Humanity may not be completely doomed just yet, but is well on the way to broiling itself to a crisp, according to the world’s leading climate scientists, who this week rolled out part one of their latest global climate change assessment in a Summary for Policymakers.
The latest word from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is unequivocal. Greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are inexorably and irrevocably warming the planet, melting polar icecaps, acidifying the oceans and raising sea level. Proceeding at the same rate of emissions, global temperatures are likely to climb well above any sustainable thresholds, the report warns.
Climate change “threatens our planet, our only home,” IPCC co-chair Thomas Stocker said at a press conference in Stockholm Friday. The report’s message should resonate with many Coloradans after a year of massive forest fires, drought and flooding — all of which have been linked to varying degrees with climate change.
The only realistic path for Colorado and the rest of the world involves drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, which means curbing the use of fossil fuels, global climate experts said in the report.
Failing to do that will likely result in even more extreme weather for Colorado, according to Rocky Mountain Climate Organization president Stephen Saunders.
“The report shows how much it matters whether we limit future emissions or let them keep going up,” Saunders said. “For late in the century, the average projection with very low emissions is that the interior West would be 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. With very high emissions, we would be 7 to 9 degrees hotter. That’s a huge difference, and the difference in extreme weather events likely would be even larger,” he said.
The RMCO released a statement following the deadly Front Range floods pointing out that extreme storms are clearly one of the manifestations of human-caused climate change.
“The simple fact of physics is that warmer air can hold more water. For us in Colorado, this means there could be more events in which copious amounts of atmospheric moisture are brought here from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California,” Saunders said in a statement on his organization’s website.
Saunders’ conclusions are backed by a recent report from the Boulder-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that systematically looked for links between global warming and extreme weather. The study couldn’t find links in every case, but did conclude that extreme heat waves are already much more likely, and that rainfall totals are influenced by increases in sea surface temperature and atmospheric moisture.
The IPCC document clearly has implications for Colorado’s cherished mountain landscapes, said James White, director of the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“It’s a pretty robust finding of the climate models that Colorado, and the western U.S. in general, looks to be getting hotter and drier,” said White, explaining that measurements at INSTAAR’s mountain research station show that big changes are already happening.
“Temperatures are changing, precipitation is changing, nutrient cycles are changing … Unfortunately, none of the indicators for the future are ones that give us good feelings. They’re warning signs for what’s down the road,” White said.
The clear trend toward warmer autumn temperatures will affect the economically important ski industry, and will also have a major affect on how Colorado manages water. There’s no clear indication that overall precipitation will decrease, but it’s equally clear that more of our precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow.
“We use the snowpack as free water storage,” White said. Without that storage, the state could be forced to build more reservoirs to compensate, which means drowning more river valleys — not a popular option in Colorado, he added.
The IPCC call to reduce carbon emissions should be a guidepost for Colorado in its push to develop more natural gas resources, said Conservation Colorado director Pete Maysmith. Fracking for gas may have some short-term climate benefits — but only if the state follows through on Gov. Hickenlooper’s call for zero tolerance of methane emissions, Maysmith said.
While burning natural gas for electricity produces less carbon dioxide emissions, even small leaks of methane (a powerful heat-trapping gas) could wipe out any advantages that natural gas offers, Maysmith said.
“We have to cut the amount of carbon we spew into the atmosphere here in Colorado,” Maysmith said in reaction to the IPCC report. “And in the long run. we must move toward non-carbon based renewable energy. That’s where we need to be putting time energy and money,” he concluded.
Disclosure: Bob Berwyn is volunteer communications director with the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.
[ Image of sunset over Colorado wildfire by Jonathan Kraft. ]