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Copenhagen's breakdown, greening Korea and why 2° is big

After spending a 45°C (113°F) afternoon in Seville 6 years ago without air conditioning and many Barcelona winters- often in the single digits Celcius or 40s Fahrenheit- without turning on the heat, the difference of 2 degrees doesn’t seem like a big deal.

While 2 degrees might not force me to turn on our heat (2 very small low consumption wall heaters) or run into an air-conditioned cafe (we don’t have that option at home), a permanent temperature change like this would wreak havoc on the world’s eco-systems. 

And according to scientists at Copenhagen’s climate talks this week it’s unlikely we’ll hit the 2°C target set by Europe’s politicians, but rather something closer to 4°C. 

It’s been 2 years since Sir Nicolas Stern published his now very famous Stern report warning Britain (he was commissioned by Gordan Brown) and the world of the effects of climate change and now even he says that his original report underestimated the risks and damage from inaction. 

We’ve had 2 years of talk about how we have to act now, but our numbers for carbon emissions are going in the wrong direction. 

Stern blames politicians for our misdirection. 

“Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet.”  

Two degrees closer to “climate breakdown” 

One of the problems: when politicians and scientists talk about just how much our climate is going to change, there’s a difference of 2 degrees. 

I listened to a podcast from Copenhagen with the Guardian’s environment correspondent David Adam (a scientist himself) who explained the disconnect.

“The policians will tell you we can still hit a target of 2 degrees. and the scientists won’t, or at least not privately. People here are saying that 2 degrees is gone. We’re going to be lucky to limit temperature rise to 3 degrees, but actually we’re looking more like 4 degrees.” 

While politicians may be slow to catch on, the world’s intellectuals are taking the new number seriously: Oxford University just announced that it would hold a conference next fall to discuss the implications of a 4 degree rise. 

So how devastating is this extra 2 degrees? 

  • We could lose 85% of the Amazon. 
  • Large parts of Southern Europe would be turned to desert. 
  • Sea levels will rise twice as fast as predicted. 
  • And millions of people will suffer from drought and famine. 

Devastating for eco systems- think mass extinctions of species-, but equally disruptive for us, the human species. Lord Stern explained more directly how it would affect the way we live. 

“You’d see hundreds of millions people, probably billions of people who would have to move and we know that would cause conflict, so we would see a very extended period of conflict around the world, decades or centuries as hundreds of millions of people move.” 

Climate change: a “ridiculously neutral” term 

Perhaps we just need to become a bit more aggressive about the way we discuss global warming (Though according to a new Gallup poll, already a record 41% of Americans think global warming is “exaggerated” by the media).

Calling what’s happening to our world “climate change”, according to columnist George Monbiot, is like calling “a foreign invasion as an unexpected visit, or bombs as unwanted deliveries”.  

Rather than this using this “ridiculously neutral term” to describe what could devastate humanity, we should find a more appropriate way to describe our biggest potential catastrophe. Monbiot suggests “climate breakdown”.

How the economic crisis can keep us at 2 degrees 

Copenhagen wasn’t just about predicting the decimation of our population (one scientist’s forecast for a 5 or 6 degree change), but there was plenty of agreement that we have the tools to stop radical change and why, now during this world economic crisis, the moment for change is truly now. 

Stern: “It’s an opportunity, given that resources will be cheaper now than in the future, now is the time to get the unemployed of Europe working on energy efficiency.” 

The host politician- Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen- echoed Stern’s call, but in a grandly political way called on the world to “set a two degree goal” and proclaimed: “Business as usual is dead – green growth is the answer to both our climate and economic problems.” 

It makes a great soundbite, but will politicians really have the power to make the big changes at home to help us reach the 2 degree number? 

Stern is calling for 20% of economic recovery plan money to go toward climate change reduction. I was disappointed to hear that Obama’s plan falls short

America’s $100 billion dedicated to green growth makes up just under 13% of the total. The EU’s plan hits 14%, Germany’s 19% and Poland (with their addiction to coal) and Italy (with their addiction to Berlusconi) didn’t really bother with green measures. 

But while America’s “Green New Deal” fails to meet the UN target of 1% of GDP, it is a massive undertaking and the largest national plan in its scale. 

South Korea leads the pack 

And for really great underreported green news, South Korea seems to be leading the pack with the greening of their recovery plan. Two-thirds of their stimulus package- $38 billion- is dedicated toward environmentally-friendly projects (3% of GDP).  

Their “Green New Deal Job Creation Plan” includes energy conservation measures, eco-park creation, water-related projects and low carbon transport. In fact, the country’s new slogan is “low carbon, green growth”. I was particularly impressed by the massive 3,000 km (1,864 mile) bike path that by 2018 will connect the entire coastal area of the southern half of the country. 

Making CO2 as taboo as CO 

Sir Nicolas Stern did offer some positive encouragement from Copenhagen. He pointed out that it took just a few decades for drunk driving to go from generally accepted to taboo. 

It took even less time for smoking- and its associated CO- to be kicked out to the street. Now if we could just do the same with the other carbon.