The annual United Nations climate summit has convened, this year in Doha, the capital of the oil-rich emirate of Qatar, on the Arabian Peninsula. Dubbed “COP 18,” an army of bureaucrats, business people and environmentalists are gathered ostensibly to limit global greenhouse-gas emissions to a level that scientists say will contain the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit), and perhaps stave off global climate catastrophe. If past meetings are any indication, national self-interest on the part of the world’s largest polluters, paramount among them the United States, will trump global consensus.
“We want our children to live in an America ... that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” President Barack Obama proclaimed in his victory speech on Nov. 6 this year, just over a week after Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City and much of New Jersey, killing more than 100 people. These are fine aspirations. The problem is, action is needed now to avert the very scenario that President Obama has said he wants to avoid. The United States, which remains the greatest polluter in world history, stands as one of the biggest impediments to a rational global program to stem global warming.
'There is no room for doubt—absent remarkable action, these fossil fuels will burn, and the temperature will climb, creating a chain reaction of climate related natural disasters.' —Nnimmo Bassey, Bill McKibben, Pablo Solon
Latest findings suggest that the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius may now be beyond reach, and that we may now be locked into a 4- to 6-degree temperature increase. “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS [carbon capture and storage], removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation.” These are not the words of some wild-eyed environmental activist, but from business advisers at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) in their November 2012 Low Carbon Economy Index.
The PwC advisers concur in many regards with a consortium of environmentalists who issued an open letter as COP 18 convened. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, Nigerian activist Nnimmo Bassey and Ambassador Pablo Solon, who formerly led climate negotiations for Bolivia, said in their letter to the COP 18 negotiators: “If we want a 50-50 chance of staying below two degrees, we have to leave 2/3 of the known reserves of coal and oil and gas underground. ... That’s not ‘environmentalist math’ or some radical interpretation—that’s from the report of the International Energy Agency last month. It means that—without dramatic global action to change our path—the end of the climate story is already written. There is no room for doubt—absent remarkable action, these fossil fuels will burn, and the temperature will climb, creating a chain reaction of climate related natural disasters.”
The World Meteorological Organization released preliminary findings for 2012, highlighting extremes of drought, heat waves, floods, and snow and extreme cold, as well as above-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin for the third consecutive year. Also speaking at the COP 18’s opening was Dr. R.K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprising more than 1,800 scientists from around the globe, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. In sober, scientific language, Dr. Pachauri, pointed out potential catastrophes unless action is taken, among them: “By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people [in Africa] are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. ... As global average temperature increase exceeds 3.5 (degrees) C, model projections suggest significant extinctions ranging from 40 to 70 percent of species assessed around the globe."
President Obama loudly advocates for doing away with subsidies to the oil and gas corporations, but, as pointed out by Oil Change International, Greenpeace and other groups, he is “supporting skyrocketing export subsidies for dirty fossil fuels through the United States Export-Import Bank,” with at least $10.2 billion in public financing for fossil-fuel projects in 2012 alone, dwarfing the $2.3 billion the State Department claims it has disbursed to developing countries to combat climate change.
Outside the air-conditioned plenary halls and corridors of the UN climate summit in Doha, in the emirate of Qatar—which, ironically, is the nation with the highest per capita carbon emissions of any nation on the planet—there will be protests. The newly formed Arab Youth Climate Movement, hundreds of grassroots activists from across the region, including many involved in the Arab Spring, are marching, calling for their nations to take the lead in reducing emissions.
The Arab Spring activists toppled dictators, but can they move the fossil-fuel corporations? With a growing global movement intent on doing just that, prepare for a hot summer, in more ways than one.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.