What’s at stake in the Paris climate talks

Addressing climate change is one of the most important collective decisions facing us as humans living in 2015. Based on decisions made in the next two weeks, the states of the world will either commit to restrain global climate change to under 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or plan for modest reductions in pollution that still put us on track for 4°C of warming by 2100 (with greater increases beyond that).

Let’s assume you know the importance of this choice in theory, but maybe not in its details. Or even that you knew what the major risks of a 4°C warmer world back when the climate talks were held in Copenhagen, but haven’t updated your knowledge since then. Or that you know, and want something to share with those who don’t. Here are some places to get informed, in way that speaks to the immensity of the risks ahead, relatively fast…

  • Getting To Four Degrees: This hour-long  BBC radio drama puts a typical British family in a world warmed by 2°C and 4°C, while climate experts interrupt and discuss the details of what those world will look like. (original weblink dead; archived here)
  • Five possible scenarios for our future climate (The Guardian, 2009) — Degree by degree summaries of the world at 1°C through 5°C. Begins with our unavoidable future: Most of the world’s corals will die, including the Great Barrier Reef. Glaciers that provide crops for 50m people with fresh water begin to melt.
  • Turn Down the Heat — A series of reports from the Potsdam Institute and the World Bank spelling out the case for limiting warming to 2°C. Remember, the World Bank technocrats are people who have prioritized market-based growth and resource extraction, but they’re not afraid of the science on global warming. In this series, they’ve brought together detailed analyses of how much worse 4°C is than 2°C. If you’re doubting that controlling climate change matters, read about somewhere you love. Comes in three parts: A global summary released in 2012; and regional details for Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia and South Asia, and for Latin America and the Caribbean; the Middle East and North Africa; and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
  • Professor Kevin Anderson on what’s under negotiation in Paris.
  • Understanding key positions of the Least Developed Countries in climate change negotiations: “Warming and associated risks will still be unevenly and unfairly distributed with a global average rise of 2°C, and temperature change will be highest in those regions where particularly vulnerable countries are located. A more ambitious ‘1.5°C pathway’ for limiting global average temperature increase is essential to minimise the risks to Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, and Africa.”
  • The state of the carbon budget to reach 2°C (Washington Post, November 29).

And when you’re wondering how to feel about all this, read these for some company in the face of stark realities:

And here we go… (How we got here)

The inauguration of the climate summit is happening right now. This summit comes 115 years since ahead-of-his-time scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the climate.By 1970, an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, had over a decade of observations showing that Co2 in the atmosphere was steadily rising (the annual cycle comes as the seasons change and plants take in and release carbon dioxide, like a global breath). The cause? Burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

By 1988, the global importance of rising CO2 was clear, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded to coordinate scientific work on the subject and explain the results to policymakers. The IPCC, and its regular reports are one of the most comprehensive joint science projects ever. Listen to grad student Rachel Pike explain how it works. In 1992,at the Rio Earth Summit, a treaty making process called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change started to make international agreements to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The industrialized countries pledged to stabilize their emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Most lied.

By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” This cautious statement reflects the extreme complexity of the the many factors involved in human impact on the climate, (summarized in this graph). In fact, scientists thought they might not have definitive certainty until 2000, but detailed regional modelling, and the fact that 1970s-era pollution laws reduced the masking effect of soot and other pollution (which briefly cool the Earth before they fall to the ground, leaving the warming greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere for centuries) made the issue apparent by the mid-1990s. A continuing series of record-breaking temperature years helped to make the case:

Global temperature record since the 19th century

In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration pushed hard for a range of “flexibility mechanisms” to be included in the Kyoto Protocol, most of which allowed rich countries to pay poor ones to make reductions for them. Greenpeace and other international NGOs calculated that loopholes in the Kyoto treaty, such as military bunker fuels, transnational plane flights, and “Russian hot air” (the right of Eastern European countries to claim credit for the emissions they weren’t making after the post-Soviet collapse, and sell it to others who were emitting more), amounted to more CO2 than would be reduced in the first place. Despite this weakening, the US failed to ratify Kyoto, saddling the rest of the world with a weaker treaty not accepted by the world’s largest polluter.

Efforts to extend and fix Kyoto continued through annual meetings of the UNFCCC conference of parties (COP), and US efforts to weaken the accord continued even as it ignored the Protocol. Finally, last year, a deadline loomed at COP15 in Copenhagen. The US opted for a second track of negotiations with a handful of highly polluting countries and produced the Copenhagen Accord. The COP as a whole merely “acknowledged” the Accord, and the word “failure” hung in the air. If the UNFCCC process is to be resuscitated, the next chance will be at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico this December.

Bolivia, which played a key role from the environmental side in Copenhagen is hosting this week’s World Peoples’ Summit to give the process a push, and create a space for planning both inside and outside strategies on global environmental issues. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Strategies for Action working group seeing what participants think might be a Plan B if the international impasse continues.