Can the world cope with – or adapt to – four degrees of temperature rise?

4 degrees Celsius. That’s the limit in global temperature rise that the World Bank projects for human adaptability. It is currently urging nations at risk to plan around the potential impacts of this change as well as to take more aggressive measures to reach their climate goals. One nation whose actions could bring big global impact is the United States. The recent ruling to increase vehicle fuel economy will result in a big reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, yet further actions face political resistance from the Republican Party. They will do well to take a leaf out of former President Ronald Reagan’s environmental record to push forward environmental rules. Read more

Climate Change: Lessons From Ronald Reagan

By Cass R. Sunstein in New York Times (10 November 2012):

THE re-election of President Obama, preceded by the extraordinary damage done by Hurricane Sandy, raises a critical question: In the coming years, might it be possible for the United States to take significant steps to reduce the risks associated with climate change?

A crucial decision during Ronald Reagan’s second term suggests that the answer may well be yes. The Reagan administration was generally skeptical about costly environmental rules, but with respect to protection of the ozone layer, Reagan was an environmentalist hero. Under his leadership, the United States became the prime mover behind the Montreal Protocol, which required the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals.

There is a real irony here. Republicans and conservatives had ridiculed scientists who expressed concern about the destruction of the ozone layer. How did Ronald Reagan, of all people, come to favor aggressive regulatory steps and lead the world toward a strong and historic international agreement?

A large part of the answer lies in a tool disliked by many progressives but embraced by Reagan (and Mr. Obama): cost-benefit analysis. Reagan’s economists found that the costs of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals were a lot lower than the costs of not doing so — largely measured in terms of avoiding cancers that would otherwise occur. Presented with that analysis, Reagan decided that the issue was pretty clear.

Much the same can be said about climate change. Recent reports suggest that the economic cost of Hurricane Sandy could reach $50 billion and that in the current quarter, the hurricane could remove as much as half a percentage point from the nation’s economic growth. The cost of that single hurricane may well be more than five times greater than that of a usual full year’s worth of the most expensive regulations, which ordinarily cost well under $10 billion annually. True, scientists cannot attribute any particular hurricane to greenhouse gas emissions, but climate change is increasing the risk of costly harm from hurricanes and other natural disasters. Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs.

Skeptics have rightly observed that even aggressive regulatory steps by the United States cannot stop climate change. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for decades, and many nations, especially in the developing world, are contributing growing levels of emissions. For this reason, the unilateral actions of any country will not do what must be done to reduce anticipated warming and the resulting harms. Nonetheless, cost-effective reductions from the United States would help, both in themselves and because they should spur technological changes and regulatory initiatives from other nations.

For the United States, some of the best recent steps serve to save money, promote energy security and reduce air pollution. A good model is provided by rules from the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, widely supported by the automobile industry, which will increase the fuel economy of cars to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025.

The fuel economy rules will eventually save consumers more than $1.7 trillion, cut United States oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six billion metric tons — more than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the United States in 2010. The monetary benefits of these rules exceed the monetary costs by billions of dollars annually.

In a similar vein, recent rules from the Department of Energy are requiring greater energy efficiency from appliances like refrigerators, washing machines and small motors. For these rules as well, the monetary benefits dwarf the costs, and they include large savings to consumers as well as pollution reductions. There is a lot more to achieve in the area of energy efficiency, especially as technologies advance and continue to transform the once-impossible into the eminently doable.

The electricity sector is responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In this domain, any regulations must be carefully devised, as they were in the case of fuel economy, to ensure that they do not impose unjustified costs, especially in an economically difficult period. But just as in that case, it should be possible to work with affected companies to identify flexible and cost-conscious approaches, producing reductions while minimizing regulatory burdens.

As in the case of the Montreal Protocol, an effective response to climate change requires many nations to act. China is the biggest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, and it must become a leader in international negotiations, not an obstacle. But smart initiatives from the United States may well be an indispensable precondition for international efforts.

For those who seek to reduce the risks associated with climate change, it is ironic but true that the best precedent comes from a conservative icon. The big question now is whether today’s Republicans will follow Reagan’s example.

Cass R. Sunstein is a professor at Harvard Law School and a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.



World Bank warns of ‘4-degree’ threshold of global temperature increase

By Howard Schneider in Washington Post (20 November 2012):

The World Bank is urging stepped-up efforts to meet world carbon-reduction goals after looking at what it says would be the catastrophic consequences if average world temperatures rise more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

In what World Bank President Jim Yong Kim acknowledged was a “doomsday scenario,” a new study by the organization cited the 4-degree increase as a threshold that would be likely to trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate large numbers of people from land inundated by rising seas.

World climate goals aim to hold the mean temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, by curbing emissions of greenhouse gases that trap heat — a phenomenon already thought to have boosted average temperatures nearly 1 degree from levels present before the start of the industrial age, Kim said in a briefing last week.

That goal is unlikely to be met, he said, with an increase of 3 or 3.5 degrees Celsius now considered probable.

The report noted that a drop in average temperature of around 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) triggered the last ice age, and it predicted that a temperature increase of that magnitude would similarly reshape the planet.

In looking at the effects of a 4-degree increase, Kim said the bank was hoping to encourage countries to act more aggressively to achieve climate goals and to prompt poorer nations to begin planning ways to offset the long list of potential impacts.

Those could include sea levels as much as three feet higher than currently expected — a potentially devastating problem for large coastal cities in Asia and Africa. Warming on such a scale could also limit access to fresh water for irrigation and cause heat, drought and disease-related problems that could make it more difficult to meet world food demands and improve health.

“The kind of sea level rise we are talking about is going to make the process of urban planning and services to the poor absolutely fundamental,” said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development. “The race to [develop] heat-resistant and drought-resistant strains [of staple food crops] becomes fundamental.”

Kyte said the organization has begun more intense and frequent talks with poorer nations over how to prepare for climate change — usually at the instigation of officials who have seen the effects of shifting weather and climate patterns and now feel they need to plan for the worst.

Countries such as Nigeria, Vietnam and Thailand “are coming and saying, ‘help us think through the options,’ ” Kyte said. “This is an absolute change in the conversation we are having with our clients.”

The bank’s report, “Turn Down the Heat,” cast some doubt on how much can be done to avoid the worst outcomes.

Predicting the course of the world’s climate is a difficult science, and it is impossible to forecast how technology, demographics and politics will shape what the world looks like in 90 years — regardless of the temperature.

But the report concluded that a 4-degree jump in average temperatures would push some countries or regions to the brink of collapse, regardless of how hard they try to adapt.

“A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation,” the report said. “There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”


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