By Bob Silberg, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The Paris Agreement, which delegates from 196 countries hammered out in December 2015, calls for holding the ongoing rise in global average temperature to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels,” while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” How much difference could that half-degree of wiggle room (or 0.9 degree on the Fahrenheit scale) possibly make in the real world? Quite a bit, it appears.
The European Geosciences Union published a study in April 2016 that examined the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius vs. a 2.0 C temperature increase by the end of the century, given what we know so far about how climate works. It found that the jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees—a third more of an increase—raises the impact by about that same fraction, very roughly, on most of the phenomena the study covered. Heat waves would last around a third longer, rain storms would be about a third more intense, the increase in sea level would be approximately that much higher and the percentage of tropical coral reefs at risk of severe degradation would be roughly that much greater.
But in some cases, that extra increase in temperature makes things much more dire. At 1.5 C, the study found that tropical coral reefs stand a chance of adapting and reversing a portion of their die-off in the last half of the century. But at 2 C, the chance of recovery vanishes. Tropical corals are virtually wiped out by the year 2100.
With a 1.5 C rise in temperature, the Mediterranean area is forecast to have about 9 percent less fresh water available. At 2 C, that water deficit nearly doubles. So does the decrease in wheat and maize harvest in the tropics.
A half degree averaged out over the whole world can mean much more of an increase in some locations and at certain times.
On a global scale, production of wheat and soy is forecast to increase with a 1.5 C temperature rise, partly because warming is favorable for farming in higher latitudes and partly because the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is largely responsible for the temperature increase, is thought to have a fertilization effect. But at 2 C, that advantage plummets by 700 percent for soy and disappears entirely for wheat.
Three climate scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who were not involved with this study, shed some light on the study’s results, starting with the impact on agriculture.