When Historians in 2100 look back at the events of the early 2000’s they will conclude that the most profound and far-reaching characteristic of the political gridlock in the United States during that era wasn’t either party’s position on taxes, Social Security, Medicare, immigration, guns, gay marriage or abortion, but rather the reflexive dismissal by the Republican Party of anything preceded by the letters “U.N.”
Writing on virtual, evanescent screens in their air-conditioned enclaves, situated well above saturated coastal regions teeming with desperate populations, they will ask themselves why any nation–let alone the world’s wealthiest–would permit a cabal so xenophobic, so vehemently anti-science to dictate climate policy at a time when the whole of human civilization stood dependent on concerted, cooperative action. They will ask why any nation would have empowered those whose sole objection to scientific truth boiled down to the fact that it was presented to them by an international organization, made up of folks with odd-sounding names and possibly even different skin colors than themselves.
They may call it a failure of democracy, a capitulation to overweening greed, an inherent flaw of Capitalism. But no one will seriously conclude that there was any shortage of warnings.
Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found. Delay would likely force future generations to develop the capability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found. But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the approach would likely be wildly expensive compared with taking steps now to slow emissions.
The findings are those contained within a draft of the Third Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report is the final of three installments and will be released for publication in April 2014. A final document synthesizing the three reports is scheduled for publication in October 2014. As has been the case in the past, the report’s findings were “leaked’ to various news organizations, including Reuters and the New York Times. The purpose of the report is to influence and inform the U.N. in its negotiations among 190 countries to achieve a treaty governing “greenhouse” emissions that cause global warming.However, the outlook is anything but optimistic.
The report says that the development of alternative energies is being outpaced by an acceleration in fossil fuel emissions in developing countries like China. As the Times article notes, the wealthiest countries are in effect “outsourcing” their greenhouse gas emissions to countries where the goods that the wealthy nations consume are manufactured. Further, not only are countries failing to develop alternative energies, they’re also failing in their efforts to adapt to what the Panel now sees as inevitable climate disruption.
According to the draft report, the cost of maintaining rising temperatures within “safe” levels will amount to 4% of the world’s GDP by 2030:
Most scenarios that meet the 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) cap on global warming that world leaders endorse require a 40 percent to 70 percent reduction in heat-trapping gases by 2050 from 2010 levels, according to the third installment of the UN’s biggest-ever study of climate change. The world would need to triple the share of renewables, nuclear power and carbon-capture and storage to meet that.
But the problem in achieving those goals is as much a matter of political will as it is cost:
Efforts are underway to negotiate a new international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, but it is not even supposed to take effect until 2020, and it is unclear whether countries will agree on ambitious goals to limit emissions. It is equally unclear how much political support a new treaty will gain in China and the United States, the world’s largest emitters.
The Obama administration is pushing for a deal, but any treaty would have to be ratified by the Senate; many Republicans and some coal-state Democrats are wary, fearing economic damage to the country.
The new report suggests, however, that the real question is whether to take some economic pain now, or more later.
As the quote above notes, the United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Not coincidentally, they are economic competitors as well, and it’s probably not too simplistic to conclude that neither will move appreciably on climate change unless the other does. In fact China’s reticence (and India’s) is usually trotted out as an excuse by those in this country who oppose meaningful efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But despite its refurbished image over the past two decades, China remains a totalitarian dictatorship that is not particularly moved by internal public opinion (even if it is beginning to comprehend the magnitude of its own environmental catastrophe). It is, however, responsive to economic self-interest and its standing in the eyes of the world. The effect of a concerted international effort that included the United States would be difficult to withstand. But the U.S. is unwilling to mount such an effort, due in large part to a climate denialist movement financed by the fossil fuel industry and enabled, for the most part, by its surrogates in the Republican Party.Some of the report’s other conclusions:
* Greenhouse gas emissions grew by an average 2.2 percent per year between 2000 and 2010. Global emissions since 1970 outstrip those for the preceding 220 years.* Just 10 nations accounted for 70 percent of emissions in 2010.
* Industrial emissions from developing nations now exceed those from industrialized ones, though high income nations are net importers of carbon dioxide emissions embedded in goods from abroad.
* Pledges for emissions cuts by 2020 that were made by the world’s biggest emitters in 2010 don’t correspond to the ‘‘lowest cost” emissions reduction trajectory and would lead to greenhouse gas concentrations of as much as 650 ppm by 2100.
But the most disturbing conclusion is that at the upper end of the IPCC’s potential estimates for CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, it will become more expensive to fight climate change than to deal with its effects.
Which is just another excuse for Republicans to continue to fiddle while the Earth burns.