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School of Languages (ScOLa)

Undergraduate English Programme

CO2 Can Directly Impact Extreme Weather, Research Suggests

Chelsea Harvey

1. Global efforts to tackle climate change rest on a common goal: to keep the planet’s temperatures from
rising beyond dangerous thresholds. But what if the gases that come from cars and power plants are harming
the planet themselves, even without the warming they cause?

2. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere may have direct effects on the climate system. In other
words, even if global temperatures stay locked in at a certain point, higher CO2 concentrations could
continue to affect the planet. As a result, some experts are calling for an explicit cap on carbon dioxide
concentrations, in addition to the global temperature targets of 2 degrees Celsius outlined in the Paris
climate accord1. According to a study published by Nature Climate Change, rising CO2 levels may cause an
increase in extreme weather and climate events, regardless of what happens with average global
temperatures (Baker et al., 2018).

3. Broadly speaking, the Earth warms proportionally with increasing carbon dioxide concentrations.
Nevertheless, there is still some uncertainty about exactly how much warming is associated with a given
amount of greenhouse gas emissions—a metric known as the planet’s “climate sensitivity.” It is still not clear
how the Earth responds to rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

4. In the study, the researchers investigated what would happen to the climate system under a range of
possible carbon dioxide levels, assuming the average global temperature remained steady. They chose the
1.5-degree target—the world’s most ambitious goal—as a reference point. The scientists ran a series of
model simulations using a range of CO2 concentrations consistent with 1.5 degrees of warming. The effect on
extreme climate events was striking. Even though average global temperatures stayed the same, higher CO2
concentrations caused a significant increase in extreme heat and precipitation 2 events in certain regions
around the world. Scientists are still figuring out exactly why these effects occur. In part, it may be that extra
carbon dioxide affects atmospheric temperatures differently across regions of the world—even if the average
global temperature remains more or less constant. It causes changes in circulation, changes in wind patterns,
which are the drivers of the extreme weather conditions.

5. Previous studies also suggested that carbon emissions may directly affect the climate beyond just raising
average global temperatures. Scientists found that carbon dioxide levels alter precipitation and atmospheric
circulation patterns independently of average warming (Bony et al., 2013). In addition, it is not just the
weather affected by carbon dioxide levels. In fact, one of the biggest concerns about rising CO2 is its
contribution to ocean acidification, which is harmful to marine ecosystems.

“a formal agreement.” Accord. (2018). In Cambridge dictionary Online. Retrieved July 31,2018 from
“rain or snow that falls on the ground.” Precipitation. (2018). In Cambridge dictionary Online. Retrieved July 31,2018
from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english/precipitation
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Undergraduate English Programme


6. The 1.5- and 2-degree temperature targets are currently the centerpiece of international climate
mitigation efforts—the ultimate goal that world leaders are striving to meet under the Paris climate
agreement. However, these targets may not encompass all the risks associated with climate change and
what’s more, they may not be promoting the level of global climate action originally hoped for. A
temperature target is only useful if policymakers know how to achieve it. As a result, numerous studies in
the last decade have attempted to determine the amount of carbon the world can emit without exceeding
certain temperatures. This value would inform policymakers about how quickly they need to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. Therefore, the issue should be tackled in different ways.

7. Baker et al. (2018) suggest adopting a concrete cap on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations—a goal
to keep carbon dioxide levels from passing a certain threshold. A CO2 target would be a new step for world
leaders, but it is not necessarily a new idea. Some climate activists have argued for similar strategies. The
climate advocacy organization 350.org, co-founded by prominent activist Bill McKibben, was established
around the idea that world leaders should work to get atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 350
parts per million. This means, you can emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still achieve the
temperature target of 1.5- or 2-degree goal. However, a larger “carbon budget” would be damaging.

8. The problem is that the budgets do not always agree with one another. A wide variety of assumptions can
influence a carbon budget estimate—everything from how much warming the Earth has already experienced
to the role of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, like methane—and scientists are still debating many of them. As a
result, different research groups have produced different estimates over the years. In the last six months, for
instance, several studies have suggested that the carbon budget is significantly larger than previously
thought. Recently, some experts have suggested that these uncertainties may confuse policymakers, or allow
them to argue there is still time to reduce emissions (Harvey, 2018).

9. An unmovable target just for carbon dioxide would take “a big part of the uncertainty out” regarding the
planet’s climate sensitivity. It would also eliminate the need to deal with other uncertainties that affect
carbon budget calculations, such as how much the planet has already warmed or when the baseline
“preindustrial era” actually started but it could also create new problems. There is some uncertainty about
exactly how emissions translate into carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Scientists are still
trying figure out how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by the land and the ocean in the planet’s natural
carbon cycle, and setting a carbon dioxide cap also does not address the role of other greenhouse gases, like
methane. Therefore, a carbon budget for CO2 concentrations would solve some problems but may create

10. According to Geden (2018) of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, another
scientist critical of the carbon budget’s policy use, also noted that setting a CO2 cap is not the same thing as
developing a concrete timeline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ideally, the target would lead to the
timeline, but as he pointed out, merely setting a goal “does not tell a single government what to do.”
Therefore, both temperature targets and CO2 targets have their limitations.

ENG 101 Fall 2018 2

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Undergraduate English Programme

11. A temperature threshold does not capture all the risks associated with climate change. Adopting a set of
specific, individual climate goals—for instance, limits on the amount of global and regional warming, ocean
acidification, agricultural losses or sea-level rise—would require greater reductions in carbon emissions than
those needed to meet a global average temperature goal alone. Setting a carbon dioxide limit would be
another complication in the political process. Yet, if it were paired with existing temperature targets, it could
be another step in the right direction. As Baker et al. (2018) recommend adopting both—keeping the
temperature target and adding a CO2 limit on top of it will be a more efficient solution.

12. We all realize that whilst the 1.5- and 2-degree Celsius limits in the Paris agreement are politically easily
communicable and understandable goals, for the protection of the climate system as a whole they are not
sufficient. In other words, one has to really look at what generates impacts, and the various components of
the climate system—and to what extent are we willing to accept the level of impacts that a given climate
change is affecting. Consequently, having a temperature target along with CO2 cap is the best way to tackle
with climate change.

Adapted and taken from: Harvey (2018). CO2 can directly impact extreme weather, research suggests.
Retrieved from:https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/co2-can-directly-impact-extreme-weather-research-


Baker.et al. (2018). Higher CO2 concentrations increase extreme event risk 1.5 C world. Retrieved from:

Bonny, S.et.al (2013). Robust direct effect of Carbon dioxide on tropical circulation and regional precipitation.
Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo1799

Geden, O. (2018). Politically informed advice for climate action. Nature Geoscience, 11 (6),380

Harvey, C (2018). Ambitious climate target is 2 decades away. Retrieved from:


Harvey, C (2018) Here is how the ‘carbon budget’ is causing problems. Retrieved from:

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