Preserving options: Short-term action required to avoid long-term climate damage

The world still has a realistic chance of avoiding some, although not all, of the more disruptive effects of global warming, according to a new analysis.

Doing so, however, will require substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010, consistent with those required by the Kyoto Protocol, scientists from Princeton and Brown universities reported in the June 14 issue of Science.

The researchers focused on three possible consequences of global warming, reflecting a range of likelihoods and potential for disruption: the destruction of coral reefs, the potential rise of sea levels caused by melting of an Antarctic ice sheet and the shutdown of large-scale ocean currents. They found that if aggressive measures are taken by 2010, maintaining the ocean currents is "likely," but saving the coral reefs is "probably not feasible" and preventing the ice-sheet melting is "plausible, but by no means certain."

"The Bush Administration regards large climate changes as inevitable and proposes adaptation as the main response," said Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer who co-wrote the report with Brian O'Neill of Brown University. "But some climate changes are so disruptive that avoiding them through emissions reduction is the only sensible alternative.

"Some have argued that the Kyoto Protocol would have little effect on long-term climate change," Oppenheimer added. "But we find that the total emissions reductions it envisions appear to be an important first step toward avoiding dangerous warming."

Oppenheimer and O'Neill wrote that they conducted their analysis in response to a growing demand for well-defined long-term objectives in dealing with climate change. A central question has been to define what would constitute a "dangerous interference" with the natural climate system. They selected coral reefs because they represent a unique ecosystem that could be decimated. They addressed the ice sheet melting and ocean circulati

Contact: Steven Schultz
Princeton University

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