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Know Your Limits

April 10, 2014 – I wrote this article a little while ago, and Transition Voice hasn’t used it.  I think it’s useful, so I thought I’d publish it here.

Know Your Limits                       

There is a growing consensus that 2 degrees Celsius of global warming will be too much ( ).  As the winter of 2013-2014 gradually winds down, we see the evidence of what less than 1 degree of warming can do all around us.  The costs have yet to be tallied, but there is universal acknowledgement that budgets were virtually meaningless this winter.  In order to keep the United States functioning at a level anywhere near normal, states and corporations had to break the bank.  The alternative was inconceivable.

Yet merrily we roll along, calmly averring that there is still time before the climate will begin to wreak major havoc.  The notion that 2 degrees of warming are somehow “ok” has become foundational to both national and international planning.  After all, the thinking goes, that amount of warming is what scientists have told us will be acceptable, right?

Dr. Who?
That’s certainly what I thought, anyway.  It is with more than a small degree of chagrin that I must tell you that 2 degrees of warming was first presented to the waiting world as “safe” by none other than an economist.  Yes, that says economist, not ecologist.  One W.D. Nordhaus, to be exact.  Yale Professor Nordhaus wrote in 1977 that “if there were global temperatures more than 2 or 3C above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.”  In fact, that large an increase in temperature would be well outside of the natural limits known to have governed the climate during the past 10,000 years, during which period of time agriculture and civilization developed.

Furthermore, Dr. Nordhaus stated as recently as 2009 that 700 ppm (!!) of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in the atmosphere would not cause irreversible harm to our planet ( ).  He goes on to insist that trying to keep warming below 2.6 C would precipitate economic catastrophe.  Goodness, we wouldn’t want that …

A Wee Bit of Climate Chaos
For the record, 1C was first cited as the acceptable limit for climate-change induced warming in 1990 by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases.  The Advisory Group was an amalgamation of three international climate change heavyweights: the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).  In their report (, the Advisory Group wrote that “beyond 1 C there might be rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

I don’t know about you, but these non-linear responses are beginning to wear me out.


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