Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
October 5, 2018 (posted October 12, 2018)
Mr. President: The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded the
finalization of a special report on the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming
above preindustrial levels. Meeting in Incheon, South Korea (October 1-5), its three
working groups of experts and government officials have huddled and jousted to
strike a consensus on what will be necessary to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees
Celsius when the globe is already up a degree. What will earth be like with this level
of warmth and what will happen if we fail?
Two earlier versions (January and June 2018) of the report were depressing to
frightening. They were made available for about a month for comment by experts and
interested parties. The real problem is a narrow window because human activity in
the world emits 40 billion tons of CO2 per year -- about 90 times the emission from
volcanoes. At some point, there will be enough in the atmosphere where the 1.5
degree rise will be a foregone conclusion. While guesswork to some extent, it
appears we have about 15 years before we exhaust the 'carbon budget'; for a 2C rise
the date is 2045.
The tone may have been softened in the second report, but there is 'substantial'
certainty the 2 degrees C target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, once considered safe,
would be dangerous for humanity. As the agreement also required governments to
pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the remit to IPCC was to
prepare a report comparing the consequences of the two alternatives as well as the
feasibility and effort required to limit the rise to the lower figure. The final report
(release date Oct 8, 2018) reviews 30,000 publications.
The fact that parts of the earth are already warmer than the 2 degree C figure and
the results are observable should be a driver for governments. In the Arctic, for
example, where temperatures have risen up to 3 degrees C, the effort has seen
chunks of icebergs breaking off and polar bears having difficulty in catching seals
because of fewer blowholes -- where they normally wait in ambush. Current
temperatures are higher than they ever have been in the past two millennia.
For low-lying Pacific Islands the 1.5C goal is critical for many there would lose habitat
and some islands are expected to disappear under the 2C target. The Maldives in
the Indian ocean are partly under water, and some Pacific islands have already
disappeared as average world sea levels rise by 3 mm a year. Yet Tuvalu has
become an exception and its land area, studied from 1971 to 2014, is growing. Eight
of its nine atolls are found to be still rising, increasing the "area by 29 percent, even
though sea levels in the country rose by twice the global average."
Even so the consequences of the earth already being 1 degree C higher than
preindustrial times are apparent in the proliferation of extreme weather events.
Unduly powerful hurricanes as in Puerto Rico or Houston, record-breaking forest fires
in the U.S. and Australia, monsoons in South India this year that in Kerala have been
the worst in a century, and the record temperatures in northern Europe are a few
The IPCC discussions were extended to Saturday (October 6). Saudi Arabia, heavily
dependent on the sale of fossil fuels, presumably is arguing for caveats like costs and
even further softening of the language.
There is also the intriguing possibility of extracting CO2 out of the atmosphere. Direct
air capture, or DAC as the technology is known, has recently received a new boost as
costs have dropped. Experts believe under $100 a ton make it a realistic option.
That is how things stand as we await the report.