How to Think About the Paris Climate Talks
by Gaius Publius
The Paris climate talks — officially COP 21, or the 21st "conference of the parties" to the UN's climate treaty-making body, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) — are much in the news these days, and I imagine most people have no idea how to think about them. That is, they don't think much will happen there that will help, and beyond that, it's just numbers and speeches, stuff that flies over people's heads.
So here are four points to consider as you listen to the reports and analyses. For easy reference, these are:
- The most ambitious emission pledges on the table would still result in catastrophe.
- Two degrees warming is still too much.
- Paris, at best, is baby steps and a scoreboard.
- The media can spin, but nature bats last.
Finally, as a reminder, a fifth takeaway from me:
- This isn't a discussion. It's not a negotiation. There's a lot of money on the table, and it's going to take force to make the Bigs walk away from it.
The Most Ambitious Emissions Pledges Would Still Result in Catastrophic Warming
From a climate standpoint, all of the national pledges (whatever that means without retributional force) to reduce emissions, if implemented, would still result in a climate-killing 3.5°C warming. Hertsgaard:
The road to hell, it’s said, is paved with good intentions. A case in point is unfolding at the landmark United Nations climate summit in Paris, where president Obama and other world leaders seem eager to define a scientific failure as a political success. This triumph of political spin over scientific reality is unfolding for understandable, even well-intentioned reasons, but its effects would be ruinous for human lives and institutions now and for generations to come.The takeaway here — some improvement, but not enough.
“There is such a thing as being too late,” Obama said today in his speech to the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our short-term interests behind [those of our children’s future], then we won’t be too late for them.”
This lofty rhetoric, however, clashes with the actual proposals the United States, China, and other big powers are putting forward at the summit. As Obama noted, more than 180 countries have outlined pledges for future reductions in heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But the combined effect of these voluntary pledges—even assuming, generously, that each is fully implemented—would still result in global emissions continuing to increase for decades to come, soaring well past the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above the level that prevailed prior to the Industrial Revolution. Temperatures would instead rise to 2.7 to 3.5 C above the pre-industrial level, a catastrophic amount.
Two Degrees Warming Is Still Too Much
The best takeaway from Hertsgaard's piece is the recognition, which I've seen many places, but never in the news, that two degrees warming is way too generous a ceiling. One-and-a-half degree is almost all we can tolerate, given that we're at one degree warming now, and the climate is already going out of control (my emphasis):
Bear in mind, 2 degrees is often described as a “safe” guardrail, but the latest science and real-world observations demonstrate that in fact it marks the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” warming. Just ask the leaders of Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific island states who are already planning the evacuation of homelands doomed to disappear within decades beneath rising seas. Or ask farmers in the Sahel region of Africa and other areas that already endure hot and dry conditions. Man-made warming has already increased temperatures by 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels, worsening droughts, heat waves, and storms, with predictable impacts on crop yields, rural incomes, and hunger in much of Africa and other poor regions.It's pretty simple. Global warming of 1.5°C is already in the pipeline, guaranteed. We have to ... well, stop now.
Thus the majority of the world’s governments urge a temperature limit of 1.5 C. This view is virtually absent from the US media, perhaps because these governments represent the world’s most vulnerable nations and the US government dismisses the position as unrealistic, but the disagreement is likely to permeate the rest of the Paris summit.
Baby Steps and a Scoreboard
On the plus side, at least they've started making commitments. Will they honor them? If past is prologue, not likely. But still, baby steps?
Here’s how to think about what happens in Paris over the course of the next two weeks: The conference isn’t the game — it’s the scoreboard. ...As McKibben points out, the 2009 Copenhagen meeting ended with an expressed desire to keep global warming below 2°C, and nothing else. Paris will be more than nothing else. Baby steps?
We won’t win the climate fight; we won’t even come close. But at least we’ll know the score — and we’ll know how much we have to do in the next few crucial years.
The Media Can Spin, But Nature Bats Last
All the bought political spin in the world won't change the facts. Science — the natural world — bats last. Senators can hold all the snowballs they want in their hands. The laws of physics aren't paying a dime's bit of attention. Hertsgaard:
Science does not care about humans’ emotions or political conundrums. The laws of physics and chemistry do not compromise; they don’t know how. We must either find a way to respect these laws or, our good intentions notwithstanding, we will find ourselves on a road to hell.And those are your takeaways; the rest is expansion and explanation, something I and others will gladly provide later. This, though, is all you need to know if you want to remember just what matters.