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Warranted optimism or false hope? At a recent summit in Kobe, Japan, environment ministers from the G8 nations pledged to cut emissions in half by 2050 -- though they conspicuously failed to set a binding target for 2020 (thank you, Bush EPA). The ministers claimed there was "strong political will" to take decisive action against climate change -- enough to push for a successor to the Kyoto treaty at the G8 leaders' annual summit in Hokkaido in July.
Now let's (generously) assume the world community does successfully hammer out a successor treaty this July. Will it really make that much of a difference?
In a Nature commentary, Martin Perry, Jean Palutikof, Clair Hanson (all past high-ranking members of the IPCC) and Jason Lowe make the argument that even the G8's most ambitious proposals will prove inadequate in the long-term. The effects of climate change we are seeing now -- higher food prices, increased prevalence of droughts -- will only get worse with time if we don't immediately start adapting and significantly reducing our emissions, they say.
A 50% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050, the target agreed upon by G8 leaders, won't avoid major global impacts; it "misleadingly appears to be a satisfactory outcome," they explain, while obscuring the fact that we "would be locked into a warming trend until at least 2100 owing to inertia in the climate system." Not only would damages begin to accelerate, there would be a greater than 50% chance that we'd exceed the 2°C target -- the level above which experts agree we won't be able to avoid the worst excesses of climate change.
The bare minimum that is needed, they argue, is an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. This would help stabilize atmospheric GHG levels around 400-470 ppm (a far cry from the 350 ppm level called for by Bill McKibben and James Hansen) and "substantially" reduce the impact of climate change, halving the number of people put at risk of drought and flooding. Even then, however, the damage will be significant since the impacts that occur below a 1°C are practically unavoidable.
What can be done then? For these scientists, the answer is clear: We must adapt, and fast.
Residual damage will be great unless we invest in adaptation now. Much of the damage could be avoided by adaptation, but again, this would require a much larger effort than is currently planned ... Much more importantly, we now have the knowledge to make a more informed choice regarding the optimal balance between mitigation and adaptation, and we know that immediate investment in adaptation will be essential to buffer the worst impacts. This does not mean that mitigation can be delayed, but quite the opposite: the longer we delay mitigation, the more likely it is that global change will exceed our capacity to adapt.
The last 10 years have been wasted due to inaction and what the authors call the G8's "false optimism" -- the belief that we can fully avoid all of climate change's impacts by making significant emissions cuts -- which has obscured the need for adaptation and other mitigation measures. Though their assessment may seem excessively bleak, we can't escape the fact that, irregardless of the climate policies we eventually choose to adopt, there will be serious consequences for our planet.
They conclude: "The sooner we recognize this delusion, confront the challenge and implement both stringent emissions cuts and major adaptation efforts, the less will be the damage that we and our children will have to live with."