Of Owls and CO2

Posted by: Jennifer Scarlott on

Sometimes, the little things can make your day. This morning for the second time, I heard the hooting and trilling of an Eastern screech owl, Otus asio in some tall trees just in front of my apartment, on the shores of the Hudson River. Though screech owls are plentiful, they are usually found in deeper woods than the ones below my windows. Hearing the owl calling was like a small, very pleasurable electric jolt from the wild. For a moment, it took my mind off the article about climate change that I was reading in the October 26 issue of The Nation

The article starts off in a seemingly light-hearted vein: "They say that everyone who finally gets it about climate change has an "Oh, shit" moment--an instant when the full scientific implications become clear and they suddenly realize what a horrifically dangerous situation humanity has created for itself."

The author, Mark Hertsgaard, then goes on to detail his most recent, "Oh, shit" moment. It came in July when he heard a talk by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chief climate adviser to the German government. Schellnhuber was describing the results of a study by an advisory council known by its German acronym WBGU, that has only recently been made public. The study has huge implications for the politics of climate change, and the fate of the earth.  

The WBGU study goes way behind the findings of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the IPCC says that rich industrial countries must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent by 2020 (from 1990 levels) if the world is to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, the WBGU study concluded that the United States must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020--that is, quit carbon entirely in a decade! Germany, Italy and other industrial nations must do the same by 2025 to 2030, while China has until 2035. The world must be carbon-free by 2050, Schellnhuber told his stunned audience.

If you like to follow the climate change numbers game, these are far more demanding deadlines and targets than the world's major governments have been discussing in the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen climate change summit. The EU, for example, has pledged 20 percent reductions by 2020. The Waxman-Markey climate change bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last summer, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets, calls for less than 5 percent reductions by 2020.

 In revealing the results of the WBGU study, Schellnhuber said, "I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers." He has urged governments to agree in Copenhagen to launch a "Green Apollo project." As John Kennedy mobilized America's military-industrial "complex" to land a man on the moon in the 1960s, so, says Schellnhuber, must all the world's leading economies abandon BAU (business as usual), and attain zero carbon emissions within ten years. Otherwise, as writer Hertsgaard suggests, we and our children will experience more and more frequent "Oh, shit" moments in the years to come.

Meanwhile, the tiny screech owl trills and hoots.