Cloudy With a Chance of Chaos

Excerpt from The Winds of Change contends climate change may bring more violent weather swings -- and sooner -- than experts had thought.

Published: 24-Jan-2006

A disturbing consensus is emerging among the scientists who study global warming: Climate change may bring more violent swings than they ever thought, and it may set in sooner. Lately John Browne, the CEO of BP, has been jolting audiences with a list of proposed solutions that hint at the vastness of the challenge. It aims at stabilizing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at about double the pre-industrial level while continuing economic growth. To do that, carbon emissions would have to be reduced ultimately by seven gigatons a year. A gigaton, or a billion tons, is even bigger than it sounds. Eliminating just one, argues Browne, would mean building 700 nuclear stations to replace fossil-fuel-burning power plants, or increasing the use of solar power by a factor of 700, or stopping all deforestation and doubling present efforts at reforestation. Achieve all three of these, and pull off four more equally large-scale reallocations of capital and infrastructure, and the world would probably stabilize its carbon emissions.

There's just one catch: Even change on this vast scale might not stop global warming.

What if the secret behind civilization is that we've had really good weather? Humankind has prospered and multiplied during one of the most benign climate eras in the history of the planet. And the past two centuries -- which witnessed the great expansion of the Industrial Revolution, a sixfold increase in human population, the triumph of the consumer society, and the rise of the integrated global economy -- have been particularly stable. One would have to go back 115,000 years to find a time as tranquil and warm as the present.



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