There is an alarming message in a major new report on climate change, a draft of which the New York Times obtained on Tuesday. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of leading scientists who review the latest and best available research, say we are dangerously close to the day when it will no longer be possible to limit global warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2.0 degrees Celsius) by mid-century—something that world leaders have pledged to do.
Of course, the pledge might already be delusional, given that countries continue to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, emissions grew at 2.2 percent per year. That’s nearly twice as much as they increased in the three decades that preceded it. And it’s no secret why. While emissions have been slowing in industrialized countries, that hasn’t offset the growth in emissions from China and India. The report also finds companies and countries are sitting on four times more of the fossil fuels than the world should be burning if it reasonably expects to keep the worst of global warming at bay. In other words, countries will have the opportunity to fill the atmosphere with way too many greenhouse gases—the question is whether they can somehow resist the temptation.
This latest draft is a revision of an earlier one, which Reuters obtained in August. That version suggested that we would need drastic greenhouse gas cuts of 40 to 70 percent worldwide by 2050, in order to keep to the 3.6 degrees target. What that means in plain language is that countries like the U.S. and China would need to start confronting the economic costs of switching away from fossil fuels now, in order to avoid a much more dangerous (and costly) future.
Why is 3.6 degrees so important? Most research today looks at the consequences warming on this scale. It’s not a sure thing, as the scientists acknowledge. The actual increase would fall somewhere within a fairly broad range. But even more optimistic scenarios, in which the planet ends up warming little, would entail more extreme weather, acidic oceans, and a changing ecosystem. On the other end of the spectrum are some really nightmarish possibilities. At eight degrees of warming, which the draft report sees as a distinct possibility, the effects would include vast ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica destabilizing completely, changing coastal civilization as we know it as sea levels rise by 23 feet. Recent studies suggest the western Antarctic ice sheet may already be past the point of “irreversible” melting, so this scenario is not far-fetched.
The clock is ticking and the nations of the world are … well … it remains to be seen what the nations of the world will do. Next month the United Nations will hold a Climate Summit. It’s the prelude to a much bigger round of international negotiations, in Paris in 2015. President Barack Obama seems to be brokering a climate accord ahead of these talks—seen as the best chance coordinate and agree upon the greenhouse gas cuts needed—that would sidestep Republican opposition by not requiring Senate ratification. Because as this new report indicates, waiting another day to take action on climate—let alone a whole year—is tempting fate.
News to know
OBAMACARE: The Administration tapped Kevin Counihan, who ran Connecticut’s highly successful exchange, to do a similar job for the feds. He’s a great pick for the job—and the very serious obstacles he’ll face—as the Department of Health and Human Services tries not to repeat last year’s mistakes. (Jonathan Cohn, QED)
OBAMACARE PART II: Another Republican state is moving closer to accepting the Medicaid expansion. This time, it's Wyoming. (Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times)
VA SCANDAL: The inspector general has completed its inquiry and could not link any deaths to long waiting times at the VA. But the report confirmed serious problems with VA health care. “I am relieved that there weren’t findings that veterans died as a consequence of those delays,” one official said, “but that doesn’t excuse the delays.” (Leo Shane III, Army Times)
ECONOMY: Neil Irwin explains why a slowdown in housing prices is actually great news. (The Upshot)
Articles worth reading
Long story short: The religious right wins. Emily Bazelon breaks down the Administration’s attempts to modify Obamacare’s birth control mandate—and ends up skeptical it will satisfy the courts. (Slate)
Karl Rove is at it again: Crossroads GPS, Rove’s conservative group, is running ads against two Democratic Senate incumbents, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Nothing surprising there, except that, as Sahil Kapur notes, they’re attacking the two from the left. (Talking Points Memo)
Running away from the Tea Party: Sam Wang shows, with two neat charts, that defying the Tea Party agenda on Obamacare and other issues is helping Republican governors trying to win reelection in swing states. (New Yorker)
Remember when Marco Rubio was the GOP's great hope to reach Latinos? Greg Sargent chronicles Rubio's transformation, from architect of a serious immigration reform bill to a guy who scolds DREAMers that show up at his meetings. (The Plum Line)
Danny Vinik lays out five reasons the video game industry is the biggest fortune industry you haven’t heard about. Uber was big news yesterday, too, and Danny says we should celebrate its strategy to poach Lyft drivers. Meanwhile, Rebecca offers a reality check to Republicans who think they will win over the Uber vote.