Denver as the new Phoenix: Climate watchers look to Lima for action plan

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his week’s climate talks in Lima, Peru, come as Planet Earth boils toward the end of what is almost certainly going to be the warmest year in recorded history, and amid growing doubts that the world is on track to cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius.

Instead, global temperatures are probably on track to increase by 5-6 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, which would fundamentally change the face of Colorado.

Most precipitation would fall as rain, so there would be very little, if any snowpack to store water. Forests would probably would die in most areas, retreating to just the highest, north-facing mountain slopes, and parts of the Four Corners Region and Southeast Colorado could become true deserts, while the climate in Denver would be more like Phoenix or Tucson.

On a global scale, the consequences of a 10 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase are almost unfathomable. Much of the Greenland Ice Sheet and parts of the Antarctic ice sheets would melt, raising sea level at least 10 to 20 feet, Ocean currents would shift with the influx of cold, less salty water, possibly leading to massive shifts in climate patterns.

World leaders at the Lima conference are downplaying the outcome of the Lima session, hoping only to lay the groundwork for a big climate deal next year at the Paris parley. The only way to limit global warming at 2 degrees Celsius is to de-carbonize the global economy by 2050, but so far, none of the floated plans come close to that target, according to some observers in Lima.

Under any of the current proposals, Earth’s average surface temperature would probably soar 5 or 6 degrees Celsius (9-10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, a degree of warming at which all bets about impacts are off, according to scientists, who have long urged the 2-degree Celsius cap as the only “safe” path.

“If we get serious about reducing emissions we can limit temperature increases, perhaps to 1 degree Celsius,” said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. “That’s livable, but with high emissions, temperatures could go up 10 degrees by the end of the century. That would completely change life on earth as we know it,” Saunders said.

“I wish I could tell you more about the arithmetic, but in a nutshell, none of the pledges that are on the table for the Paris deal in 2015 are close to on track to keeping us in a 2-degree world,” Ashwin Ravikumar told the Independent via email from Lima.

The official tone at the talks is optimistic, but many outside observer groups say the basic climate math is clear — we won’t be able to slow the runaway global warming train in time, said Ravikumar, attending the talks as an observer with the Center for International Forestry Research.

It just doesn’t seem like the world’s countries will find the political will to make the decisions needed to cap global warming at the so-called safe level, and that means adaptation becomes critical. Colorado, and other parts of the world, will have to fundamentally rethink how to sustain life in a world that will be much warmer than at any time during humankind’s short stint on the planet.

But there is reason for optimism in the long-term, according to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Convention.

“Never before has society had all the smart policy and technology resources to curb greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience,”  Figueres said in a statement at the start of the Lima talks. Ms. Figueres welcomed the leadership of the EU, the US and China, who have publicly announced post-2020 climate targets and visions.

“It is hugely encouraging that well ahead of next year’s first quarter deadline, countries have already been outlining what they intend to contribute to the Paris agreement,” she said, referring in particular to the recent U.S.-China climate deal, as well as the EPA Clean Power Plan, that would result in sharp cuts from U.S. power plants over the next few decades.

Overall, the momentum toward a de-carbonized global energy economy seems to be growing fast, and the EPA’s clean power plan could benefit Colorado economically, according to renewable energy experts. Part of the plan encourages formation of regional carbon-trading markets, in which Colorado would be well-positioned with its renewable energy portfolio.

The global climate talks also are focusing on providing climate-friendly technologies to less-developed countries, another area where Colorado has already shown leadership. Joining in the global bid to help poor nations tackle climate change could help local companies expand their markets.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year warned against rising sea levels, storms and droughts as a result of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, the UN Environment Programme underscored the need for global emissions to peak within the decade and then to rapidly decline so that the world can reach zero net emissions in the second half of the century — a goal that is quickly slipping out of grasp.

[Top photo: Vast swaths of southwestern Colorado spruce forests have browned and died in the last few years as warming temperatures help fuel an explosion of insect populations. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service. Global carbon video via NASA’s Godard Space Center. ]


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