There’s still time to cut the risk of climate catastrophe, MIT study shows

Summary: A new analysis of climate risk, published by researchers at MIT and elsewhere, shows that even moderate carbon-reduction policies now can substantially lower the risk of future climate change. It also shows that quick, global emissions reductions would be required in order to provide a good chance of avoiding a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level — a widely discussed target. But without prompt action, they found, extreme changes could soon become much more difficult, if not impossible, to control. Longer version of release here: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/climate-change-1002.html

Why it matters: Ron Prinn, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a co-author of the new study, says that “our results show we still have around a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate” at a level of no more than a few tenths above the 2 degree target. However, that will require global emissions, which are now growing, to start downward almost immediately. That result could be achieved if the aggressive emissions targets in current U.S. climate bills were met, and matched by other wealthy countries, and if China and other large developing countries followed suit with only a decade or two delay. That 2 degree C increase is a level that is considered likely to prevent some of the most catastrophic potential effects of climate change, such as major increases in global sea level and disruption of agriculture and natural ecosystems.

How they did it: The study used the MIT Integrated Global Systems Model, a detailed computer simulation of global economic activity and climate processes that has been developed and refined by the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change since the early 1990s. The new research involved hundreds of runs of the model with each run using slight variations in input parameters, selected so that each run has about an equal probability of being correct based on present observations and knowledge. Other research groups have estimated the probabilities of various outcomes, based on variations in the physical response of the climate system itself. But the MIT model is the only one that interactively includes detailed treatment of possible changes in human activities as well — such as the degree of economic growth, with its associated energy use, in different countries.

Next steps: The group hopes that a similar probabilistic analysis can be carried out with several others of the more than a dozen global climate models around the world, to give an even better sense of the range of possible outcomes and their probabilities.

Source: Analysis of Climate Policy Targets under Uncertainty, by Mort Webster, Andrei P. Sokolov, John M. Reilly, Chris E. Forest, Sergey Paltsev, Adam Schlosser, Chien Wang, David Kicklighter, Marcus Sarofim, Jerry Melillo, Ronald G. Prinn, and Henry D. Jacoby

Funding: This work was supported in part by the Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy grants, the NSF, and by the industrial and foundations sponsors of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

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