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Did you feel a small earth tremor then? That’s the grinding of geopolitical plate tectonics as it struggles to come to terms with the physical reality of climate change.
So the latest UN climate conference – the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw has come to an end, and the climate action can has been kicked down the road for another year. Dubbed the Carbon COP because of Poland’s decision to run a coal conference in parallel with the climate event, the rifts between the rich, the poor, the rapidly growing and the slowly sinking were on clear display. Like the plate tectonics that drives the great rocky plates on the earth’s surface, the various blocs of nations ground up against each other in the weird geology of international climate diplomacy, generating small earthquakes and lots of volcanic hot air, but little in the way of rapid progress. The world still waits for the major seismic shift that will generate real change.
The obvious clash between self-interest, self-preservation and political ideology is not new, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the negotiations are taking place on a strange parallel planet. It’s a world where diplomatic contrivance trumps fact, expedience rules over reality. Keeping the process going is everything — even if it means that the goal you’re aiming at has shifted beyond reach.
Every year, great wodges of climate information are released to coincide with the annual COP-outs. The World Meteorological Organisation summarises the extreme weather of the preceding 12 months and points to record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. UN bodies earnestly report on our dying oceans or weather extremes. Looming over this year’s affair was the recently released basic science section of the IPCC’s fifth report, a paragon of scientific conservatism that spelled out the terrible maths of the carbon budget.
Put simply, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a “stock” problem. What matters is not how emissions change, or the pathways that emissions follow, but the total final amount of carbon that remains in the atmosphere. To stay under 2 degrees of warming we can add about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere in total. We’re halfway there already. If we make no emissions cuts, at the current rate we’re burning oil, coal, and felling forests, we’ll use up the reminder of that allowance in a couple of decades.
The big issue, therefore, and the main reason why climate negotiations get nowhere slowly, is how we divide up the remaining carbon “pie”. Ultimately, it’s all a fight over who gets the biggest share of a rapidly diminishing resource. It’s a tough fight, and the only way to make it easier — to keep the process alive — is make a couple of assumptions. The first is that as soon as we have a global deal, every nation on earth will rapidly mobilise emissions cuts, the brakes will slammed on, and everything will be fine. The history of the last 20 years suggests that’s a pipe dream.
The second is that we’ll be lucky, and that if we overshoot the budget by a bit, we’ll have time to put things right before the climate system bites back hard. That’s just as optimistic as the first assumption, and flies in the face of what we can see happening in the climate system now. It’s also terrible risk management.
Something is going to have to give. One climate scientist who has looked at the issue is Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester. At a presentation in Warsaw, Anderson laid out his conclusion: the sorts of emissions cuts required to hit a 2ºC target are already incompatible with economic growth in the developed world:
“… for a reasonable probability of avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, the wealthier (Annex 1) nations need, temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.”
It’s worth reading Anderson’s article explaining his reasoning. Central to his conclusion is that the developing world be given room to grow their emissions temporarily (and not for long — peaking in 2025). That leaves the rest of the world having to make emissions cuts that no economist currently believes are compatible with economic growth.
What’s going to give? Are politicians going to give up on economic growth as their panacea? It doesn’t seem likely. Promises of future prosperity are the very stuff of electability. What’s much more likely — and is already observable in the machinations of climate diplomacy — is that the “safe” target will get quietly revised upwards. Governments will effectively cross their fingers and hope for the best.
The crunch will come when climate change really bites, when a cascade of extreme weather disasters or the disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice make the fact of climate danger undeniable and impossible to ignore. The world will move on to a wartime footing, and commitments to continuing growth will be replaced by promises of survival. And those of us who are still alive will look back on the first decades of this century and curse those who helped to prolong The Age Of Stupid.