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Business as usual is a formula for 4C of warming by 2060

Lou Grinzo's picture

Lou Grinzo is a writer and researcher residing in Rochester, NY. He blogs at The Cost of Energy (

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  • Nov 29, 2010

Everyone is piling on with press releases and documents to coincide with the beginning of the Cancun talks, but I would bet that the most important such event is a series of papers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The papers look at where we’re headed, and while I haven’t had a chance to do more than give them more than the most cursory of glances, I think it’s safe to say it’s anything but good news.

Climate change scientists warn of 4C global temperature rise (emphasis added):

The hellish vision of a world warmed by 4C within a lifetime has been set out by an international team of scientists, who say the glacial progress of the global climate change talks that restart in Mexico today makes the so-called safe limit of 2C impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.

“There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global surface temperature at below 2C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary,” said Kevin Anderson, at the University of Manchester, who with colleague Alice Bows contributed research to a special collection of Royal Society journal papers published tomorrow. “Moreover, the impacts associated with 2C have been revised upwards so that 2C now represents the threshold [of] extremely dangerous climate change.”

The new analysis by Anderson and Bows takes account of the non-binding pledges made by countries in the Copenhagen Accord, the compromise document that emerged from the last major UN climate summit, and the slight dip in greenhouse gas emissions caused by the economic recession. The scientists’ modelling is based on actual tonnes of emissions, not percentage reductions, and separates the predicted emissions of rich and fast-industrialising nations such as China. “2010 represents a political tipping point,” said Anderson, but added in the report: “This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well-intentioned approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.”

A rise of 4C could be seen as soon as 2060 in a worst case scenario, according to research in the same journal, led by the Met Office’s Richard Betts and first revealed in the Guardian last year. Betts accepts the scenario is extreme but argues it is also plausible given the rapidly rising trend in emissions.

Rachel Warren, at the University of East Anglia, described a 4C world in her research paper: “Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Warren added: “This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.”

I could not possibly agree more strongly with the part of in bold type, and it’s the basic philosophy that’s driven my work here for the roughly seven years I’ve been blogging on energy and environmental issues.

It really is this simple: If we pick a fight with the universe by ignoring it, the universe will win. Sadly, we’ve become so detached from reality that we think the rules of the universe no longer apply to us. We now live in a highly politicized world, particularly here in the US, where we’ve devolved into a collective hyper-relativistic mindset that views everything, even basic science, as just another political issue that can be debated endlessly with negligible consequence. It’s all sports, all the time, even when we’re talking about temperature records, CO2 emissions, ocean acidification, fresh water shortages, sea level rise, food shortages, and all the other horrors of trying to live indefinitely in a state of global overshoot.

We need to take several steps back and consider as much of this entire perverse panorama as we can manage, and do our best to grasp the interconnections between the portions we artificially call separate topics. In nature, there is no such compartmentalization between atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidification, between temperature rise and the disappearance of glaciers and even entire ice sheets and the defrosting of methane hydrates and permafrost, between changes in rainfall patterns and impacts to rain forests and then biodiversity. It’s all one seamless environment, with many processes going on simultaneously, albeit at very different rates. It’s not merely “beneficial” to take this holistic view of the situation we’ve created; it’s required if we’re to avoid the horrors described in these papers and in many other publications by experts in their fields. As many others have pointed out, this is the ultimate test of humanity’s maturity and compassion, and it’s still unknown how we’ll respond.

You can download the entire set of papers in PDF format here. Please do so, read them, and pass the link on to others.


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