Endless global conferences with progressively weakening outcomes are lessening hope that global temperature increases can be reined in at 2degrees Celsius. And companies, the biggest polluters, are doing little to help.
Although a 2degrees Celsius does not sound like much, try growing a fickle plant when your spring is 2degrees Celsius warmer, or surviving a now already extra-sweaty and sweltering summer day. And each tiny change leads to a chain reaction. It is, however, a change that humanity can just about survive. Anything beyond that and the supercomputers doing the modelling go into meltdown because too many things start unravelling.
To reach the 2degrees Celsius number, the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere need to be capped at 450 parts per million (ppm) – double what they were before the industrial Revolution kicked off. With this concentration they will still trap the sun’s rays in the atmosphere, but at a survivable rate.
The global agreements, from gatherings such as Cop17 in Durban last year, set 2030 as the latest date that this should happen. Otherwise what is being called the “age of weird” – in which once abnormal environmental catastrophes become the norm – will move up another notch.
But there is little political and business will to force the necessary change.
Projections fail significantly short of the adjustments needed to limit global warming to an average two degree increase. This will drive the temperatures towards 3,5degrees Celsius.
At this temperature the effects become exponential: ice melts, ocean levels and temperature rise as their currents change course, changing rainfall patterns and seasons in turn, and crops fail. And this is only in one system. The ‘cause celebre’ has been the possible melting of permafrost, which could release high levels of methane gas; it traps more of the sun’s rays and heats the planet much more rapidly than carbon dioxide.
According to Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs “Climate change is already a measurable reality and, along with other developing countries, South Africa is especially vulnerable to its impacts.”
As the twelfth-largest carbon emitter in the world this meant the country was not doing its part said Melita Steel, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, which was strange given that Africa would be the worst affected continent as temperatures crept up.
Mail & Guardian June 29 to July 5 2012