Feeling The Heat: Why Even 2 Degrees C Matters

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In his book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas paints a cataclysmic picture of what might happen if runaway climate change increases the average global temperature by 6 degrees Centigrade:

Super hurricanes would cause catastrophic flooding. Explosive gases would bubble up from deep in the oceans and erupt in massive fireballs. Fungi would be the only survivors of life as we know it. It’s a worst case scenario that could have been taken from a Hollywood sci-fi movie.

Meanwhile, the latest scientific assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming would be held to about 2 degrees C if society can stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million CO2 equivalents. (CO2 equivalents are a standard unit of measure for climate modeling).

This is a target that The Nature Conservancy advocates as a way to stave off the worst risks of climate change.

On its face, 2 degrees C might not sound all that bad, especially if it took a little sting from winter’s chill. But think about how you feel when you have a fever — lethargic, achy, sick.That’s how to think about what 2 degrees of warming might mean — it’s a planetary fever that will have sickening consequences:

  • Extreme heat waves like the one in 2003 that killed more than 35,000 people in Europe would be “normal” summer conditions.
  • Crop yields of wheat, corn and rice could decline by 5 percent to 15 percent, just when we need to feed a human population that will grow by 3 billion people in the next 40 years.
  • Increases in forest fires could transform Canada’s Boreal Forest from one of the world’s largest carbon sinks into a greenhouse gas source that makes it even harder to contain climate change.

These sorts of impacts may not have the same shock factor as Lynas’ 6 degree apocalypse. But even 2 degrees will be bad for nature and bad for people.

(Caption: Bison bull in sunset in Osage County, Oklahoma. Credit: Harvey Payne.)

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