We’re in a pickle.
Our world is warming at an alarming rate. This means higher seas, more intense tropical storms, and an increased occurrence of droughts along with rising temperatures. And with positive feedback loops from methane gas release, receding sea ice, and decreased ability of primary producers to sequester carbon considered highly likely, it makes sense to peg the maximum allowable “global warming” at the low end of the safe spectrum so as to avoid triggering a cataclysmic tipping point.
The “2℃ limit” agreed upon by global governance has come under fire from scientists recently for being unattainable, misleading and of dubious utility to catalyze action. "Because it sounds firm and concerns future warming, the 2 °C target has allowed politicians to pretend that they are organizing for action when, in fact, most have done little," the authors of the critique write. "Pretending that they are chasing this unattainable goal has also allowed governments to ignore the need for massive adaptation to climate change."
I want to return to a previously posted quotation:
"The greater danger for us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark."
As prescient as Renaissance-man Michelangelo may have been, it is doubtful that he could have foreseen the existential threat facing humankind in our day and age. At the turn of the 16th century, theories such as a round world or a heliocentric solar system were still being vigorously debated, if not by scientists then still by the public. Beliefs change slowly, if at all. However, reason and empirical observation eventually won out, and few today would claim that the legion of scientists studying geography and astronomy are hoisting a hoax on the American public.
As for our changing climate, scientists have known about the "greenhouse effect", and the results that widespread combustion of fossil fuels would have on earth's climate, since before 1900. Global Warming made headlines in 1988 when NASA's Dr. James Hansen testified before the U.S. Congress as to the state of the science. "Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming." In more common parlance, we know what is going on. He added, "It is already happening now."
That same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization to evaluate the physical science basis of climate change, with an eye to strategies for mitigation and adaptation. According to the IPCC, it is scientifically unequivocal that emissions from the extraction and use of fossil fuels are the number one cause of climate change.
According to numerous evaluations of the economics regarding the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change show that the benefits of strong and early action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change far outweigh the economic cost of not acting. However, the costs and benefits of action versus inaction are not evenly distributed around the world, with most of the costs of mitigation borne by developed nations and large GHG emitters, while the people most vulnerable to climate change's effects are often those who have contributed the least to the problem. In this context, it is essential to come to an equitable distribution of cost so that international action to arrest climate change can occur before it makes the earth uninhabitable.
IPCC projection of 2090-2099 temperature change from 1980-1999 baseline (Image source)
For over 25 years, however, no significant binding treaty has been ratified by the major emitters of the world. The Kyoto Protocol, conceived in 1997, mandated emissions reductions, but has fallen apart from a multitude of factors. The United States' (then the #1 GHG emitter) refused to ratify unless developing nations did, while developing nations (including now #1 emitter China) were exempted from binding targets. Without coordinated leadership on the part of major players, there is little hope of effective action.
Which is why the recent joint announcement from China and America presents much hope.
The announcement is unambitious. The targets are close to business as usual. And the efforts don’t go nearly far enough to actually arrest global warming, says World Bank President Jim Yong-Kim. It is a non-binding commitment that could be erased with the stroke of a pen by a future U.S. or Chinese President.
For it’s flaws, it is a meaningful milestone in climate negotiations. When two of the economic powerhouses of the world come together to affirm that this is an issue that needs addressing from an international perspective, it sets the stage for coordinated joint sacrifice on a global scale. With this announcement, the top six largest economies by GDP (E.U., U.S., China, Japan, Germany, France, U.K.) have all pledged their commitment to tackling climate change. Pledges to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund (to provide transition and adaptation assistance to industrializing nations) near $10 billion. And a Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Lima happening right now should set the stage for a binding deal at COP-21 in Paris, December 2015. It’s going to be a long, warm year.