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Driving Straight Into Catastrophe

by Julio Godoy

PARIS - Despite repeated warnings by environmental and climate experts that reduction of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is fundamental to forestalling global warming, disaster appears imminent. According to the latest statistics, unprecedented climate change has Earth hurtling down a path of catastrophic proportions.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the global consumption of primary energy in 2010 reached some 500 exajoules (EJ), a number just under the worst-case scenario formulated ten years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC's Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, published in 2000, calculated the worst-case scenario as 525 EJ consumed in one calendar year.

The IEA found that coal was one of the largest sources of energy consumed in 2010, comprising approximately 27 percent of the total energy consumption. Coal, one of the cheapest sources of energy, is considered the filthiest of all, as far as greenhouse gases emissions (GHGE) are concerned.

Correspondingly, the global GHGE, measured as equivalent to carbon dioxide, reached at least 32 billion tonnes last year, only one step below the most pessimistic scenario imagined by the IPCC in 2000: 33 billion tonnes of CO2.

The results for 2010 were conditioned by the present global economic crisis - meaning that under normal economic circumstances, the numbers would have been higher. In other words, total consumption of energy in 2010 would have been worse than the most pessimistic scenario the IPCC formulated ten years ago had the global economy been in better shape.

These findings have prompted leading environmental experts to warn that humankind is racing towards destruction.

"The year 2010 was the hottest ever measured since the beginning of the recordings, 130 years ago," Anders Levermann, professor of climate system dynamics at the Physics Institute of the Potsdam University told IPS.

Levermann referred to the newest global temperature measurements carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2010.

According to the NOAA, "For the 2010 year (January-November), the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was 0.64 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average - the warmest such period since records began in 1880."

Levermann explained that, contrary to appearance, the arctic winter in Western Europe is just another negative consequence of climate change.

"Global warming is melting the ice in the Kara Sea, in the Arctic Ocean," he explained. "This leads to a high pressure area above Siberia, which drives extremely cold winds towards Europe."

Levermann pointed out that the extreme global weather conditions experienced in 2010 - very cold weather in Western Europe during the winter, massive floods in Pakistan and Australia, extremely hot summers in Russia and Western Europe - illustrate the limits of even the most expert climate predictions.

"The more greenhouse gases we emit, the more the global climate gets out of control," Levermann said. "But the weather extremes that we cannot predict, such as the floods in Pakistan and Australia and the fires in Russia, are the ones that set the limits to human life."

According to the newest IPCC estimations, global temperatures may rise as much as eight degrees Celsius by the year 2200.

Levermann explained that the temperature difference within an interglacial period, such as the one we are living now, have historically reached about five Celsius degrees.

"The transition between these temperature extremes lasted some 50,000 years in the past," Levermann said. "But at the present rate of GHGE we are reducing such a transition by 50 times."

He added that the rapid rising of global temperatures could provoke extreme weather catastrophes that humankind won't be able to survive.

"The rising frequency of weather extremes, with their enormous social and economic consequences, would not allow public budgets to recuperate, nor give societies the time to breathe again," Levermann said. "Nor would insurance companies be able to compensate for the damages."

Levermann echoed earlier warnings that climate change could destroy countries such as Bangladesh, cities situated near the oceans, such as New York and Amsterdam, and make large parts of Africa uninhabitable.

"Climate change would destroy drinking water supplies, agriculture, habitats, and provoke giant waves of migration and mass mortality," he explained.

Levermann compared the consequences of global warming to a wall hidden in fog. "We cannot see the wall, but it is there. And we are driving at the highest possible speed towards it." 

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