Starting November 30, some 45,000-plus interested parties converge in Paris to try to influence the final form of what is supposed to be a universal agreement among nations on how to address the unfolding threat of climate change. As the date looms, the prospects are not encouraging. (See also companion commentary on prospects in Paris.)
The first thing to keep in mind is that only the climate gets final-say: the measure that matters most for what comes out of Paris will be the reaction, over time, of the climate itself. Countless unambiguous signals, ranging from disappearing arctic ice to sea level rise, tell us that human-induced changes in climate are already happening. It’s too late to stop global warming; the world’s nations can only try to prevent its worst effects by drastically reducing further emissions of greenhouse gasses. The world may yet do so, but not solely as a result of any agreement that comes out of Paris.
Most of the horse-trading and language that will go into this agreement may well be irrelevant to how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses ultimately rise into the skies. At least that’s the grim conclusion that can be drawn from the history of most U.N. actions devised to address environmental problems, and from the signals coming from the ongoing negotiations themselves. Consider the sad history of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty intended to address the climate threat, with roots extending back to the 1980s. It was finally negotiated in 1997, and went into effect in 2005. Big nations by and large failed to meet the targets, and China, now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, was not even bound by its commitments. Moreover, the most successful reductions came not from the treaty, but in the ordinary course of modernizing the outdated and comically inefficient industries of the former communist bloc nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even as it was being negotiated, few experts believed that Kyoto by itself would forestall global warming. It was pitched to doubters with the argument that once in place, the treaty could be strengthened. It wasn’t. More often, it was either evaded or ignored.
Ominous signs involving money, urgency, timing
Another troubling sign is the wrangling over money, which conjures up another international environmental effort: The U.N.’s Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), an effort to slow destruction of the world’s rainforests, was hatched in the 1980s. The program was sold to donors as a way to slow deforestation in these fragile ecosystems, but it was sold to recipients as a way to channel additional money for economic development. The result: in a number of African nations, TFAP actually accelerated logging.
In the case of climate change, one has to wonder how much of the money that is supposed to go from the developed countries to emerging nations will simply be viewed as a new source of development aid (at least those funds that are not simply relabeled existing commitments) that will be channeled into politically favored projects, with little or no impact on emissions.”On Click To Tweet
Shifting the world’s energy sector away from fossil fuels requires investment, and it’s understandable that poorer nations will try to seek funds from richer countries, and that all nations will try to dodge their own responsibilities. That’s what nations have always done. That this wrangling continues even as this supposedly historic meeting convenes, however, bespeaks the lack of urgency that for some surrounds this issue. It’s a depressing indicator of how low climate change ranks on various national agendas that only a tiny number of politicians bother even to pander on the issue.
If Paris were somehow to lead to a robust agreement, how many years will pass before it’s put into place by various countries needing to do so? And then, how many years will it take before its “binding” commitments go into effect? The leisurely timetable and mild demands of the Kyoto Protocol won’t cut it given the pace at which climate is changing.
Fragility, legitimacy of 2 degrees C ‘safe’ level
An aura of unreality surrounds the whole process. Somehow negotiators settled on 2 degrees Centigrade, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as an acceptable amount of warming (by the way, Earth has already warmed by nearly 1.3 degrees F from pre-industrial levels). Despite its nearly iconic status, it’s a target that wrongly presumes that scientists can pin-point how much warming will result from a given amount of GHG emissions, or that economists and social scientists can nail, with precision, the economic and social costs of a given degree of warming. They can’t.
The magical and mystical two degrees number dates back to 1990 for policymakers and was advanced as far back as the 1970s. A lot has changed in climate science in the years since. Until the mid-1990s, for instance, most scientists felt that climate changed in a stately, linear way, over hundreds if not thousands of years. Now, the climate community has come to realize that climate can change quite abruptly, and that climate transitions are characterized by tipping points and non-linear (read unpredictable) responses.
Take, for instance, the question of thawing permafrost. Several times the amount of additional greenhouse gasses humans might “safely” release into the atmosphere remain trapped in permafrost in the northern hemisphere. When the magic two degree number first gelled into consensus, few were considering whether a rise of two degrees might trigger irreversible thawing of that permafrost, leading to runaway warming. Indeed, IPCC estimates of future GHG emissions contain no figure for future permafrost contribution to the carbon budget.
Based on a study of ancient permafrost thawing, Anton Vaks of Oxford University in England estimates that the tipping point might be a rise in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees centigrade. Oops!
More than a decade ago, I helped edit a report on rapid climate change sponsored by an elite group of institutions and a major re-insurer. The idea was to model the implications of rapid climate change for the insurance industry, but what the participants discovered was that the non-linearity that characterizes so much of the climate system made realistic loss estimates impossible. The study reverted to using linear projections – a classic case of looking for the keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is.
So, the Paris Congress of Parties, COP, now finds itself with participants haggling over an agreement that will take years to come into force, and one that can’t even be called a treaty because that would require ratification by an adamantly opposed Republican majority controlling the U.S. Congress. The agreement will involve unenforceable commitments that few will seriously strive to abide by, and transfers of money that rich nations don’t want to spend. All to avoid a 2 degree rise in global temperatures that few serious observers think will be adequate to prevent a rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe.
Clearly, the world needs a Plan B, and the good news here is that it’s well under way – only it’s not a plan, but rather the actions of millions of consumers, investors, and companies. Alternative energy technologies seem to be going viral as prices fall, and economies are becoming less carbon-intensive, a process driven by simple economics and technological change. It’s heartening too that major investors and finance groups are banding together to help grease the wheels of the transition to a climate-friendly economy.
We can only hope that the jury – which is to say the climate – is still out on whether change will come in time. Ultimately, only the climate will give us the verdict that matters most.
Eugene Linden, who for years covered global environmental issues for Time magazine, has written about climate change in books, articles, and essays since the late 1980s. He is the author of nine books including, Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations.