The Climate Tipping Point is Here But There’s Time to Act

Global heat map displaying climate change

Author: Stan Rhodes

For more than three decades, SCS has been working to independently certify the efforts of companies and organizations who are striving to be better environmental stewards, and to make a positive difference in the lives of workers and consumers. Through our work, we’ve been fortunate to have a front row seat as the concept of sustainability has taken ahold and become a dominant business and cultural paradigm.  However, all of these efforts will be for naught if we don’t get a grip on climate change, and the pressing need for action. 

The threat of irreversible climate change has loomed for years.  Scientists have modeled scenarios to predict impacts on earth systems, while policy makers have debated whether, when, and how to respond to these predictions.  However, the abrupt increase in global temperatures experienced over the past three years, and the accompanying observed impacts, have brought stark clarity to this issue.  The weight of the evidence shows that, at an average global temperature about 1.2°C warmer than the pre-industrial world, we have now reached the threshold of irreversible climate change – well below the +2°C COP 21 Paris Treaty upper target, and well ahead of anticipated timeframes.

50% Increase in Global Temperature Rise Since 2013

graph of rising global temperatures
Figure 1. Global average temperature by month, April 2015 to March 2016, compared to 1881-1910 baseline. (Source: Climate Central)

From 1750 to 2013, the average global temperature rose – at first gradually, then at an increasing rate – to about 0.8°C above the pre-industrial baseline.  Since 2013, however, the pace of change has accelerated dramatically, with average global temperature lurching ahead by 50% to +1.2°C, and rising temporarily during the first few months of 2016 by 80% to +1.5°C. In other words, the earth reached a temperature not been expected to occur until mid-century.

“Ironically, April 2016 – the month during which the Paris Agreement was formally signed –was the third straight month during which global temperatures reached +1.5°C, and the 12th straight month of record-shattering temperatures. ”

This unprecedented jump in global temperatures has already set into motion major irreversible structural changes to earth support systems, including destruction of the world’s coral reefs, deoxygenation of the ocean, super-typhoons, severe droughts and floods, enormous wildfires, major impacts on wildlife flora and fauna species, unprecedented melting of Arctic sea ice, and an alarming increase in the melting of land-based ice on Greenland and Antarctica that will hasten sea level rise.

It is now critical to implement significant reductions in atmospheric heat without delay, in order to stabilize the global average temperature at or below this +1.2° tipping point. You might be thinking “that’s not possible.”  Indeed, the COP 21 negotiators left the table without a plan to hold temperatures below +3.7°C or more by the end of the century.  But, as desperate as the situation has become, we still have an opportunity to turn the tide in this race against the climate clock. 

A Roadmap Forward Based on the IPCC Fifth Assessment

This opportunity is derived from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  That report – the consensus of thousands of climate scientists around the world – contained a new approach to evaluating our climate future and examining our mitigation options.  It is an important departure from the limitations of current climate accounting, and represents a true breakthrough.

The new IPCC protocols, integrated with life-cycle impact assessment, will allow us to consider each mitigation project option on a level playing field, both in terms of relative efficacy in reducing “radiative forcing” (the key driver of temperature rise), and potential unintended negative environmental and human health consequences.   I look forward to sharing more with you about these protocols in a future posting.

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