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How Seriously Might Climate Negotiators Be Dooming The Rest of Us This Week?

The COP18 climate change conference is going on in Doha, Qatar until December 7th

The COP18 climate change conference is going on in Doha, Qatar until December 7. Photo: Arend Kuester

For the next week and a half, climate negotiators will be putting their heads together in Doha, Qatar, for the 18th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP18) to try to iron out a deal as to how the world should come together to combat rising atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and their consequent effects: melting permafrost, melting sea ice, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, shifting rainfall patterns, soaring temperatures, changing ocean currents, changing storm tracks, increasing wildfires, prolonged drought, flood rates and much, much more.

The effects of climate change are incredibly complex, with different feedback systems encouraging and counterbalancing each other all over the planet. Equally complex are the political decisions of what we should do about it. But, as climate writer David Roberts said in a TEDx presentation he made back in April, anthropogenic climate change itself is pretty simple: either we make it happen, or we don’t. Keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and bad things will happen. Stop pumping them, and less bad things will happen. Stop pumping them into the air, and start actively pulling them out of the air, and we may actually get through this okay.

(If you want a little more emotional pang with your science, there is a remix version of Roberts’ talk made by Ryan Louis Cooper, replete with melodramatic music and sad photographs cut over the presentation.)

But how, specifically, might the decisions made in Doha over the next 11 days affect you, or your children, or your children’s children? Let’s take one example: sea level rise.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers led by Michiel Schaeffer found that if we manage to somehow keep global average warming to 2°C (a lauded goal but, as Roberts pointed out, an unlikely one) then we will see 75 to 80 centimeters (about 30 inches) of global average sea level rise by the end of this century. If we do nothing, that number will hit 100 centimeters (39 inches). If we really got our act together and cut emissions completely within the next four years, we’re still going to see 60 centimeters (24 inches) of sea level rise.

But, the scientists point out, that’s only over the next century. The further forward in time you go, the more dramatic the sea level rise becomes. They estimate a roughly 2.7 meter (nearly 9 foot) rise by 2300, even if we manage to hit our 2°C goal.

Whether that sounds like it or not, 9 feet is a significant rise. But the important thing to remember about most projections of the effects of climate change is that they are dealing with global averages. So, 9 feet of sea level rise worldwide doesn’t necessarily mean an even rise all across the planet. As another recent study pointed out, the U.S.’s northeastern shores will be a hotspot for sea level rise, seeing three times the rise as the southwest coast.

The hope then, is that negotiators in Doha can figure out a way out of this mess, so that we can all go back to stressing out about all the myriad other things that may bring about the end of the world. (After all, it’s almost December, and that pesky Mayan apocalypse isn’t getting any further away.)

More from Smithsonian.com:

Sea Level Rising Three Times Faster Than Average on Northeast US Coast
Antarctic Animals Are Dissolving
UN Climate Talks Start Monday: Here’s Your 83-Second Primer
Here’s Why We’re Not Living in an Ice Age (And Why That Matters for the Future)

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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