Global Climate Change, formally referred to as global warming, is the largest threat facing the long term survival of the human species. The leading authority on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific intergovernmental body tasked with reviewing and assessing the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. Although debates in the media still rage over the causes of climate change, today the majority of climate scientists believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), of which carbon dioxide (CO2) is the best known, are building up in the atmosphere causing global temperatures to slowly rise. The continued rise of atmospheric GHGs (measured in parts per million [PPM] of CO2 equivalent) may have catastrophic consequences for earth and its inhabitants. While some people hold out hope that new government policy, new technology, and/or greater individual action will reverse the pattern of rising annual GHG emissions, others are less optimistic and believe that by the time humanity recognizes the true costs of climate change, it will be too late mitigate the consequences.
The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report determined that atmospheric GHG emissions needed to stabilize at 450ppm in order to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2-2.4C. Atmospheric ppm are currently at 393 and are rising at a rate of about 2 ppm per year. In order to stabilize at 450 ppm, the developed world would need to reduce its emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and 80-90% by 2050 along with significant reductions in the emissions growth rate of developing countries 1. Only a handful of countries (all of them in Europe) have achieved any reduction in annual GHG emissions despite promises to do so going back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.2 As a result, there is no evidence on which to reasonably conclude that atmospheric GHGs will be stabilized at 450ppm.
1. IPCC (2007). "IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (AR4)". Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.: Cambridge University Press.
The fossil fuels which account for the majority of GHG emissions are finite resources. As oil and coal becoming increasingly scarce, markets will naturally switch to more efficient or renewable resources thus stabilizing global GHG emissions. The growth of fuel efficient hybrid and fully electric automobiles are a good example of the market responding to higher fuel prices. (Also see New Technology)
Developing countries such as China and India are growing rapidly and causing massive increases in global GHG emissions through fossil fuel use and deforestation. It took developed countries 100s of years to create a standard of living high enough for an environmental movement to develop. It is more likely than not that developing countries will continue to increase their annual emissions for decades, greatly eclipsing any potential reductions in the developed world. According to Joseph Romm, former US assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, "China's growth in emissions could erode all other countries' efforts to stabilize the world's temperature" 1. As a result, atmospheric GHGs will continue to increase, causing greater climate change.
Rising countries, such as India, China, and Brazil, are adopting more efficient technologies than are currently in use in much of the world. While the developing world is contributing to net GHG emission growth, their GHG per person is still far below that of a developed country. And, as a result of the adoption of newer technologies, it is unlikely that their GHG per person will ever equal that found in the developed world. If reductions can be made in the developed world, where it is a fact that the economic resources exist to do so, then net emissions can be stabilized even while emissions in the developing world continue to grow.
The Kyoto Protocol failed to reduce global GHG emissions and in the midst of an economic crisis, world leaders were unable to even agree to a replacement treaty when it expired. There is no meaningful global emissions reduction treaty ready for ratification and no reason to be optimistic that one is forthcoming. The developing world believes it has a legitimate right to expand economically without emissions caps because the rich world is responsible for the vast majority of emissions over the last 200 years and per capita emissions in developing countries are still far lower than in the developed world. As such, developing countries will only agree to a global accord that pays for their emissions reductions/abatement. However, the developed world is unwilling to transfer wealth in exchange for a right to emit, particularly at a time when so many have large budget deficits 1. Given that the growth of annual emissions is being driven by developing countries, many developed countries (like the US) believe that any treaty that does not include developing countries (particularly China) would be fruitless.
Despite the failure of the Copenhagen Protocol, local, regional, national, and international organizations are all still working on solutions for climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was a failure by virtue of its design (too many credits would have gone to former Soviet countries whose GHG reductions were entirely attributable to economic collapse, which would have resulted in a cash transfer but no real reductions). Discussions continue on how best each country can reduce their GHG emissions while remaining economically competitive. The EU ETS trading scheme is an example of just such an endeavour. (See Carbon Trading Schemes)
Increased GHGs in the atmosphere have numerous significant consequences:
-glaciers, ice sheets, and perma frost will continue to melt. This will increase water levels, release more GHGs (methane, which is twenty times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and CO2), and reflect less heat back into the atmosphere exacerbating climate change1.
-the oceans (which are a natural carbon sink) are becoming increasingly acidic which will significantly damage ecosystems such as coral reefs. Additionally, changes in the chemistry of the ocean could affect the amount of CO2 it can absorb and process annually.
-there will be increasing incidents of extreme weather such as hurricanes, floods, and record high/low temperatures. Extreme weather can destroy ecosystems that capture CO2 such as forests and peat bogs leading to less natural CO2 absorption.
These events will accelerate climate change making it more difficult for humans to reduce GHG ppms to a sustainable level. Once average temperatures are above 2.5C, events will be triggered that will be irreversible and it will take 1000s of years of lower GHG emissions for the earth to return to normal 2.
These consequences are often speculation. With such a large and complex system we have no way of knowing what the consequences of climate change. There may well be some tipping points that will accelerate climate change but we do not know when each of these will become a problem and there may also be tipping points that act in the other direction.(See Earth's Resiliency)
The EU ETS is an example of a viable carbon market, it covers thirty countries from the EU as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Countries within the ETS are using market mechanisms to force domestic emitters to meet national caps as the amount of allowances reduces over time emissions fall. In 2020 under the ETS emissions will be 21% lower than in 2005 1. The IPCC report contains recommendations for how emissions can be abated through the simultaneous application of numerous small reductions and the implementation of abatement technologies and this is exactly what schemes like the ETS encourage. Part of the reason that the ETS is successful is that it is ensuring an even playing field between countries by (more or less) applying its rules equally across borders and industries.2
1. European Trading System, 2010
Carbon trading systems may have the effect of slowing the rise in CO2 emissions, and possibly even creating a fall. However this will not solve the problem as changes are already occurring and there may be no way to stop feedback that creates more emissions.
All the conclusions about the effects of rising atmospheric GHGs are based on computerized climate models. Even those that develop and use the models admit that the models are not nearly complex enough to be 100% accurate. Climate science is incredibly complicated and different models sometimes produce vastly different results 1.Increased carbon dioxide will increase plant life which may mitigate other damages of climate change and protect species currently considered threatened by climate change. Therefore, it is far too early to conclude that humanity is going to be destroyed. The earth's climate is continuously changing, with or without anthropogenic effects, and life has always found a way to continue.
While climate models may be imperfect they are the best tool presently available to predict the future. Most predict dire consequences if GHGs continue to rise through the 21st century, which is what seems most likely.
Humanity has revolutionized the world repeatedly through such monumental inventions as agriculture, steel, anti-biotics, and microchips. And as technology has improved, so too has the rate at which technology improves. It is predicted that there will be 32 times more change between 2000 and 2050 than there was between 1950 and 2000. In the midst of this, many great minds will be focussed on emissions abatement and climate control technologies. So, even if the most severe climate predictions do come to pass, it is unimaginable that humanity will not find a way to intervene. Even small changes will make a difference – more efficient coal power stations can emit a third less emissions than less efficient ones 1. Renewable energy will become more competitive and scalable and technology develops we may even be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere so undoing the damage. 1
Technological improvements will almost certainly be developed for those who can afford them (as most technology is). However, climate change will have the greatest effect on poor countries that cannot afford mitigation. Potentially, being able to protect the wealthy does not mean that we are not too late on global climate change.
IPCC (2000). 1.5. Why New IPCC Emissions Scenarios? In: Chapter 1: Background and Overview. In: IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (Nakicenovic, N. and R. Swart, Eds.). Print version: Cambridge University Press, UK. This version: IPCC website. Retrieved 2011-07-25.