snailA 4 C rise and counting. By 2060.

That is the message from the UK Met Office in a study prepared for the British Government. Unless there is a radical action on carbon emissions, a catastrophic four degree rise in centigrade (7.2 F) could happen in many people’s live-times.

That is five decades before most people thought it could happen.

Most leading scientists and politicians have been arguing to keep any warming to a 2 degree rise. Anything beyond that is seen as potentially catastrophic. A 4 degrees will threaten the water supply of half the world’s population, lead to the complete collapse of whole ecosystems, wipe out up to half of animal and plant species, and swamp low coasts.

And that’s a 4 degree average. Some regions could experience major and completely unsustainable increases – with Africa facing a warming of up to 10 degrees and the Arctic 16 degrees C.

The report also looked at carbon feedbacks – so as the Arctic warms vast amounts of methane will be released from the tundra, further exacerbating climate change. As the Amazon dries it will absorb less CO2.  As soils warm, more CO2 will be released as oceans warm they will absorb less. All these mean more CO2 in the atmosphere and more trouble.

“We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise,” said Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre, who will announce the findings today at a conference at Oxford University, entitled “4 Degrees and beyond” . “People will say it’s an extreme scenario, and it is an extreme scenario, but it’s also a plausible scenario.”

The study gows a long list of scientific reports showing that climate change is happening faster and sooner than predicted. It echoed a UNEP report last week which found that climate changes were outpacing worst-case scenarios forecast in 2007 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The message comes as the pre-Copenhagen bandwagon goes to Bangkok, where the search for a political solution by December is moving at a snail’s pace.

Mark New, a climate expert at Oxford who has organised today’s conference, said: “If we get a weak agreement at Copenhagen then there is not just a slight chance of a 4C rise, there is a really big chance.”

For more info on the Oxford conference go here.