By Jeffrey Ball | Facing the Truth About Climate Change | New Republic | February 2015
By Jeffrey Ball
In June 1975, a Yale economist named William Nordhaus published a paper for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an Austrian think tank. In the paper, he put forward a theory about a potentially globe-altering climate-change Red Line—a threshold that, if crossed, could result in a fusillade of environmental dangers. Research suggested that a rise in carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels might melt the Arctic Sea ice, prompting a “dramatic” increase in rain and surface temperatures. “The consequences of these changes for human affairs are clouded in uncertainty,” he wrote, but the prudent response was clear: Prevent emissions from pushing the mean global temperature more than 2° Celsius above pre-Industrial-Age levels.
In 1990, a United Nations climate change advisory group transformed Nordhaus’s little-noticed notion into a global line in the sand. The two-degree shift “can be viewed as an upper limit beyond which the risks of grave damage to ecosystems are expected to increase rapidly,” the group wrote in a report. “Important scientific uncertainties remain,” it added, but they “must not be used as an excuse to avoid adopting policies” that would avoid breaking through the two-degree barrier. Since then, scientific research, reporting, and economic analyses have centered on this particular number.
In November 2014, during a meeting in Beijing of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, President Barack Obama joined with Chinese President Xi Jinping to pledge their countries, the world’s two top carbon-dioxide emitters, to clear emission-reduction targets. Xi vowed that China’s rapidly expanding emissions would peak by approximately 2030; Obama committed the United States to cut its emissions at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. These cuts, Obama said, would help achieve the “deep emissions reductions by advanced economies” that the global scientific community has deemed necessary to prevent “the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”
Admirable goals, but they’re unlikely to have the intended effect. Even with these changes, scientists expect global temperatures to breach the two-degree barrier within the next 20 to 30 years. Last year, a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that temperatures are “more likely than not” to exceed 4° Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.
Keeping temperatures within the two-degree window remains possible, but it won’t be easy. It would require slashing man-made greenhouse gas emissions as much as 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050, according to the IPCC—and then essentially eliminating them altogether by 2100. That is a radically different path than the one the world has chosen. Emissions today, despite impassioned calls by environmentalists, celebrities, and the right-minded, are headed in the same direction as when Nordhaus introduced the two-degree barrier 40 years ago: upward.
Climate change is the hardest of all environmental problems. Its chief cause, carbon dioxide, is invisible, and its deleterious effects play out over decades, thus minimizing the public sense of crisis. It is largely produced by burning fossil fuel—which is to say by doing almost anything. And a meaningful solution would require life-changing action by the largest economies on earth. Little wonder that political inertia has prevailed.
The fossil fuel industry has lobbied hard against climate legislation, correctly seeing it as a threat to profits from coal, oil, and natural gas. Leading Republican legislators continue to dispute that a problem even exists. On January 21, 49 senators, all Republican, voted against a relatively anodyne nonbinding resolution that stated that humans contribute to climate change. In 2012, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, published a climate change book titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Key Democratic politicians have professed support for a climate crackdown in theory, but they’ve sprinted headlong from it when confronted with the details of the cost to companies and voters in their districts. West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller is a good example. In 1972, when he ran for the state’s governorship, he campaigned against strip-mining for coal, a stance he described in a subsequent Timeinterview as having “adrenalized” him. In 2003, he voted for a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill limiting carbon emissions. (The bill was defeated.) In 2010, though, with Democrats in control of the Senate, the House approved a climate bill and Rockefeller declined to use his leadership position to pass it.
In China, meanwhile, government planners have been predicting for five years that the country’s emissions will peak around 2030. That’s partly due to China’s slowing growth and is also a by-product of its campaign to mitigate smog. It does cast Xi’s pledge in a decidedly less revolutionary light, however. So does the near certainty that his proposed cuts will not stop the planet from passing the two-degree threshold.
Something has to change. Partisan fighting on either side of the aisle won’t do it. Neither will international climate agreements, which have been easily gamed. A technological breakthrough—a clean-energy silver bullet that would allow the world to decouple economic growth from carbon dioxide—might. But betting on a grand laboratory innovation requires hope for the best; better to hedge against the worst. The means to meaningful change on global warming is within the world’s grasp. It requires smarter climate policy: more targeted and more economically efficient. It requires, in short, getting more realistic.
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