Extreme Climate Warning: Northern hemisphere has just breached the pre-industrial +2 degrees climate target – leave rest of fossil carbon in the ground, negative emissions needed

UPDATE: Graph was flawed, but northern hemisphere did breach 2 degrees

Just two days ago we had our (‘mildest’/'warmest’/'hottest ever recorded’) winter update, based on the surpassing global temperature records for December, January – and the preliminary data for February.

Now at the onset of March we’re confronted with a graph that shows it’s getting worse still: For the first time on record the entire northern hemisphere (where most of Earth’s land masses lie) has breached the historical temperature limit of +2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial baseline. 2016 might add another 0.2 degrees to the global temperature of 2015. We can really stop drilling now!

Temperature graph shows northern hemisphere breached 2 degrees climate target
NOAA NCEP temperature graph shows northern hemisphere breached 2 degrees climate target, first on March 1 2016, and again on the 3rd of March. Physical science is making such a fool out of humanity.

February was the fith month in a row to break the 1951-1980 +1 degree temperature limit. So in our previous piece we tried to discuss what that meant for the (very important!) 1.5 degrees climate target that was agreed during the COP21 climate summit in Paris. These UN climate targets of course count from the pre-industrial climate – so we are getting pretty close to it already – especially when you start to count in the Earth’s thermal inertia: witnessed warming is the result of our cumulative emissions up to the late seventies – what has been emitted since is ‘warming that’s in the pipeline still’. How much warming? Well – for CO2 these emissions have almost doubled since.

“So how to get to 1.5 degrees? Is there any atmospheric carbon budget left? Do we need to go to zero in the future, or in the past?”

Then this bomb was dropped [thank you - Eric Holthaus]. It may only have been for one day – March 1st 2016 – and then for another day – March 3rd 2016 – but it was breached all right, according to the temperature collecting grid of NOAA – across the entire northern hemisphere: 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

Aren’t we fooling ourselves to think there is any atmospheric carbon budget left? 

Yes. All fossil carbon reserves must be left in the ground. Whether it be coal, oil or gas – whether it’s in your own backyard, or in Saudi Arabia – whether it’s at the level of consumption, political policy, financial investment, fuel transportation of fossil extraction – every level must become fossil free, must sooner than anyone could imagine.

And yes, that’s the easy part still. When our world is ‘fossil free’ we still have exponentially increasing climate damage caused by the carbon pollution that is already in the oceans and the atmosphere. So we will need to actually clean these – however impossible that may sound.

It means we need to start thinking in terms of negative emissions. Biochar, afforestation, BECCS, ocean iron fertilisation, olivine, carbon scrubbers and other CDR geoengineering. Nothing is proven, nothing is likely to come cheap and nothing is likely to either be effective or reach scale (to have some effect we would need to be able to remove at least ~50-100+ gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, annually(!!)).

The field of negative emissions is something we are very unlikely to agree about. But looking at the science, and looking at the live observations in the above graph, we can conclude we’ve actually already reached the point that our future depends on it. Here’s is what would happen if we would accept climate stabilisation (let alone overshoot to 3 or 4) at a 2 degrees warmer planet. Add a very ugly mass extinction to that picture.

Before we can have transitions in our physical world, we need to have them in our culture. We need to imagine the unimaginable. And that starts by simply saying what is true – however scary, challenging, difficult or impossible it may be sound: this graph must not ‘stop growing’ – it must actually go down.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org

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