What should we hope for from the current U.N. Conference on Climate Change?
While the scientific consensus on the progressive, disastrous effects of global warming only grows stronger, month by month, it remains difficult to expect a sudden transformation of the international non-consensus on what needs to be done. The latter is not a scientific but a political predicament – how do we persuade some 200 or more independent nations, each with their own internal conflicts and contradictions, to agree on economic actions that inevitably require some short-term disruptions, yet whose benefits will only be seen in the long term?
I don't have an answer to that conundrum, although it was encouraging to hear that in advance of the conference, many nations had announced new actions to reduce carbon emissions that at least have the potential to establish an enforceable agreement, perhaps even including a plan to "ratchet up" the progress over the next five to 10 years. As things stand, what we're all doing thus far remains woefully inadequate.
Here's Lenore Taylor's on-the-ground summary, in Guardian Australia:
"The pledges made so far will still result in global warming of at least 2.7 degrees [Celsius], even if they are all met – much better than the 5C rise we might expect without action but still short of the 2C goal. Experience suggests there is a very big 'if,' and negotiators have virtually given up on the idea that the pledges should be legally binding. Shirkers will face no real sanction, other than international opprobrium. And that means a system to check and report what each country does is critical."
Beyond these public hesitations, there is the ongoing private gaming of the system: China recently admitting it had underestimated (or under-announced) its own emissions by 17%, the intentional Volkswagen fraud in its vehicle emissions controls, the long-standing ExxonMobil suppression of its own research reflecting the likelihood and risks of climate change. Under our current national and economic arrangements, there remains too little incentive to comply, too much incentive to cheat.
Beyond these political and corporate contingencies, there remains the undeniable circumstance that those nations and populations with the least responsibility for creating the crisis are generally the same ones feeling its harshest early effects, and are now expected to avoid aggravating the situation while they most need the economic development enabled by additional energy resources. Consider any chart of the highest-volume carbon emitters, and China, the U.S., and the European Union countries top the list. Per capita emissions are more varied, but by that standard rapidly developing China, with many millions of people needing much cleaner but more energy, falls into the middle of the pack, while the western nations remain among the leaders. India and the African nations are being asked to hold back, even while their populations are trying to make up for centuries of colonial exploitation and underdevelopment.
Moreover, the ongoing devotion of western nations to military production and war – especially in the Middle East, where control of oil resources is the corollary – makes it even more difficult to imagine any agreement under which the wealthy nations will both manage their own transition to solar and other renewable energies, while simultaneously (and rightfully) subsidizing a sufficiently rapid transition for underdeveloped nations to similar technologies. None of this gives much reason for optimism.
A few months ago, to little fanfare and less reverberation, the corporate-based Risky Business Project (www.riskybusiness.org, a bipartisan affair, for what that's currently worth) released its latest report: "Come Heat and High Water: Climate Risk in the Southeastern U.S. and Texas." Overall, the researchers concluded, "If we continue on our current greenhouse gas emissions pathway, the Southeastern U.S. and Texas will likely experience significant drops in agricultural yield and labor productivity, along with increased sea level rise, higher energy demand, and rising mortality rates." Specifically for Texas, the report predicts many more annual days of extreme heat, with stark consequences: "By 2020-2039, extreme heat driven by climate change will likely claim more than 2,570 additional lives each year in Texas – the highest total number of heat-related deaths for any state. Annual additional heat-related deaths are likely to climb to more than 4,500 by 2040-2059. By comparison, annual auto fatalities in Texas were roughly 3,400 in 2013."
Those are just the headlines. In a rational political system, we could expect both parties (or more) offering competing ideas on how best to address the undeniable, progressive crisis. Instead, a major U.S. political party – underwritten by the corporate economic interests it primarily represents – is devoted to denying the scientific consensus as resolutely as any flat-Earther, and placing procedural and ideological obstacles in the way of any progress in addressing climate change. Unless those corporate sponsors finally see the light – and are willing to accept structural economic changes in order to preserve a livable planet – the reasons for hope remain slim. None of us can say we haven't been warned.
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