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Carbon Pollution is Creating a New World...And Not in a Good Way

Dan Lashof

Posted October 11, 2013 in Solving Global Warming

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Research published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature is receiving a lot of attention, and for good reason. It puts a specific date – 2047 – on when we will be living in a new world due to unlimited dumping of heat-trapping pollution into our atmosphere.

From this date onward the researchers project that every subsequent year will be warmer than any year in the historical record (1860 to 2005) for more than half the locations on earth. Think about that for a minute. It means that well within my children’s lifetime they will be living in a climate that, despite natural variability, has no overlap with the climate when they were born. That’s why I call it a new world.

Here is the key figure from the paper (as reformatted on the author’s website):

This is actually a very conservative definition of a new world. The historical record has already been significantly affected by carbon pollution. If that were not the case the warmest year in the historic record would be significantly cooler and the departure date from the historical range would come 11.5 years sooner, or in 2036, according to the paper.

The other key finding of Mora et al. is that the new world will begin sooner in the tropics than at higher latitudes. This may seem surprising because global warming (measured as the absolute change in temperature) is taking place faster toward the poles. But natural variability is also much greater outside the tropics, so measuring global warming relative to the historical range of temperatures at a given location changes the picture. For example, while New Yorkers will experience a completely new climate by 2047 (the same as the global average), residents of Kingston, Jamaica will be living in a new world by 2023. What this means is that people with the fewest resources, who are concentrated in the tropics, will face unprecedented climatic conditions soonest.

Results for many cities around the world are provided on the author’s web site. Here are the departure dates for the U.S. cities listed, assuming unabated carbon pollution.

Anchorage 2071
Austin 2058
Chicago 2052
Dallas 2063
Denver 2048
Detroit 2051
Honolulu 2043
Houston 2050
Los Angeles 2048
New York 2047
Orlando 2046
Philadelphia 2047
Phoenix 2043
San Diego 2046
San Francisco 2049
Seattle 2055
Washington 2047

These projections are not destiny. Mora et al. also looked at a scenario in which heat-trapping pollution is stabilized at a level equivalent to doubling the preindustrial concentration of carbon dioxide and found that the departure date was delayed until 2069. That would buy some time for people and ecosystems to try to adapt, but it would still mean bequeathing our children a fundamentally disrupted climate.

We can and must do better.

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Comments

Adam AlbrightOct 13 2013 06:33 AM

Hi Dan,

Sorry to miss you at the recent board retreat where we discussed how is to move beyond the choir and actively shape our message and policy efforts to better engage the broad Middle. Four reasons we continue to fail in this critical task.

- The discount rate for events in 2047 or "future generations" is very high, so we need to find ways to focus on the near term.

- We have been sold the bogus message that it's "Jobs or the Environment" for decades, and we have to be able to create a new frame that shows we are job creators, not destroyers.

- Global Warming may be supported by 95% of scientists, but when we fight on that ground we allow the opposition to sow doubt and confusion. Let's start with near term ideas and policies that make sense even if there are still uncertainties about AGW - eg. let's stop subsidizing dirty fuels 7 to 1 over clean ones.

- The average person needs to know what they can do, so specific actions are needed. It works for Membership and it can work for Climate.

I'm convinced that if we can become as smart in developing and targeting clear and powerful messages as we are in developing our complex policy efforts, we can win this thing.

Keep up the good work.

Best, Adam

David Roland-HolstOct 16 2013 09:43 AM

This post is a fine example of how we have to "bring home" climate risk so individuals will internalize it and really begin changing behavior. We have a multi-billion dollar retrofit industry in California because we accept the reality of seismic risk, but nothing like this has happened yet for climate. Thanks to Dan and others like him, we will wake up one day, I hope not too late.

David Roland-Holst
UC Berkeley

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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