World Leaders Vote Present on Climate Change

By David L. Brown

The news from Italy today is headlined by BBC online (here) as follows: “World Powers Accept Warming Limit.” The story explains that members of the G8 have agreed to limit global warming to two degrees C. above the 1900 level, noting that is the level “above which, the UN says, the Earth’s climate system would become dangerously unstable.”

Good news, right? Something about which world leaders can proudly proclaim they are taking dramatic steps to halt global warming and climate change.

Well, not quite. For one thing the agreement did not include any roadmap to attain the goal. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, responded to the news by stating that the G8 had not done enough and called for an additional target to be set for 2020.

Furthermore, there has been no agreement from developing countries to contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to halt warming. Since China and India are the world’s largest in terms of population and both are engaged in industrialization such as took place in Europe and America beginning more than a century ago, this creates a serious problem for any climate agreement. It was just such a “get out of jail” card for the Third World that resulted in the U.S. Senate advising President Clinton that it would not approve the Kyoto Accords.

U.S. government officials have admitted recently that even if the U.S. alone takes proposed steps to reduce carbon emissions, it will have no significant effect on global warming if other major countries fail to act. That is particularly true of China and India. This is a global problem that requires unified action, something that is unlikely to happen.

It must be admitted that there is some justice in the claims of third world nations that the first world, and the U.S. in particular, are responsible for a large share of the global warming problem. Their attitude is, “you made this mess, you clean it up.”

But it is not that easy. It is true that past emissions have been primarily from the industrialized nations, but we now live in a post-industrial first world. The U.S., for example, has steadily reduced its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, while China, in contrast, is ramping up in a repeat of the Industrial Revolution. On average, two new coal-fired power plants are opened each week in the Middle Kingdom.

Any effective steps toward significant reduction of global warming must be applied to where the most potential for improvement exists, and at this time that is in China, India and other emerging economies. Tellingly, China recently became the world’s No. 1 emitter of CO².

There’s something else about that bold decision announced in Italy today, setting a goal to prevent the world’s temperature from exceeding 2 degrees C. over that of 1900. You might notice right away that the target date is 41+ years in the future, long after any of the world leaders presently engaged in this far-sighted plan will have gone from the scene. It reminds me of the old cartoons featuring Wimpy, who would promise to pay anyone at some time in the future if they would only buy him a hamburger today. wimpyFor Wimpy, that future never comes, but he might get the occasional burger—just as today’s world leaders may get credit for tackling global warming, even though, for them, tomorrow will never come. They’ve handed off the hot potato to future generations with a few clever words.

There is another problem, and that is that no one knows exactly what it would take to prevent a 2 degree C. temperature rise. In fact, the on-going meltdown of Arctic permafrost has the  potential to release up to 1.5 trillion tons of carbon is presently contained in frozen soil, much of it in the form of methane which is 20-30 times more potent than mere CO². That is about twice as much greenhouse gas as is already in the Earth’s atmosphere. As permafrost continues to melt, that horse is already out of the barn and running, so how do the members of the G8 propose to factor that into their plans?

Furthermore, the problem seems to be growing. Just on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as follows:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007 that, if we continued on this course, there was a 50 percent chance of global average air temperature increasing by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit in this century.  A 2009 MIT study found a fifty percent chance of a 9 degree rise in this century and a 17 percent chance of a nearly 11 degree increase. 11 degrees may not sound like much, but, during the last ice age, when Canada and much of the United States were covered all year in a glacier, the world was only about 11 degrees colder.  A world 11 degrees warmer will be very different as well.  Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren? (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

An average temperature rise of even 5 or 6 degrees C. would be disastrous for the Earth, and it is hard to imagine the effects of increases in the range of 9 to 11 degrees. But in fact, knowledgeable scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that such outcomes may be possible if not likely.

Some have even suggested runaway warming that could destroy all life. Fortunately, the chances of that happening are slim in my opinion. My optimism, at least in terms of human-generated warming, is based on, well, my realistic assessment of the future course of human history, which is on the cusp of a new and quite different era. Continued industrial development cannot be sustained because of the resource peaks that we are facing, not least Peak Oil but also Peak Food, Peak Population, Peak Metals, and other peaks that are beginning to put the brakes on economic expansion. As “progress” slows and reverses, as we are now witnessing, the amount of human-induced global warming will also decline.

But, we need to keep an eye on those Arctic regions fr0m which the real burst of carbon emissions may come. There may not be very much if anything we can do about that. Meanwhile, we need to look askance at politicians who come bearing word of bold initiatives to halt the course of Mother Nature in its tracks. They should be aware that Mother Nature always wins. Always.

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