It’s time we got rid of phony targets | Toronto Star
The scary new math of warming
By Peter Gorrie Environment Columnist
Published On Sat Nov 21 2009
A recent environmental summit set ambitious new targets for reducing greenhouse gasses.
If new environmental campaigns take hold, you’ll hear a lot about two numbers during the next few months. If they succeed, you could find yourself living, and thinking, differently.
The numbers are 350 and 50.
The first is a target for reducing the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. The second refers to the minimum percentage of land and ocean that must be protected from development to ward off climate change and prevent the extinction of many plants and animals.
Both dump a cold splash of reality on the linked tasks of slowing climate change and protecting endangered species.
It’s time to stop pussyfooting, their advocates say. Measures proposed by governments, international negotiators, and even some environmental groups don’t approach what really must be done. Even if next month’s UN conference in Copenhagen achieves what the most cockeyed of optimists hope for – which it won’t – we wouldn’t be spared the worst of climate change.
That’s because current targets for reducing greenhouse gases and preserving wilderness are phony, says Harvey Locke, a Canadian lawyer and a vice-president of the Wild Foundation, based in Boulder, Colo.
"We are not saving the world. We’re failures. It’s time to acknowledge that," Locke said recently, following the foundation’s Wild9 conservation meeting in Merida, Mexico. "All of us really wanted to believe we could fix things with fine-tuning. It doesn’t work.
"Now we’re saying; `Let’s tell the truth’ and state clearly the scale of … intervention needed. It’s time we got rid of phony targets."
One that must go is the widely accepted goal of keeping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million in hopes that would keep Earth’s average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. The level now is nearly 390, and rising. At that concentration, the oceans are warming and increasingly acidic, killing coral reefs; storms and droughts are more intense; glaciers and polar ice fields are melting.
While 350 is higher than before the industrial revolution, scientists expect it would do the job.
Also needing a radical update is the assumption, adopted a quarter-century ago, that it’s sufficient to set aside 12 per cent of Earth’s surface in parks or other protected areas. As I wrote last week, that’s too little to impact climate change or save many species.
The new target, to protect at least half the total land and ocean surface, was endorsed for the first time at Wild9. "If we don’t … the thing is going to unravel," Locke says.
The revised targets are complementary: Natural areas take carbon out of the atmosphere; more warming would destroy many.
They are also arbitrary and wouldn’t come with guarantees: Nature is too complicated and unpredictable for certainty. It is clear, though, that the current goal is much too soft.
The new numbers demand significant change: To protect half the planet, we’d have to be far more careful with the remainder, where a population heading for 9 billion would live. To make 350, we’d need to abandon coal and much of our use of oil and gas, and adopt new technologies.
Aiming for them would also require a new attitude, said conference speaker Larry Merculieff, an Alaskan Aleut. He challenges those, including Al Gore, who say: "Let’s maintain our current lifestyle that’s pushing (Earth’s) life-support system to its end.
"We should not talk about minimizing or avoiding the pain. We need to revise all the paradigms we accept as correct.
"Ask the wrong questions and you get to the wrong destination."
That seems destined to be the real failure of Copenhagen: Not that 15,000 delegates won’t agree on targets, but that they won’t ask the right questions.
pgorrie @ sympatico.ca