This December the world’s nations will gather in Paris to attempt to come to grips with climate change. The stakes are high, and all signs point a massive collision between the physics of what is required to limit climate change to safe levels, and the politics of what’s achievable. Unfortunately, politics seems to be winning.
This poses an existential threat to humanity and the global ecosystem because in a conflict between physics and politics, physics always wins.
Let’s examine some of the ways this Conference fails to acknowledge scientific reality.
The Conference’s goal – limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius – exposes us to unacceptable risks
The Carbon Brief has an excellent summary of the history of the 2 degree C limit.
As CB notes, it was first posited by an economist – William Nordhaus – in what he called a “first intuition.”
After James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress – which contained no target for safe levels of warming – the Stockholm Environmental Institute took on the question of what a “safe limit” might be, and in 1990 essentially endorsed a maximum increase of 2 C, but further concluded:
"Temperature increases beyond 1.0°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage …"
It is important to note that relying on this maximum increase has two essential flaws.
First, even based on 1990 scientific knowledge this “target” exposed us to high risks of cataclysmic ecosystem damage as well as risking amplifying feedbacks that would make us shoot past the target into even more dangerous territory.
The second problem with the 2 C target is that the science is showing that the consequences of 2 C are far worse than we thought back in 1990. So not only does it expose us to risk, it exposes us to greater risks than we previously thought.
For example, we now know that we are already locked into thousands of years of sea level rise as Greenland and large parts of Antarctica go into irreversible melting – a prospect that was unthinkable in 1990. The only control we have now, is how quickly we allow it to happen, and whether we leave ourselves time to adapt. Either way, tens of trillions of dollars will be lost as coastal cities, ports, wetlands and infrastructure are abandoned.
Between sea level rise, droughts, spreading disease and famine, more than a billion climate refugees will swarm over borders seeking safety before the centuries end.
Moreover, just four of 12 identified positive feedbacks could – and very likely will – raise the temperature by an additional 2.5 degrees C beyond even worst-case forecasts, if we aim for a 2 C target. The reason for this is that these feedbacks – which are not incorporated into most forecasts – are already occurring. Allowing temperatures to increase to 2 C will risk locking us into increases well beyond the target.
Finally, ocean acidification – which has the potential to turn our fertile seas into nearly lifeless crypts – was hardly considered when setting the 2 C limit back in 1990. Seafood is the primary source of protein for more than a billion people, and we’re already seeing damage to fisheries and precipitous loss of sea birds.
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Not only does 2 C expose us to risk, but no one expects the Paris conference to result in agreements that will reach 2 C.
So, as we have seen, setting 2 C as our target is risky business for our planet and our species. Even this risky target will require drastic and immediate action to decarbonize our economy. Within the next five years, all new energy infrastructure will have to be zero-carbon, and to have a margin of safety, we will have to begin to retire existing carbon-based energy systems long before their economic life is reached.
The goals outlined for the Paris Conference by the major emitters won’t achieve any of that. Not even close. They will essentially slow down our path to Armageddon buy a decade or two. But hell on Earth is hell on Earth, whether it comes in three decades or ten.
Every scientific analysis of the agreements announced for the Paris Conference of Parties (called “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs) clearly shows that the INDCs will fall far short of what’s needed to prevent us from exceeding a 2 C temperature increase.
One of the responses more optimistic folks have to this dire situation, is that Paris will be a “start” we can build on. They note that, for the first time, China has set ambitious goals and is on track to see its carbon emissions peak by 2025 – five years before the 2030 deadline they announced publically. On the other hand, India, the world’s third largest emitter of GHG, has declined to set limits.
There’s a fundamental flaw in the logic of “building on an agreement” which locks us into unsustainable carbon emissions that will cause us to blitz through an already risky limit on GHG emissions, and risk even more devastating increases from feedbacks.
How, once we’ve committed to goals which guarantee that we will exceed even risky limits of GHG emissions, can we expect nations to act within the next five years to commit to even more ambitious goals?
The answer, clearly, is that we can’t. And the implications of that are that the Paris Conference – absent dramatic and drastic changes by major emitters – isn’t going to save us from the worst consequences of climate change and ocean acidification, it will all but guarantee that we stay on the pathway to catastrophe.
We are establishing a target for the Earth that has less of a safety factor than we use for a bridge or a plane
To capture the full folly of what we are doing, imagine for a moment that you are designing a plane or a bridge, and you decide that not only do you not need a margin of safety, but your design could encompass high risks of failure. Would you drive across that bridge or fly on that plane?
Yet that is precisely what we are doing with our planet with anything over a 1 degree increase.
In fact, with the agreement shaping up for the Paris COP, we are, in essence, doing worse than designing a climate with no safety factor, and no margin of error. The Paris agreement is the planetary equivalent of designing a bridge you know will collapse; or a plane you know will drop out of the sky.
Seems almost unbelievable that a species that named itself homo sapiens sapiens, or man the double wise, could do that to the life support systems it depends upon, but it’s happening.