Those words nicely sum up the latest scientific assessment of climate change. "We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we've considered seriously in climate policy," announced Dr. Chris Field at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago this month.
Professor Field was a lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment that just two years ago projected temperature increases this century of up to 6.4 degrees Celsius. Those worst-case scenarios now seem mild in light of recent climate change research from around the world.
Massive emissions from new coal fired plants in China and India are largely to blame, blowing the ceiling off even the most pessimistic assumptions of carbon increases this decade.
Recent data shows that greenhouse gas emissions had ballooned 3.5 per cent a year from 2000 to 2007 -- more than three times the growth rate in the 1990s and "far more rapid than we expected" said Field.
In turn, these vast increases in atmospheric carbon are opening a Pandora's box of melting arctic tundra that could unleash an ancient store of frozen carbon that would dwarf industrial emissions.
The total amount of CO2 released since the start of the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago is about 350 billion tonnes. How much carbon could be released by melting permafrost? About 1,000 billion tonnes -- almost three times that much. Scientists believe our warming atmosphere has already begun that dangerous process.
Worse yet, these frozen soils also contain vast amounts of methane -- 23 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. A recent report from the UN warned:
"The potential consequences of large amounts of methane entering the atmosphere, from thawing permafrost or destabilized ocean hydrates, would lead to abrupt changes in the climate that would likely be irreversible. We must not cross that threshold. Reversing current human induced warming will help us avoid such outcomes entirely."
Sorry folks, but that's not all the bad news. It turns out that our warming world is drying out tropical forests, making them susceptible to wildfires for the first time in history. Not only would that be a biological catastrophe, it would lead to massive additional releases of carbon into the atmosphere.
"Tropical forests are essentially inflammable. You couldn't get a fire to burn there if you tried. But if they dry out a little, the result can be very large and destructive wildfires," warned Dr. Field.
"It is increasingly clear that as you produce a warmer world, lots of forest areas that had been acting a carbon sinks could be converted to carbon sources."
Maybe this global warming thing wasn't such a hot idea after all. It is becoming clear that if we go any farther down this dangerous road, we are unleashing forces that will vastly accelerate global warming, whether we reduce emissions or not.
The fork in this road of course is current carbon emissions. "Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought," said Dr. Field.
So what has been the response of the Canadian public to this five alarm planetary emergency? Not much. While our American counterparts have been planning a massive demonstration of civil disobedience in Washington to mount pressure on the already climate-friendly Obama Administration, Canadians have remained polite and calm.
Prime Minister Harper is no dummy and you can bet that if he felt this job was on the line due to public outrage over his awful record on climate action, he might take this file more seriously. Instead carbon emissions in Canada continue to climb, even in spite of the economic downturn. Our country has one of the worst records in the world on reducing our oil addiction and remains number seven worldwide in absolute emissions.
Consider this: Obama is investing five times as much per capita in green energy stimulus as Ottawa. While Canadians have enjoyed a sense of smug superiority to our American neighbors, those days appear to be long gone.
The reason: Canada is saddled with the tar sands -- the carbon equivalent of a drinking problem. While there continues an oil boom in Alberta, no rational discussion of this bitumen boondoggle seems possible. Remember the National Energy Program? Virtually every Albertan does. Even newly minted leader Michael Ignatieff felt the need to come to the defence of the dirtiest oil on Earth this week in an effort to build his political support in the West.
Bizarrely, the one man who can put the brakes on the tar sands isn't even Canadian. If Obama chooses to limit purchases of filthy oil from the tar sands, this project is in big trouble. There is no infrastructure to deliver synthetic crude anywhere but the U.S. Declining oil prices and global credit crisis have already put the squeeze on once-booming Alberta. If their market also dries up due to a credible cap and trade system in the U.S., the party is over.
Canada, the once proud global leader on such principled issues as fighting apartheid, land mines, and pioneering peacekeeping, now finds itself hoping that it can develop the dirtiest oil on the planet. The United States may well decline to buy it for ethical reasons. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.
Politics does not happen in a vacuum -- it flows from public opinion and action. The science on climate change is not just clear, it is terrifying. How will our nation respond?
Have another donut Canada.