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Local climate activists in Wisonsin partcipated in the Global Divestment Day last month on the University of Wisconsin campus with the Wisconsin State Capitol in the background. (Photo: Joe Brusky / Overpass Light Brigade/flickr/cc)

The Real Way to Judge the US Climate Pledge

If we don’t see global emissions peak and rapidly decline in the next few years, the world will be on track for disaster.

Jamie Henn

When any new climate announcement comes out, you have to judge it against two P’s: politics and physics.

The first P tells you something important: progress on climate change is going to require government action and the ebb and flow of the political tide can help us determine the prospects for treaties, legislation, and policies. But it’s the second P that really counts. As Bill McKibben has said, ultimately climate change isn’t a negotiation between countries, it’s a negotiation between people and physics, and physics is a tough negotiator. No matter what you offer up, physics’ position remains the same: we put more carbon in the atmosphere, it raises the temperature of the planet.

An “all of the above” approach may fool politicians, but it won’t trick physics.

On Tuesday morning, the United States officially announced its offer for this December’s UN Climate Talks in Paris, a 28% cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2025. The numbers weren’t a surprise, the US first announced the cuts last November during President Obama’s trip to China, but the announcement itself is still a big deal. As the world’s largest historical emitter and richest country, the US has the most power to determine the outcome of the climate talks, and their commitment tells us a lot about what Paris is shaping up to deliver.

Politically, the US announcement is being heralded as a major step forward. The commitment is light years ahead of the Bush administration and climate deniers in Congress. By coming out early in the year, the US is helping build momentum for Paris and opening up the space for other countries to come forward with their commitments. And when you spin it the right way, the numbers seem bold and exciting--the target will roughly double the pace at which the US is currently cutting emissions. As the administration trumpeted on Medium this morning, “We’re taking action on climate change — and the world is joining us.”

But when you stack the target up against physics, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Scientists have made it clear that our window to address the climate crisis is closing. If we don’t see global emissions peak and rapidly decline in the next few years, the world will be on track for disaster. The US claims that its target puts the world on a pathway to limiting warming to 2°C, but that’s assuming major cuts from other nations, including many developing countries who have done little to contribute to the problem. And even 2°C of warming will be disastrous, especially for many poor and vulnerable countries, who have long argued for a target of 1.5°C. Stacked up against the magnitude of the crisis, the US target clearly isn’t enough: when your house is burning down, a 28% reduction in flames ten years from now isn’t much comfort.

What else should the US be doing? Unfortunately, it’s quickly become established wisdom that the Obama administration has already done “everything in its authority” to reduce emissions. In one sense, it’s true: with climate deniers controlling Congress, the White House has its hands tied when it comes to many of the most sensible approaches to reducing fossil fuel consumption, like putting a stiff price on carbon. But if reducing consumption is off the table, there’s still plenty the administration can do to go after fossil fuel production. That means canceling plans for more offshore drilling, banning fossil fuel production on public lands, stopping coal export facilities, and, of course, rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, if the administration lets these projects go ahead, the targets they put forward today will be revealed as little more than fancy rhetoric. You can’t claim you’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions when you’re digging massive amounts of fossil fuels out of the ground. An “all of the above” approach may fool politicians, but it won’t trick physics.

Despite its inadequacies, today’s announcement is a good sign that the momentum for climate action is building thanks to the incredible year of activism that has taken place around the world, from the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the People’s Climate March to the wildfire spread of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. That surge of citizen action has helped changed the politics, finally giving us a chance to beat the physics. Together, we’ve introduced a new and powerful P to the equation: people.


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Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media and a co-founder of 350.org.

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