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Updated 16 November 2004
Consequences (title)
Consequences Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Editor's Summary of Articles

The Extreme
Weather Events of
1997 and  1998

[full article]

 

Questions

Are floods and droughts and severe storms more frequent or intense than was the case a decade or two ago? Or is it only the result of more thorough coverage in the news media? Are weather events of the past few years different from we might expect from purely random variations? How much of the extreme weather of the past few years can be ascribed with certainty to the last El Niño? Why was it so severe? In what ways might global greenhouse warming alter the strength and character of El Niños in future years?

An Assessment

The weather in 1997-1998 will be remembered for record-setting warmth, and for an unprecedented string of damaging weather events around the world. Financial losses alone from drought and floods and severe storms and wildfires were half again higher than the previous record, set in 1996. While weather has always varied, and always will, the sequence and nature of the records that were set leave little doubt that what happened in these years was dominated by an unusually severe and protracted El Niño – that started strong in the spring of 1997 and remained in force for more than a year. What might be called a "mini global warming" accompanies every El Niño: thus, the month-after-month of record setting temperatures in 1998 can be readily ascribed to this cause, or more aptly, perhaps, to what El Niño added to an underlying trend of global greenhouse warming. El Niños are imposed on the world's weather at irregular intervals of three to seven years, triggered by the interaction of overlying air with pools of warmer surface water in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It is quite possible that the overall warming of the last one hundred years, and the pronounced steepening of that trend in the last two decades, will provoke more and stronger El Niño events. The time between recurrences has indeed shortened in recent years, and both the strongest and the second strongest have come our way in the last two decades.

Consequences

Were it within our power to dictate the course of our climate a year so in advance, we would never have prescribed an El Niño as severe and disruptive as that of 1997-1998, that brought so much destruction and suffering, and economic loss. But it came at a time when much can be learned from what it wrote upon the wall. This El Niño gave us a timely look, in advance, at many of the expected characteristics of global greenhouse warming, including impacts on disease vectors and human health; and a warning that any change in climate can trigger chains of events that reach into nearly every corner of our modern way of life. It also allowed us to test new observational networks, models, and research institutions to forecast the arrival and severity of coming El Niños – and as important, to gauge the abilities of governments and other organizations to mobilize and take mitigative actions when these now proven warnings are sounded.

Beyond Kyoto:
Toward A Technology Greenhouse Strategy

[full article]

Questions

What international agreements have now been made to limit the greenhouse gases that we keep adding to the air? Are we or any other country likely to meet the goals that were prescribed at Kyoto in 1997? How draconian are these reductions? How widely supported are they, and how universally applied? Are these measures sufficient to prevent a continuing build-up of carbon dioxide and methane and other radiatively-active gases? How much would it cost to halt the current year-after-year increase? How would it affect the cost were we all to adopt more efficient and/or alternate energy technologies?

An Assessment

Almost every nation in the UN has now endorsed the concept, first framed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, of stabilizing greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. At that time, the goal ? which few if any nations will meet ? was for the more economically developed countries to pare their annual emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. In Kyoto, in 1997, more specific, country-by-country emission reductions were proposed for these thirty-five nations, while forestalling compliance for ten additional years. The prescribed reductions would trim the total amount of carbon added to the air by about one-sixth, yet carbon emissions (in tons per year) and carbon concentrations (in parts per million) would both continue to climb. The only way we can turn them around is to require substantial reductions in carbon emissions on the part of what are now the less economically able countries as well, including China, Russia, and India. For example, were all the developed nations to reduce their emissions to zero, today and forever more, it would still not achieve the desired ends.

Consequences

Today's atmosphere contains about a third more CO2 than did the less adulterated air of pre-industrial times, and each year the amount increases by several percent. In 1998, the concentration was 367 parts per million by volume (ppmv). Sometime in the coming century when it reaches about 550 ppmv (double the Pre-Industrial value) we can expect the average temperature of the planet to have warmed, considerably, relative to 1990. If the Kyoto Protocol enters into force, it would postpone that date by less than a decade, while allowing CO2 to increase about as steeply as before. Further agreements, developed from a larger strategy aimed at limiting greenhouse gas concentrations rather than near-term emissions are surely needed. But a more workable agreement will need a credible commitment to an energy future that is different from the past, and a strategy for controlling the costs of making so profound a change. Technology will play a major role in determining the cost of any emissions mitigation regime, and measures to accelerate the development and deployment of low- and no-emission energy technologies could be an important element in an overall solution to the climate change problem.


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