Should We Work Towards A 3°C World, If A 2°C Target Is Really Out of Reach?

Nomad Tales/CC BY-SA 2.0

By most counts the outcome of the latest round of climate talks, COP17 in Durban, South Africa, held about a month ago now, were a victory for procedure but far less so for the future climate, for keeping it much like the one we have today and the one our ancestors knew. In fact, it's only very slightly pessimistic to say that Durban threw hope of keeping temperature rise below the critical +2°C threshold, above which lots of natural systems are projected to become unhinged.

But what if we could stop temperature rise at 3°C, as in get enough politicians and polluting class members on board to achieve that goal? It's important to point out, would still require a pretty gargantuan effort, and quickly, to move away from fossil fuels and the business-as-usual way of power the planet and consuming its resources.

Over at the University of Minnesota's Momentum magazine, Ben Jervey (a TreeHugger alum, full disclosure) interviews Dr Robert Socolow from Princeton University (co-originator of the idea of using so-called "wedges" of mitigation efforts to fight climate) about this very topic.

Socolow proposes that if the option of 2°C is off the table, and doing nothing sets us on track for 5°C+ warming by the end of the century, then perhaps we need a different target. After all, something has to be done to slow warming, and just perhaps moving the bar a bit will work.

Socolow tells Jervey:

An alternative target is “3 degrees,” which is shorthand for allowing the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases at mid-century to be approximately equal to today’s rate. The fossil fuel system would be greatly constrained relative to where global economic growth is taking it now. Large deployment of energy efficiency and low-carbon technology would take place during the decades immediately ahead to facilitate the steady curtailment of fossil fuels. But there would still be substantial coal, oil and natural gas in the global energy system at mid-century.

Not to constrain the global fossil fuel system at all over the next few decades could be called “5 degrees.” It is the only outcome currently contrasted with “2 degrees” in most discussions of climate change policy. The “3 degrees” option is the middle option, permitting somewhat greater flexibility and caution but nonetheless requiring immense effort. We should be using the current period to work out the details of the middle option and keep it in play.

Now a +3°C target is not what some of the leading and most vocal climate scientists and activists would characterize as a safe goal, no doubt about it.

If that amount of warming happens there will be many very negative climate impacts, in terms of sea level rise, crop yield declines, precipitation and weather changes, extinctions of species (including possible a great deal of climate refugees and deaths related to climate-induced extreme weather). But, it won't be as bad as business-as-usual emissions, where things progress to the point that James Lovelock's none-too-cheery prediction of just couple billion people remaining by 2100 due to climate change and resource constraints has to be considered within the realm of possibility.

In short, 3°C is decidedly the better of two bad choices, yet far from ideal and sure to draw lots of criticism from those people to be worst affected by climate change—many of whom say even 2°C is too high.

I'm torn.

What do readers think? Assuming 3°C is political feasible (after all that's what we're talking about, not technologically feasible; this is about political will, full stop), is it time to move the target a bit?

Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science | Global Warming Solutions

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