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Beth Ulion/MEDILL Coal-fired power plants such as the one overlooking Chinatown in Chicago are major contributors worldwide to global warming.
Beth Ulion/MEDILL
Coal-fired power plants such as the one overlooking Chinatown in Chicago are major contributors worldwide to global warming.

Beth Ulion
Jan 28, 2009

Coastal floods – inland droughts – water shortages – famine. That’s the forecast for global warming. 

In a report released Tuesday, the Worldwatch Institute is calling for drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to avoid these catastrophes. The State of the World 2009 report remained upbeat even though it is unclear whether such drastic worldwide emissions cuts are feasible. 

“It’s not just a sad story. It’s an exciting story,” said Robert Engelman, Worldwatch Institute vice president for programs. The Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization releases the report every year but focused on climate change this year. Engelman’s exhilaration was notable as he spoke about the chances to transform our world that this challenge offers. 

This year’s report, Into a Warming World, concludes that an 85 percent decrease in greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by 2050 is needed to stabilize or possibly reduce the amount of emissions now in the atmosphere. By the second half of this century, emissions will need to “go negative,” with the world absorbing more greenhouse gases than society emits, the report states. 

These forecasts align fairly closely with the goals of the new administration. President-Elect Barack Obama called for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 throughout his campaign and transition of power. The primary mechanism for this cut is planned to be mandatory cap-and-trade legislations that would require polluters to pay for their emissions. 

But locally as well as globally, uncertainties remain when climate science meets climate policy. Climatologist Jim Angel, with the Illinois State Water Survey, highlighted that it will not be clear when we hit the point of no return. It “could’ve been last year and we’ve been oblivious,” he said. 

At the Illinois State Water Survey climate scientists have been using climate models to determine the impact of a rise in temperature on local regions. Angel said models showed a definite warming in the state. 

Using a low emissions scenario where greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, the model showed levels of warming from 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit while a high emissions scenario, or business as usual, the model showed a rise from 6 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Warming at these levels would affect agriculture and precipitation in the region, Angel said, although models are not definite on the impact. 

Engelman said transforming the way we live and even the population of the planet depends upon how fast the public consciousness of climate change comes around. 

To achieve this tremendous goal, Engelman conjured images of the World War II era and directives to automotive industry executives. According to Engelman, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the leaders of the Big Three: No more cars, make tanks. The auto makers went back to Detroit and began sending war supplies down the factory lines instead of Fords and Chevys. “Imagine what we could do if the whole country mobilized” on conservation and alternative energy, he said. 

“It’s feasible, we just have to get moving on it,” Engelman concluded. 

Chicago’s Climate Action Plan has the same target and lays out five main strategies to achieve reductions. Included in these strategies are energy efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, reduced waste and industrial pollution and adaptation.

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