We Are Already Close to 1.5 Degrees

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PMWhile Canada’s political leaders toy with the idea of expanding the pipeline infrastructure out of Alberta, average global temperatures reached a record high in 2015 and are expected to be even warmer in 2016. According to Dr Kirsten Zickfeld, of Simon Fraser University, “We are already close to 1.5 degrees.”

We Are Already Close to 1.5 Degrees

The average global temperature rise was 1.6 degrees above late 19th century levels in February. If this keeps up through-out the year, we will cross the 1.5 degree threshold.

“The warming is not uniform, these are values that are averaged over the globe. So if we look at a map of the warming what we see is the warming is much worse in the Arctic. In those regions temperature records were broken by two digits this winter,” said Zickfeld.

“This means some temperatures in Alaska or close to the Arctic circle actually being ten to twenty degrees warmer than the average and previous year. One of the consequences of that is that the Greenland ice sheet has already started melting this year, several months earlier than is usually the case.”

“Over the past few months, we have really seen that the warming is accelerating.”

The Focus Of Her Research

Diving Trip in Tioman (2010) - lots of coral bleaching but good viz and otherwise good conditions by Paul via Fklickr (CC BY SA< 2.0 License)
Diving Trip in Tioman, Malaysia (2010) – lots of coral bleaching but good viz and otherwise good conditions by Paul via Fklickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

In her biography, posted on SFU’s website, Zickfeld describes the focus of her research as “the effects of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols on climate on centennial to millennial timescales. The goal is to better understand the response of the climate system to forcing and the interactions between the different climate system components (the atmosphere, ocean, land surface, biosphere and cryosphere) in order to improve predictions for the future. To achieve this objective, I use climate models of different complexity, from simple conceptual models to complex Earth System models.”

Prior to coming to SFU, Zickfeld worked beside Andrew Weaver in the University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Earth and Ocean Sciences (2009-2014).

She is a former research scientist from Environment Canada’s Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis in Victoria (2008-2010).

Zickfeld was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany, before she moving to Canada.

Attempting To Fight Climate Change AND Expand The Oil Sands Is “Delusional”

She described the nation’s current idea of fighting climate change while expanding the oil sands and building new pipelines as “delusional.”

After announcing that Canada is back in the fight against climate change,  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has let it be known that he wants to build both the Trans Mountain expansion and Energy East Pipelines.

Premier Rachel Notley and supporters holding up signs supporting the Energy East Pipeline - Courtesy Premier of Alberta via Flicke (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
Premier Rachel Notley and supporters holding up signs supporting the Energy East Pipeline – Courtesy Premier of Alberta via Flicker (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Under Premier Rachel Notley, Alberta has finally taken its’ first steps to curb its’ emissions. The province’s leading offender, coal-fired plants, will either “be phased out and replaced by renewable energy and natural gas-fired electricity, or by using technology to produce zero pollution” by 2030. Though oil sands development will continue, there is now a legislated emissions cap. The oil sands currently emits 70 megatonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gases a year and will not be allowed to exceed 100 Mt in any given year.

This is a large success within the Albertan context, but far from what is needed.

A carbon budget is very similar to a financial budget. There is only a finite amount of carbon that we can release into the atmosphere and keep the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. Canada’s budget, if it is  willing to assume its’ fair share of the task, 4 billion metric tons of CO2. This is about ten years of our current emissions, which means that even if we add no new fossil fuel infrastructure we will exceed the limit by 2030.

“If leaders on the Federal level, and the provinces, are serious about meeting the targets they agreed to in Paris, then there is no room for pipelines or any other fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Zickfeld.

Todays Changes Will Manifest In The Future

During the course of our interview, we discussed the possibility of reversing the processes that are causing climate change.

Unfortunately carbon dioxide has both a very long lifespan and atmospheric changes are communicated slowly. The changes taking place today will manifest in the future.

“Even if we stopped emissions tomorrow, the  … (change would not be noticeable) for a very long time … So in order to reverse these warming effects, we would need to remove carbon dioxide artificially from the atmosphere,” said Zickfeld.

She mentioned techniques such as limited use of fertilizer, burying charcoal in the soil and large scale reforestation.

Even then, Zickfeld believes climate change is pretty much irreversible. We will be able to influence the total amount of sea level rise, but we will not be able to stop it because the ocean is still responding to past changes.

California’s fog-shrouded Humboldt Coast Courtesy the Bureau of Land Management via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)
California’s fog-shrouded Humboldt Coast Courtesy the Bureau of Land Management via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

“Sea level rise is something we will have to live with for many centuries if not millennia, even if we go to a totally decarbonized energy system,” she said.

” … The oceans are warming very rapidly. In 2015, again, was a record year in terms of ocean warmth. This was, in part, also due to the El Niño phenomenon … along the equator and the Pacific, which makes water along the coast of South America and the central Pacific much warmer than average.”

She described phenomenon such as the blob of warm temperature off the coast of western North America, a mass dying of sea birds and dead sea lions washing on to the shore of California, coral reefs bleaching.

“Most of the impacts (are) actually happening offshore, so this means that ecologists do not really exactly understand what is going on, but we are seeing the symptoms that something is wrong.”

People Are Starting to Get It

Despite this, Zickfeld she sees signs that people are starting to “get it.” There may not be any biding agreements in place, but at Paris World leaders recognized they must combat climate change. Financial advisors are starting to warn their clients that investments in fossil fuel companies may end up as stranded assets.

“Had you asked me a year ago, I would have been much more pessimistic. I think it is possible to tackle climate change and avoid the worst of it, but this only works if everybody does something. We must hold our political leaders accountable and we must let them know we expect them to lead in this regard,” said Zickfeld.

The audio of my interview with Kirsten Zickfeld, “We Are Already Close to 1.5 Degrees” (podcast, above), was aired on CKTZ Monday at 4:30 PM PST.

Top Photo Credit: Iceberg in North Star Bay, Greenland from NASA’s Earth Observatory via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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