing nothing whatsoever to contain carbon emissions, any time within a generation.

    I emphasize once more that I don’t want to be right. But while I’ve seen many arguments that it will be awful unless I’m wrong, I’ve seen negligible evidence that I actually am wrong.

    • Sensible comment. Two points: China has leading research in alternative energy. In fact, China is cooperating with US and other Western scientists on ‘clean coal’ and other technologies. Western scientists are elated because 1) China is pouring research money into clean energy; and 2) China can built a modern coal plant in about a year. In the US, the cost is prohibitive and the regulatory hurdles take years.

      ‘Cap and Trade”: I am amazed that this idea is so popular among environmentalists. Trading pollution credits was an idea that came into being in the early 90’s. It’s origin is in a large manufacturing coalition’s proposals to make environmental regulations easier for corporate implementation. It was proposed as an alternative to top-down regulation, which business and industry hate. In other words, instead of the government putting stricter regulations on the largest polluters, the pollution clean-up cost could be spread over a vaster number of users. Early on, the environmentalists in California looked on it very skeptically. Now many large manufacturers look at ‘cap and trade’ as critically as they used to see the top-down regulatory structure. “Cap and Trade” is too loose of a system, to subject to cheating and abuse to work in America. Bring back the good old days when companies were ordered to clean up air and water or close down? Dream on.

      • ‘Cap & trade’ was a rhetorical device manufactured by libertarians for the purpose of proving that there was a free-market solution for every problem caused by human greed, and thus protecting their beloved ideology. I’m sure they had every intention of hypocritically reversing their position as soon as cap & trade had performed its purpose of sabotaging more ‘socialistic’ assaults on the CO2 problem.

        The problem with China is that it never throws anything away, because it wants nothing but accumulation. Thus ancient, dirty factories producing shoddy goods stay in business while very advanced automated factories get all the TV publicity. They can’t imagine replacing coal with any other form of power when they can simply try producing all forms, dirty and clean, simultaneously and pumping up those GNP stats that determine whether party officials get promoted or fired, and keep the Shanghai stock market rising.

        They want to accumulate wealth at double-digit rates until they have as much stuff as us, and then negotiate new values. It will be too late by then, but they feel entitled, and most other societies in the same position would act the same way.

  5. Has anyone been monitoring the temperature inside the CAN that they keep kicking down the road?

    Do the world’s politicians hate the big-money folk so much that they want to incinerate THEM — as well, of course, as the rest, remainder, and residue of unimportant, negligible, miserable folk, which is to say, US — by this entirely predictable and increasingly unavoidable, irremediable tragedy?

    I only call it a “tragedy” because I have a fondness for the music of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, etc., which is unlikely to survive when most of the human race has been treated to an Israel-trashes-Gaza sort of embrace.


  6. Eh! Still planning beyond 2060?

    Hubert Reeves, renowned Canadian astrophysicist, predicts a massive extinction before 2050! And he wonders if Homo Sapiens Sapiens will be among the few surviving species.

    Those +4C predictions don’t even consider the positive feedback loops currently observed in the North: melting of Arctic permafrost and of methane clathrate.

    Oh and by the way, the North Pole is done in about 5 years.

    It’s not “climate change” it’s “climate flip”: people will be astonished by the speed of the transitions.

    Frankly, as a father of three young kids, I don’t know how to prepare them… which skills? What values?

    Oh Lord, What have we done?

    link to dailymotion.com (In French)

    link to m.dailykos.com

  7. As an outdoorsman and a lover of winters I’ve watched them disappear in Minnesota in the last 30 years. We in the bread basket of the world are in the depths of the most severe drought since the Dustbowl, but the difference this time it’s much warmer and predicted by the climate models. Maple trees are dying and there is not enough ground moisture right now to plant next year’s crop. The famous Minnesota lakes are also dropping as the aquifers are drained, and we are in one of “healthiest” places on the planet. I sincerely believe we are about to see much more of the “other” consequences of climate change, IE famine and war in very short order.

  8. Remember, the global financial system, which can be knocked over by some amateurs flying an airliner into a skyscraper, will not survive the market fluctuations caused by increasingly unstable weather. It’s like the insurance industry, which also won’t survive.

    Unfortunately, that wealth is what is needed to finance the environmental reconstruction required to save us. Instead the rich will stubbornly use their wealth to lobby against any change at all until it’s even too late for them.

    My guess is that the rich are plotting to build the City of Domes from “Logan’s Run”, or the all-fatso starship from “Wall-E”, and the 10% of the rest of us who will survive will be their peons.

  9. I share the pessimism of many here. I think that it is likely that we will see a vast diminution of world population–i.e., billions of people dying. It could actually be much worse than that if and when vast quantities of methane are released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. We have already seen that deleterious effects have increased even faster than originally predicted. Meanwhile, the politicians fiddle while the poles thaw. On the plus side, the fabled Northwest Passage will become a permanent reality.

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