Billions of elephants above the earth

Emissions of greenhouse gases must be zero by 2200, warned the UK’s Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, back in 2006.[i] Their report Climate Change on the Millennial Timescale,[ii] predicting likely changes to the year 3000, drew attention to the risk of sudden, dramatic climatic shifts which could happen long after emissions have stopped:

“Abrupt changes may be triggered many decades before they actually occur. Even after emissions have completely ceased there is still a legacy from decades past – a ‘sleeping giant’ in the climate system.”

Politicians and corporations, with a few exceptions like former US presidential candidate Al Gore, take no notice. They may express intentions to force emissions cuts, but nothing happens. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in October 2010 were 387.18 parts per million, up from 382.98 in October 2008.[iii] This was an increase of over 1% in two years.

Deutsche Bank funds a ‘greenhouse gas clock’ in New York, to record the weight of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. This whizzed past 3,669,024,026,000 tonnes at about 3pm on November 20th 2010, the numbers on the right of the display spinning with such velocity that they were scarcely visible. The weight is rising by about two billion tonnes every month. This is  equivalent to 800 million more flying elephants, month after month after month.

Global temperatures will rise by over 2 degrees C, Chris West of Oxford University’s Climate Impacts Programme told a climate conference[iv] at the university in September 2009. He reckoned that an average temperature rise of 4 degrees C was a real possibility. This would not be a uniform rise, but much greater in some regions, which would become uninhabitable. Much of Brazil, Canada, the USA, Russia and central Europe could be 8 degrees warmer, the conference heard from Richard Betts, of the Meteorological Office’s Hadley Centre. Further impacts of rising emissions, which would make the climate far, far more dangerous to humans, include the release of carbon from melting permafrost and from methane hydrates below ocean surfaces.

Shortages of fresh water would worsen and much good cropland would become unusable. Sea levels rising by 1.2 to 1.9 metres before 2100, suggested by computer modelling at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, would afflict at least 500 million people. The rapid ticking of the carbon clock suggests that we will be caught, still unaware, unless we very quickly heed the message from the flying elephants.

[i] ‘New science shows urgent action needed today on climate change’, release from the Environment Agency and the Tyndall Centre, February 16th 2006.

[ii] Report to the Environment Agency of Tyndall Centre Research Project T3.18.

[iii] Measured from the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. See

[iv] ‘Four degrees of devastation’ by Stephen Leahy,, 9th October 2009.


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