International community attempts to negotiate with nature in Paris

climate-change_2With 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.


  1. Nat, I’m curious: has there been any consensus from the scientific community (as much as there can be) as to an effective means of reaching a 2-4 degree change over recent time? I’d heard one of the folks involved with one of the UN think tanks on Freakonomics talk about how our science doesn’t have a meaningful way to accomplish these goals. While that came from more of a cost-benefit analysis, the challenge would remain that any changes offered to the worldwide community that costs more in terms of money or inconvenience just won’t be sustainable due to human behavior hating change that isn’t necessarily guaranteed and won’t be felt until the future. I saw a great talk about environmental sustainability from one of our big behavior analysts and it was so sad how much effort it took to get even small behavior changes (recycling, picking up trash) related to improving the environment. I always worry that this difficulty, not necessarily insurmountable, fails to enter discussions in these big meetings. Government is slow and immutable in the short term; maybe grass roots focus can pay more long term dividends?

    1. Thanks Rob. I tend to agree with you that focusing on grassroots individual actions might ultimately be more effective than placing hope in the ability of 200 governments — with wildly divergent interests — to agree to a binding and effective approach to tackling this issue. It should be kept in mind that even considering the most optimistic outcome of the COP21 with the most ambitious emissions pledges imaginable, these will still only remain abstract promises until the necessary changes are made in our modes of production, transportation, energy generation, etc. — and individual human beings play a large part in that. So, of course, it’s not simply enough to pressure the world’s governments to make ambitious pledges, it’s also up to us to hold them to it and to change our own habits.

      I’m not sure how to answer your initial question about an effective means of reaching a 2-4 degree change over time, but from what I can tell, based on my research, is that a 2-degree rise would be very bad (but relatively adaptable), but that a 4-degree rise would be catastrophic. One of the catchphrases that seems to be popping up more often in the academic literature and in documents produced by international organizations is “adaptation and mitigation.” It’s recognized now that climate change is happening, so the emphasis is no longer on preventing it but dealing with it. National governments and international organizations are being urged to brace for the worst effects, including extreme weather, food insecurity and mass migration, but I guess the point I was getting at in the above article is that their track record isn’t good when it comes to dealing with global crises — whether it is climate change or the Syrian refugee crisis.

  2. Sam Parry · · Reply

    Great article, Nat. Right on target. The laws of physics and chemistry are very clear. And the laws of politics and moving human behavior are also very clear. These laws have been pounding away at each other for more than a quarter century. Unfortunately, the laws of physics and chemistry are immovable and irresistible. They cannot be altered or bent in any way, no matter what humans may believe or hope for.

    There is very good news here, though. If we can get serious about pricing carbon pollution appropriately to account for the full costs of what it will do to the planet, there are technologies in place to begin to rapidly transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy economy. I think this Joe Romm post from Climate Progress does a great job breaking down the cost issue, and makes the choice we face very clear:

    If you look at a state like Texas, wind energy capacity and generation has exploded over the last 15 years, from 492,000 megawatt hours produced in 2000 to nearly 36 million megawatt hours produced in 2013, a 73-fold increase in 13 years. During the same period, Texas’s consumption of coal and natural gas-generated energy has remained nearly flat. And that’s without a price on carbon creating even more incentive to transition to wind or solar.

    Renewables still have a long way to go, but this is a huge growth opportunity for America and the entire world. This doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, with the right policies, we can unleash innovation and growth on an unprecedented scale.

    1. Thank you, Sam. I agree that there is some good news and I don’t think it is time to jump off a cliff quite yet. Giving Figueres the benefit of the doubt that their new (unofficial) target of 3 degrees Celsius is simply starting point, I suppose there is still plenty of room for continuing to work on the climate crisis, and some reason to believe that actions in the coming years may surpass expectations.

      There seems to be more political will than ever before, as well as new and exciting developments in the private sector, but I guess my overall impression is that the sense of urgency is still lacking. This idea that we can abandon the 2-degree target and start playing around with 3-4 degree contingencies is just madness — hence the emphasis in this piece about “attempting to negotiate with nature.” I mean, we already see what is happening having passed the 1-degree level, and looking at Europe’s totally dysfunctional response to the current refugee crisis, it will be interesting to see how the world’s governments respond to the projected 150 million climate refugees by 2050.

      But yeah, I’m still cautiously optimistic that our leaders in the international community can finally get their acts together.

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