Global Warming: Get Used to It; Even If We Adopted the Most Far-Reaching Plans to Combat Climate Change, We Would Still Watch Greenhouse Gases Rise for Decades

Newsweek, February 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

Global Warming: Get Used to It; Even If We Adopted the Most Far-Reaching Plans to Combat Climate Change, We Would Still Watch Greenhouse Gases Rise for Decades


Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com)

The most inconvenient truth about global warming is that we cannot stop it. Please don't mistake me for a skeptic. I'm fully persuaded by the evidence that climate change is real and serious. Of the 12 hottest years on record, 11 have occurred since 1995. Temperatures have risen by 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past century. (If that seems small, keep in mind that the difference in temperature between the ice age and now is about 5 degrees C.) And human activity appears to be one important cause. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has risen dramatically since the industrial revolution. Methane has doubled and carbon-dioxide levels are up 30 percent since 1750. The projections going forward are highly plausible scientific estimations. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2100, temperatures will have risen by somewhere between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees, and as a result, sea levels will rise by 18 to 59 centimeters. The trouble is, if you accept all these facts and theories about global warming, it is difficult to see how any human response launched today can avert it.

The gases that are warming the Earth have built up over hundreds of years. They do not disappear or dissipate easily. Even if the world adopted the most far-reaching plans to combat climate change, most scientists agree that the concentration of greenhouse gases will continue to rise for the next few decades. In other words, global warming is already baked into Earth's future.

Scientists estimate that simply to keep greenhouse gases at their current levels, we would need to slash carbon-dioxide emissions by 60 percent. Given current and foreseeable technology, that would require cutting back on industrial activity across the globe on a scale that would make the Great Depression look very small. In fact, the future will almost certainly involve substantially greater emissions of CO2. Most studies predict that the world will double its consumption of energy by 2050. Since much of that growth in consumption will take place in China and India, it will involve the burning of fossil fuels.

Between them, these two countries are currently building 650 coal-fired power plants. The combined CO2 emissions of these new plants is five times the total savings of the Kyoto accords--that is, if the Kyoto targets were being adhered to by Western countries, which they are not. Even under the most optimistic scenarios the industrialized world will continue to burn substantial amounts of coal and oil.

I state these facts plainly not to induce fatalism or complacency. …

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