Hundreds of the worlds leading climate researchers are gathering at the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen to discuss the latest findings about our warming world. Early dispatches are not encouraging regarding how much time we have to get serious about this crisis.
"The sea-level rise may well exceed one metre (3.28 feet) by 2100 if we continue on our path of increasing emissions," said Stefan Rahmstorf, professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "Even for a low emission scenario, the best estimate is about one metre." (Hear that Bjorn Lomborg?)
That is almost double what the IPCC estimated only two years ago.
"This means that if the emissions of greenhouse gases is not reduced quickly and substantially even the best-case scenario will hit low-lying coastal areas housing one-tenth of humans on the planet hard," the organizers warned in a statement.
The vast increase in potential sea level rise is partly due to ballooning emissions and partly due to improved understanding of the emerging science – even in the last two years.
There is something else at play as well. This conference is outside of the confines of the IPCC. When so-called skeptics call this process overly politicized, they are right – only in the wrong way.
Researchers have long complained that diplomats and politicians who draft the final wording of their assessments force them to be painfully conservative in their estimates and communications about our warming world.
The conference in Copenhagen is strictly about science and in this context the world’s leading researchers are free to tell it like it is – particularly about the need for massive and rapid reductions of carbon.
“We could pass a threshold during the 21st century that can commit the world to metres of sea-level rise," warned John Church, a researcher at the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research in Hobart. "Short-term emission goals are critical."
The importance of moving quickly is critical say scientists to avoid committing our world to centuries of devastating temperature increases.
"With stiff reductions in 2050 you can end the temperature curve (rise) quite quickly, but there's not much you can do to the sea-level rise anymore," Rahmstorf said. "We are setting in motion processes that will lead to sea levels rising for centuries to come."
The Copenhagen conference is being held in part to give politicians the minimum amount of wiggle room when they meet for the next IPCC gathering next month in Turkey. These meetings have been notoriously ineffectual and researchers are worried that the next one may follow the same well-worn path of inaction.
All of which makes the industry-funded costume party in New York all the more heinous. Politicians have a difficult enough time making courageous decisions without a bunch of Big Oil hacks playing dress-up and giving them political cover for ever more delay.
The stakes are high in this planetary game of chicken. Will it be truth or consequences? As the clock runs down, our chances to turn the global emergency around are diminishing by the day.As one observer wryly noted, “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”