Climate Change, An Important Update

A good article from E&E News about the uncertainty in the field.

An excerpt.

“One of the most fundamental questions in climate research asks the following: What will the world look like when we reach a certain point of warming?

“How will it change after 2 degrees? 4 degrees? Even warmer?

“More than a decade ago, scientists designed a set of hypothetical scenarios to help them model the climate. Their goal was to answer these very questions. Each scenario assumes a different level of future greenhouse gas emissions and global carbon dioxide concentrations, translating to different levels of warming.

“The mildest scenario assumes a bold effort globally to reduce emissions over the coming decades where global temperatures would rise only about 2 degrees Celsius above their preindustrial levels through the end of the century. Several intermediate scenarios assume slightly higher levels of warming. And the most severe trajectory, which presumes that emissions will grow throughout this century, could result in as much as 5 degrees C — that’s about 9 degrees Fahrenheit — of additional global warming by the year 2100.

“These scenarios have been used in thousands of climate studies since they were first developed.

“Now there may be a problem with one of them. The most severe climate scenario of the bunch might be so extreme that it’s no longer a likely outcome, experts say.

“In one sense, that’s good news for the world. It means that the most extreme visions of the future, outlined in climate studies over the years, probably won’t come to pass.

“But it also suggests that climate scientists may want to rethink the way they conduct modeling studies moving forward.

“According to some experts, presenting the public with unreasonable climate scenarios could hurt global efforts to address climate change. It could suggest that global climate targets, like the goals of the Paris Agreement, are less achievable than they actually are.

“That’s one concern outlined in a comment published yesterday in Nature by University of California, Berkeley, climate scientist Zeke Hausfather and climate policy expert Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway.

“The scenario in question — dubbed Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, or RCP8.5 — is often referred to in climate studies as a “business-as-usual” trajectory. In other words, it’s framed as the outcome the world will experience if current conditions are allowed to continue into the future, with no future climate policy enacted.

“But that’s not actually the case, the authors argue.

“We still have a huge lift to go to get warming below 2 degrees,” Hausfather said in an interview with E&E News. “But at the same time, we’ve started to exclude some of the truly catastrophic outcomes of high-end warming.”

“The worst-case scenario, RCP8.5, was originally intended “to explore an unlikely high-risk future,” the authors say. The dangerous outcomes outlined in this scenario would require extreme emissions of future greenhouse gases, the sort that would probably have to be driven by massive expansions in global coal consumption over the coming decades.

“When the pathways were developed, that grim future was still a potential concern.

“If we go back to when the scenario was developed in 2007, what was happening in the world of energy — we saw China building up coal combustion, building an unbelievable number of coal plants,” said Justin Ritchie, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia, whose research has focused on the likelihood of high-end emissions scenarios.

“The question was, what if that continued?” Ritchie said. “If that continued for 90-plus years, then you get RCP8.5.”

“It was a possible, although extreme, scenario to begin with. But in the years since, Ritchie notes, a combination of global commitments to the Paris Agreement and changes in the global energy landscape have made this scenario much more unlikely.

“Under these present-day conditions — what might be more accurately considered the new “business as usual” — most experts estimate the world is on track for global warming in the realm of about 3 degrees C. That’s significantly less than the warming implied by RCP8.5.

“This doesn’t mean that the models used by climate scientists are wrong or can’t be trusted. On the contrary, research suggests that climate models generally do a good job of predicting how the world will respond to given amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

“If global carbon emissions really reached the levels implied by RCP8.5, the models probably do a good job of projecting how the earth system would respond. The comment simply suggests that this particular emissions scenario — the assumptions fueling the most extreme model projections — are probably no longer plausible.”

Retrieved January 30, 2020 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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