In December of this year, more than 190 nations will gather in Paris to negotiate a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, laying the foundation to save the planet from what many believe will be a catastrophic and irreversible change in the Earth’s climate. The last time countries met to hash out an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions was in 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark. At that meeting the participating countries (a mere five) agreed to limits of their greenhouse gas emissions—based on a specified target of 2 degrees Celsius global temperature increase—but failed to fully articulate the agreement and make it legally binding. Several studies done after the Accord concluded that the voluntary commitments would more than likely result in ever-increasing global temperatures.
Before the Copenhagen conference, there came the Kyoto Protocol, formulated in 1997. A well written, legally binding agreement, it was never ratified by the biggest polluting nations—including the United States—and no country that signed the Protocol was ever sanctioned for failing to abide by the commitments agreed to.
Ahead of the Paris conference, many nations have already publicly announced that they will commit to specific reductions in emissions to get the ball rolling. In addition to agreeing to specific emission reductions, countries will also have to reach an agreement about who will pay for things like damage associated with rising water levels and financial assistance to developing nations to implement clean technologies to help them reduce emissions.
Will a New Accord Save the Planet?
Assuming that an agreement is reached in Paris, will the world be saved? If history is any indicator, the answer is probably not. The majority of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is the result of the activities of man. However, that’s about as far as widespread agreement on this topic goes.
There is very little agreement about how to fix the problem, or even to what degree the problem exists. Any agreement reached in Paris in December will mean very little if each country hasn’t the will or resources to implement what is agreed upon. The world’s absolute dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence that drives the world economy, cannot simply be switched off.
Global Warming and its Consequences
The current, popular theory on global warming hypothesizes that in order for the planet to escape total, irreversible catastrophe, temperature rise must be limited to no more than 2 degrees C starting from the beginning of the industrial revolution (around 0.85 degrees C since 1880). This theory is derived from climate change models that began in the 1950s. Since then, climate change models have become more advanced, more sophisticated, and—one would assume—more accurate. For the past 15 years, however, the earth has not been warming at the rate the climate change models have predicted. This has flummoxed climate scientists that developed the models, and opened the door to all sorts of theories as to why as well as criticisms of the “science” behind the models.
In a Princeton University-led research study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the authors suggest that even if the world abruptly cut emissions to zero, the earth would continue to warm for another several hundred years, kicking it well over the apocalyptic 2 degrees C limit. In a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document leaked in 2013, admissions were made that the world is not warming at the rate the models predicted and that the models may not have properly taken into account the natural variability of the climate in their calculations.
Is The Planet Warming or Cooling?
In a Climate Science article “A Sensitive Matter,” appearing in The Economist in March 2013, the article states:
“… surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models. If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models’ range within a few years.”
The article highlights new work done by several scientists that show a doubling of CO₂over current levels will result in a global temperature increase anywhere from 1.2 to 4.5 degrees, with a 90 percent chance that the actual change would be about 2 degrees C. The article makes it clear that the planet is definitely warming, but points out that there are variables which we know nothing about. Unknowns that are having a profound impact on what we think we knew about global warming. The article concludes that, “despite all the work on sensitivity, no one really knows how the climate would react if temperatures rose by as much as 4 degrees C. Hardly reassuring.”
There is a growing body of climate scientists that accept the world will not curb emissions in time to save the planet. Not climate change deniers, but climate change realists. Glen Peters, a scientist at the Oslo-based CICERO Institute, has concluded that keeping global temperatures below that magic 2 degrees C is possible only in a model, but not in reality. Models showing a drastic reduction in CO₂ levels to keep global warming under 2 degrees C are not consistent with what is happening, what is likely to happen, and what has happened. Peters thinks it’s time to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
In a fascinating presentation on climatechangenews.com, titled “Is avoiding 2 degrees C of global warming possible?” Peters walks us through multiple climate change scenarios. The most optimistic of the scenarios shows a drastic reduction in the use of all fossil fuels in addition to negative-emissions technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The assumptions in these scenarios are unrealistic, according to Peters. Based on the fact that in 25 years of climate policies enacted to reduce emissions, and a steady increase in emissions of 2 percent per year during that time, it is hard to argue with him.