We Still Have A 50-50 Chance At Not Frying Ourselves, Says MIT Study


Photos via MIT Energy Initiative. Credit: Donna Coveney

Good News! If we make the needed changes, we still have a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate and not going more than a few tenths above the 2 degree target for maximum global warming. At least, that's what MIT says after utilizing their Integrated Global Systems Model to create a computer simulation of global economic activity and climate processes. So, what do we have to do to hit the positive side of that warming scenario?The tools are in an aptly named report: How to limit risk of climate catastrophe - and really, it comes down to policy changes.


To illustrate the findings of their model, MIT researchers created a pair of 'roulette wheels.' This wheel depicts their estimate of the range of probability of potential global temperature change over the next 100 years if no policy change is enacted on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Image courtesy: MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Ron Prinn, co-director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a co-author of the new study, says that "our results show we still have around a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate" at a level of no more than a few tenths above the 2 degree target.

But that doesn't mean just leveling off where we're at. It means implementing reductions immediately. The report states that "That result could be achieved if the aggressive emissions targets in current U.S. climate bills were met, and matched by other wealthy countries, and if China and other large developing countries followed suit with only a decade or two delay."

Mort Webster, assistant professor of engineering systems, who was the lead author of the new report, states, "It's a tradeoff between risks. There's the risk of extreme climate change but there's also a risk of higher costs. As scientists, we don't choose what's the right level of risk for society, but we show what the risks are either way."

It's an almost laughable comparison to pit disasters caused by global warming - and their associated costs - against the (sometimes) high upfront costs of putting in place the systems and technologies to minimize emissions. Yet, that's where we're at. And that's exactly what has made this climate simulation so much more accurate than many others.

Other research groups have estimated the probabilities of various outcomes, based on variations in the physical response of the climate system itself. But the MIT model is the only one that interactively includes detailed treatment of possible changes in human activities as well -- such as the degree of economic growth, with its associated energy use, in different countries. By taking a probabilistic approach, using many different runs of the climate model, this approach gives a more realistic assessment of the range of possible outcomes, Webster says.

Interestingly enough, even small policy changes make big impacts. Just yesterday at West Coast Green, Dan Kammen pointed out that after policy changes positively affecting the solar industry were made in 2007, the industry quadrupled in 2008. So balancing policy, economy, human behavior, and the fact that the world is heating up due in no small part to carbon dioxide emissions, we're able to see that yes, we still have a shot at not cooking the planet if we act now.


This wheel assumes that aggressive policy is enacted. Image courtesy: MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Ahem, Copenhagen leaders...are you listening?

Just to reiterate: "These results illustrate that even relatively loose constraints on emissions reduce greatly the chance of an extreme temperature increase, which is associated with the greatest damage," the report concludes.

But it has to happen now.

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Tags: Global Warming Effects | Global Warming Solutions