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A Climate Emergency?

Capacity shortages from global warming should be the real cause for alarm.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2007

frighteningly high level if you think in terms of tons of carbon. According to Fred Pearce’s book, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, during the depths of the last ice age, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hovered around 440 billion tons. Then, as the ice age closed, some 220 billion tons rose back out of the oceans and into the atmosphere, raising the level there to about 660 billion tons.

That’s where things remained at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when humans began large-scale burning of carbon fuels. Today, after a couple of centuries of rising emissions, we have added another 220 billion tons to the atmospheric burden, making it about 880 billion tons—twice what it was during the last ice age and a third more than recent interglacial eras.

Scientists interviewed in the Pearce book conclude that a more conservative safety-first concentration should be below 450 parts per million or below 935 billion tons. But given current emissions, we could hit that level in as little as 10 years, which is consistent with U.N. warnings that the world has until 2020 to reverse the affects of climate change.

The IPCC report’s safety level is 590 parts per million or 1.38 trillion tons, which is a level never before seen on this planet. Most scientists don’t foresee us reaching those levels, but instead returning to a historical pattern of unstable weather patterns, or alternating glacial and interglacial periods.

During the last ice age, Starbucks didn’t exist, but fur coats were all the rage. Let’s hope electricity is around in the future, so we at least can brew some java to stay warm before heading outside to forage for food.