Greenhouse gases soar; no signs warming is slowed

Monday, November 21, 2011 | 5:12 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — Heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are building up so high, so fast, that some scientists now think the world can no longer limit global warming to the level world leaders have agreed upon as safe.

New figures from the U.N. weather agency Monday showed that the three biggest greenhouse gases not only reached record levels last year but were increasing at an ever-faster rate, despite efforts by many countries to reduce emissions.

As world leaders meet next week in South Africa to tackle the issue of climate change, several scientists said their projections show it is unlikely the world can hold warming to the target set by leaders just two years ago in Copenhagen.

"The growth rate is increasing every decade," said Jim Butler, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Global Monitoring Division. "That's kind of scary."

Scientists can't say exactly what levels of greenhouse gases are safe, but some fear a continued rise in global temperatures will lead to irreversible melting of some of the world's ice sheets and a several-foot rise in sea levels over the centuries — the so-called tipping point.

The findings from the U.N. World Meteorological Organization are consistent with other grim reports issued recently. Earlier this month, figures from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 jumped by the highest one-year amount ever.

The WMO found that total carbon dioxide levels in 2010 hit 389 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million in 1750, before the start of the Industrial Revolution. Levels increased 1.5 ppm per year in the 1990s and 2.0 per year in the first decade of this century and are now rising at a rate of 2.3 per year. The top two other greenhouse gases — methane and nitrous oxide — are also soaring.

The U.N. agency cited fossil fuel-burning, loss of forests that absorb CO2 and use of fertilizer as the main culprits.

Since 1990 — a year that international climate negotiators have set as a benchmark for emissions — the total heat-trapping force from all the major greenhouse gases has increased by 29 percent, according to NOAA.

The accelerating rise is happening despite the 1997 Kyoto agreement to cut emissions. Europe, Russia and Japan have about reached their targets under the treaty. But China, the U.S. and India are all increasing emissions. The treaty didn't require emission cuts from China and India because they are developing nations. The U.S. pulled out of the treaty in 2001 since the Senate having never ratified it.

While scientists can't agree on what level of warming of the climate is considered dangerous, environmental activists have seized upon 350 parts per million as a target for carbon dioxide levels. The world pushed past that mark more than 20 years ago.

Governments have focused more on projected temperature increases rather than carbon levels. Since the mid-1990s, European governments have set a goal of limiting warming to slightly more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) above current levels by the end of this century. The goal was part of a nonbinding agreement reached in Copenhagen in 2009 that was signed by the U.S. and other countries.

Temperatures have already risen about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since pre-industrial times.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Ron Prinn, Henry Jacoby and John Sterman said MIT's calculations show the world is unlikely to meet that 2-degree goal now.

"There's very, very little chance," Prinn said. "One has to be pessimistic about making that absolute threshold."

He added: "Maybe we've waited too long to do anything serious if two degrees is the danger level."

Andrew Weaver at the University of Victoria, Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University and Gregg Marland of Appalachian State University agreed with the MIT analysis that holding warming to two degrees now seems unlikely.

"There's no way to stop it. There's so much inertia in the system," Morgan said. "We've committed to quite a bit of warming."

Prinn said new studies predict that if temperatures increase by more than two degrees, the Greenland ice sheets will start an irreversible melting. And that will add to sea level rise significantly.

"Over the next several centuries, Greenland slowly melts away," Weaver said.


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Corey Parks November 21, 2011 | 5:23 p.m.


Don't worry the next ice age coming up will even things out.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger November 21, 2011 | 5:53 p.m.

No, Mr. Parks. Your head is tilted to the wrong angle; you need to be looking down at the rising ocean levels.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks November 21, 2011 | 7:38 p.m.

I could listen to Al Gore and take not that the oceans are set to rise 23 inches by the year 2100 (odd that it would fall on a century mark. Why not 2097 or 2104) Or I could just ignore the chicken little's thinking they are so important that they can predict the future when they can not even take notice of the past or what they were even shouting from the roof tops 30 years ago when the same people said would would all freeze to death.
These few might have selective memories but the good thing is most do not and with the resources of the internet it is pretty easy to go out and find quotes of them contradicting themselves from month to month in even week to week.

Personally I believe there is more of a likelihood that an EMP will knock out most of the US before flood waters do.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders November 22, 2011 | 12:08 p.m.

The UN is a political body.
Politics is evil.
Need I say more?

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle November 24, 2011 | 9:59 a.m.

Global warming? Who cares? The immediate threat is global competition for energy resources. *That's* why we need to get going on conservation and domestic renewable energy sources.

China and India have a population about 7 times larger than the US.
China and India's energy use is increasing 10 times faster than the US.

These two countries, in fact a huge swath of Asian, African, and Pacific rim populations, is only a generation or two past the threshold of animal dung being their primary fuel source.

Anthropogenic Global Warming is very real, but there's a more immediate reason to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Forced conservation is an ugly business.

(Report Comment)

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