Science and Environment: Change by Degrees

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When you think of climate change, what initially comes to mind? Do you think of the need to reduce your personal carbon footprint, or do you perhaps think of climate change as an issue purely for politicians to deal with?

In December 2015 the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) took place in Le Bourget, France. The result of the conference was an agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2050, with the aim of actually keeping the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). A commitment was also established to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries in reducing their carbon emissions. Parts of the agreement are legally binding, while other parts are voluntary.

The collective political effort to tackle greenhouse gases dates back to 1992 when the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. One of the three resulting “Rio Conventions” was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty established to stabilise greenhouse gases, which now has a membership of 197 parties. The main function of the annual Conference of Parties (COP), since its first session in Berlin in 1995, is to review progress made in implementing the Convention. COP3 saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which set internationally binding emission reduction targets for industrialized nations among the convention parties, based on the premise that (a) global warming exists, and (b) it has been caused by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. Some countries were exempted, including China and India, on the basis that they were not industrialized during the period considered relevant to the current problem.

While it was hoped that COP15 in Copenhagen would produce a binding agreement that could follow the Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012, this hope was not realized and Copenhagen was largely considered a failure.

In announcing the final agreement for COP21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that, "perhaps all the planets were not aligned [in Copenhagen], but today they are." He also said that "planetary configuration," a phrase he attributed to the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, had "never been as good as today."

Despite such optimism, it is suggested that we have already had a global temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees in Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution, and that even if rises are held to 2 degrees Celsius some scientists believe we will still see the melting of the Greenland ice cap, thus rising sea levels, and the destruction of glaciers and coral reefs. Meanwhile, other scientists entertain the idea that the temperature fluctuation of the planet may have less to do with human impact and more to do with natural phenomena.

A recent working paper produced by the Grantham Research Institute, however, concluded that "in terms of greenhouse gas emissions today and in the future, the world is running a higher risk with the climate system than financial institutions, in particular insurance companies, would usually run with their own solvency."

The success of COP21 lay in producing the first accord to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions. It remains to be seen whether the ambitious agreement will be realized in the decades to come, or if, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, parties will ultimately renege on their commitments.

As our individual and collective efforts continue to fall short of fully understanding and addressing climate change—not only of solving global warming, but even of coming to a consensus on where to begin in tackling the problem—the question arises as to whether the climate will ever be stable and properly understood? What does it mean when at the critical moment, those tasked with finding solutions regard it as equally rare for people and nations to come into alignment as it is for the planets in our solar system to do so?

If we are unable to agree with one another even about something as vital to our survival as the planet on which we live, it can only mean that human nature itself is at the core of our problems. Until we can address this fundamental issue, we have little hope of securing environmental sustainability. The good news is that there are principles available to us, which—if followed—would offer the solutions that endless negotiating in decades of conferences has been unable to produce. We have only to dust off our Bibles and commit to finding and applying them.

DAN TOMPSETT


More from Vision on this topic:

Climate Futures
Earth's Puzzling Climate
The Missing Dots

Tags: climate change, environmental sustainability, science and environment