With more than 40,000 negotiators from 196 governments descending on Paris this week to negotiate a comprehensive accord to tackle climate change, it is hard to imagine that they could possibly reach an agreement that will satisfy everybody.
The interests that each country brings to the table are so complex and diverse – especially when it comes to the touchy subjects of climate reparations and ensuring effective enforcement mechanisms for any sort of “binding” deal on how to actually reduce carbon emissions to safe levels – it is inconceivable that everyone (or anyone) will feel content at the end of these marathon negotiations in two weeks.
This is likely why the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a Costa Rican diplomat named Christiana Figueres, has for months been lowering expectations for the outcome of the summit. While the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) has long been deemed necessary to avoid the most serious effects of climate change – a future of drowned cities, desertifying croplands, and collapsing ecosystems – Figueres acknowledges that the negotiations, based on the declared “intended nationally determined contributions”(INDCs) of each country at the table, will probably not result in reaching that 2-degree goal.
“I’ve already warned people in the press,” she said this summer. “If anyone comes to Paris and has a eureka moment—‘Oh, my God, the INDCs do not take us to 2 degrees!’—I will chop the head off whoever publishes that. Because I’ve been saying this for a year and a half.” As Politico explains it, rather than reaching the 2-degree goal, “What would be a success for Figueres, the UN and many of the countries taking part is setting in motion a process starting in 2020 that ups greenhouse gas cuts over time. Figueres calls it ‘the start of a long journey.’”
While it is true that taking the first step of this “long journey” is obviously necessary – and long overdue – in order to begin the process of mitigating climate change, and in that sense it is worth maintaining some optimism and positive thinking, what is less clear is whether nature will be as patient and understanding.
What the international community seems to be forgetting is that the environment is governed by natural laws and if the science is correct regarding global warming, we cannot continue to postpone meaningful action on tackling climate change. Indeed, it is clear that the effects of climate change are already taking hold in major ways and are only expected to get worse, with large parts of the planet potentially rendered uninhabitable, according to the world’s leading climate scientists.
Yet, an uninhabitable planet is what we should expect if participants in Paris fail to reach an ambitious and binding agreement that puts science and nature ahead of politics and profits. In this sense, the 40,000 negotiators engaging in two weeks of discussions and horse-trading in the French capital are not really negotiating with each other, but with Mother Nature. And the fact is, there is no reason to think that Mother Nature is willing or able to wait for humanity to start drastically reducing its carbon output.
As one analyst explains it, however, “emissions reductions are barely on the table at all” in Paris, with the talks essentially “rigged to ensure an agreement is reached regardless of how little action countries plan to take.” Because each submission for the reduction of carbon output is at the discretion of individual countries, “there is no objective standard it must meet or emissions reduction it must achieve.”
The “Climate Action Tracker,” a scientific assessment service that tracks countries’ emission commitments, offers an independent assessment estimating that the current national submissions, if fully implemented, could bring warming down to 2.7 degrees by the end of the century. While this marks substantial progress from previous years, it is still only one third to half way to reaching the 2-degree benchmark that has been deemed necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
In other words, it’s as if a heavy smoker has been advised by his doctor to give up cigarettes but instead of quitting he simply makes a vague commitment to cut down a bit. This might seem like an improvement in the mind of the smoker, but the ultimate outcome remains the same: severe health problems and an early death.
Of course, the 2-degree threshold that we are set to surpass under current emission targets will usher in the “worst effects” of climate change – but consider how many effects we are already experiencing, having just broken the 1-degree threshold earlier this year. As a UN report recently documented, “Weather-related disasters are becoming increasingly frequent, due largely to a sustained rise in the numbers of floods and storms.”
Examining the past two decades of data, the landmark report “The Human Cost of Weather-Related Disasters 1995-2015” found that flooding accounted for 47% of all weather-related disasters, affecting 2.3 billion people. Storms killed more than 242,000 people in the 20-year time period, with the vast majority of these deaths (89%) occurring in lower-income countries. Heatwaves and extreme cold were also particularly deadly, with high-income countries reporting that 76% of weather-related disaster deaths were due to extreme temperatures, mainly heatwaves.
The report notes that due to the high number of variables in climate science and extreme weather, “scientists cannot calculate what percentage of this rise is due to climate change” but points out “that predictions of more extreme weather in the future almost certainly mean that we will witness a continued upward trend in weather-related disasters in the decades ahead.”
A World Bank report, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided,” is equally stark, warning that we’re on track for a world marked by extreme heatwaves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise. “A 4-degree warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2 degrees Celsius,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim in 2012. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today.”
Besides extreme weather, there are also the compounding security threats associated with climate change, with the Council on Foreign Relations – for one – warning as far back as 2007 that climate change was contributing significantly to terrorism and conflict. The organization noted that “declining food production, extreme weather events, and drought from climate change” could “contribute to massive migration and possibly state failure, leaving ‘ungoverned spaces’ where terrorists can organize.”
These concerns have also been raised by the Pentagon, which refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it “has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism.”
In fact, it is well-documented that the current conflict in Syria, which has facilitated the rise of the Islamic State and led to Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, was triggered by a series of factors, including climate change. According to a recent report called “A New Climate for Peace,” an independent study commissioned by the foreign ministers of the G7 nations, a severe drought that hit Syria in 2006 was exacerbated by resource mismanagement and the impact of climate change on water and crop production.
The resulting food insecurity was “one of the factors that pushed the country over the threshold into violent conflict,” and ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in European nations, which are evidently ill-prepared to deal with the influx. Indeed, having recently witnessed the European Union’s dysfunctional response to the Syrian refugee crisis, one wonders what the reaction will be like once people truly start to leave their homes en masse due to global warming, with 150 million “climate refugees” expected by 2050, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.
The truth is, when it comes to global warming and related environmental and security concerns, these matters are simply not up for negotiation. If we accept the reality of human-induced climate change – as nearly 100% of scientists do – we must address the issue in the most ambitious manner possible in order to ensure a planet that is even remotely livable for ourselves, for our children and for their children.