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Unfortunately, Professor Bob Watson is not speaking out of turn in telling the world to

prepare for four degrees of global warming. "Mitigate for two degrees; adapt for four"
has long been the catchphrase among climate negotiators and campaigners. Translated,
that means: try to reduce emissions to stay below two degrees of warming, but also
prepare for the worst.

And Bob Watson should know – he is the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), but was kicked out at the behest of the Bush administration
for being too vocal about the threat presented by global warming. (Any sceptic reading
who thinks that the IPCC is a conspiracy of environmentalists take note: it is a creature
of government as well as of science.) He has long made clear his own personal passion
and commitment to tackling the issue – often without mincing his words. He is also
someone with a very wide-ranging perspective: after leaving the IPCC, Watson chaired
the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a landmark UN study published in 2005
looking at the totality of human impact on the planet's natural systems. (The news
wasn't good.)

The problem with the "mitigate for two degrees; adapt for four" strategy is that it is
doomed to fail. Yes, we should certainly prepare for the worst as far as possible – with
flood defences, drought-resistant crops and strategies to ameliorate the loss of wildlife,
at the very least – but a look at the likely impact of a four-degrees temperature rise
suggests that such a dramatic change would probably stretch society's capacity for
adaptation to the limit, not to mention having a disastrous effect on the natural
ecosystems that support humanity as a whole.

By the time global temperatures reach four degrees, much of humanity will be short of
water for drinking and irrigation: glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas, which feed river
systems on which tens of millions depend, will have melted, and their rivers will be
seasonally running dry. Whole weather systems like the Asian monsoon (which
supports 2 billion people) may alter irrevocably. Deserts will have spread into
Mediterranean Europe, across most of southern Africa and the western half of the
United States. Higher northern latitudes will be plagued with regular flooding.
Heatwaves of unimaginable ferocity will sear continental landscapes: the UK would
face the kind of summer temperatures found in northern Morocco today. The planet
would be in the throes of a mass extinction of natural life approaching in magnitude that
at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65m years ago, when more than half of global
biodiversity was wiped out.

Four degrees of warming would also cross many of the "tipping points" which so
concern climate scientists: the Amazon rainforest would likely collapse and burn, as
part of a massive further release of carbon from terrestrial ecosystems – the reverse of
the current situation, where trees and soils absorb and store a good portion of our annual
emissions. Most of the Arctic permafrost will lie in the melt zone, and will be steadily
releasing methane, accelerating warming still further. The northern polar ice cap will be
a distant memory, and Greenland will be melting so rapidly that sea level rise by the end
of the century will be measured in metres rather than centimetres.

Hence the current effort – led by scientists, in the main – to drop the two degrees target
and talk instead about getting carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere back
down to less dangerous levels. This year's CO2 concentration is 385 parts per million
(ppm) – now a campaign is forming to get them back down to 350ppm, about the level
they were at in the mid 1980s. This isn't just about reducing emissions, it is about
getting emissions quickly down to zero (by 2050 or earlier), and then removing some of
the excess carbon that humanity has already dumped into the atmosphere. The planet
will still get warmer, but on nothing like the scale currently predicted.

The harsh truth is that the latest science shows that even two degrees is not good
enough, never mind four. And since four degrees would be a catastrophe that many of
us, or our children, would not survive, it is surely our absolute duty to do everything in
our power to avoid it.