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How Important Are The Next Eight Years?

Even the usually staid Brookings Institution is getting shrill about climate change, as Carlos Pascual and Strobe Talbott argue in the Post today that the United States has only a small window—the next eight years, really—to start curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions (and convince developing countries to do the same) if we want to avoid large and exceedingly unpleasant temperature increases down the road. Why the urgency? Partly because, as the IPCC's R.K. Pachauri notes, "The cities, power plants and factories we build in the next seven years will shape our climate in mid-century." But also because even smaller increases in temperature can trigger changes that, in turn, lead to even more warming. Here's an an AP story today about the possibility that the Arctic sea ice is reaching just such a tipping point:

Five climate scientists, four of them specialists on the Arctic, told The Associated Press that it was fair to call what was happening in the Arctic a "tipping point." ...[T]he melt in sea ice has kicked in another effect, long predicted, called “Arctic amplification,” Dr. Serreze said.

That is when the warming up north is increased in a feedback mechanism and the effects spill southward starting in autumn, Dr. Serreze said. Over the last few years, the bigger melt has meant more warm water that releases more heat into the air during fall cooling, making the atmosphere warmer than normal.

On top of that, researchers are investigating “alarming” reports in the last few days of the release of methane from long-frozen Arctic waters, possibly from the warming of the sea, said Bill Hare, a Greenpeace climate scientist, who was attending a climate conference in Ghana. Giant burps of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, is a long-feared effect of warming in the Arctic that would accelerate warming even more, according to scientists.

Still unclear what's happening there, exactly, but a place to watch. On a semi-related note, Andrew Leonard had a sharp post yesterday about how high oil prices may, paradoxically, be hurting investments in clean energy—at least that seems to have been the case in the second quarter of 2008. As Leonard notes, we can't make too much of this fact, since skyrocketing fossil-fuel prices still make alternatives more attractive, and global investments in clean energy have, after all, quintupled since 2004. But rapid spikes in fuel prices can cause governments to worry more about affordability and less about the environment, not to mention more reluctant to play with carbon taxes or climate regulation.

--Bradford Plumer