Paris Climate Summit Won’t Fix It

This morning, Paris was almost back to normal. A summit of 150 or so heads of government opened to discuss climate change. The day before, a few hundred protesters were gassed and arrest by the gendarmie. Security was exceedingly tight, and the summiteers are in agreement that something must be done. After a week or two of mourning, though, a new source of sadness should be coming out of Paris. Even if the summit is howlingly successful, it’s too late to prevent serious climate change, and rather than spending billions to prevent it, the human race will have to spend trillions to adapt to it.

The objective of the summit is to find ways to cap the increase in the global temperature to a rise of just two degrees on the Celsius scale. The magic number was plucked out of thin air in the 1990s as the EU was trying to find a way to mitigate the worst of a hotter planet, such as rising sea levels that will swallow lowlands. It was adopted by the parties to the U N Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] in a 2010 meeting in Cancun, Mexico — meaning the world wasted more than a decade just trying to decide on the cap. Three years later, the UNFCCC decided to achieve this by way of a “carbon budget.”

The Washington Post reported, “Noting that the relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere and the eventual global temperature is ‘near linear,’ the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated the maximum amount the world could emit for a one-third, 50 percent or two-thirds chance of keeping warming below two degrees.

“The resulting headline: As of 2011, the world had about 1,000 gigatons, or billion metric tons, of carbon dioxide left to emit in order to have a two-thirds or greater chance of staying below two degrees. After that, net emissions must go to zero.”

The current trajectory suggests that the increase in the world’s temperature is actually going to top four degrees on the Celsius scale rather than two. Moreover, that is based solely on current consumption of carbon-emitting energy. As the temperature rises, the risk to the sub-Arctic permafrost increases. The Post noted, “scientists have recently verified a long-standing fear — that as warming increases, the thawing of northern permafrost, frozen soil that contains the remains of dead but un-decomposed plant life, will steadily release carbon into the air. It is not clear how fast or how much, but one recent study found that for moderate warming of 1.2 additional degrees Celsius between the year 2010 and 2100, global permafrost could emit 44.8 to 122.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which would tighten the carbon budget further.”

The same article noted that those countries arguing for a 1.5 degree cap are arguing for something that is likely to prove impossible. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain, said bluntly, “I think 1.5 degrees is gone.”

Sadly all of this was known at least as far back as the Cancun meeting. “The continued rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the past decade and the delays in a comprehensive global emissions reduction agreement have made achieving this target extremely difficult, arguably impossible,” wrote researchers led by Mark New of Oxford University in 2010. An increase of 4 degrees Celsius within the century is more likely, and from disappearing coast cities to increased water stress to changing ecosystems, the changes we see will be larger for 4 degrees than for 2. In fact, the additional warming could have dramatic consequences, such as the collapse of farming in sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers wrote.

In 2003, defense intellectuals in the Pentagon commissioned a report on “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security.” The authors warned of a risk that “mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world…. abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies.” The authors concluded that “the threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism.”

Amelioration needs to be brought to the fore in discussions of climate because it’s too late to stop it at a tolerable level.