Ecocentric

U.N. Global Warming Summit: Heading Over the Climate Cliff

The U.N. climate summit is beginning in Middle Eastern city of Doha—but expectations are as low as they can be. Why can't the world take the climate crisis seriously?

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Mat Jacob / Tendance Floue

Paul Krugman got me thinking about climate change this morning.

Not that the bearded oracle was writing about global warming. Krugman’s newest New York Times column was about that other scary and impenetrable subject: the fiscal crisis. But while politicians in the U.S. especially seem helpless to do anything about climate change—or really even talk about it all that much—it seems to be impossible for anyone in Washington to allow more than five minutes to pass without panicking about the impending fiscal cliff. (Just in case you don’t know what the fiscal cliff is, check out this brief primer on the topic by my colleague Michael Grunwald.)

To Krugman, though, the panic over the fiscal crisis has a lot more to do with branding than it does with economic reality:

So let’s step back for a minute, and consider what’s going on here. For years, deficit scolds have held Washington in thrall with warnings of an imminent debt crisis, even though investors, who continue to buy U.S. bonds, clearly believe that such a crisis won’t happen; economic analysis says that such a crisis can’t happen; and the historical record shows no examples bearing any resemblance to our current situation in which such a crisis actually did happen.

If you ask me, it’s time for Washington to stop worrying about this phantom menace — and to stop listening to the people who have been peddling this scare story in an attempt to get their way.

What’s the climate connection? The fiscal crisis and global warming are both, to put it bluntly, problems for tomorrow. Even if Congress can’t come to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff, the economy won’t collapse immediately and the U.S. will still be able to borrow money, just as climate change won’t render the world uninhabitable next year the world can’t reduce carbon emissions overnight anyway. As a society—and as a species—we tend not to be very good at addressing problems of tomorrow, but in one very important respect, the climate cliff and the fiscal cliff are very different. The Washington establishment—including large chunks of both parties—is convinced that something must be done now about the U.S.’s long-term fiscal problems, and a lot of Americans agree with them. They disagree on what to do, but no serious politician would simply dismiss the threat of the fiscal crisis. Yet Washington remains largely unmotivated on global warming, despite growing evidence that we could be facing a truly frightening future. Why does one long-term problem scare us, and the other remain ignored?

(MORE: Will U.S. Role at Climate Talks Change After Storm?)

That’s a question worth pondering at the annual U.N. climate talks, which begin this week in the Doha. The fact that the summit is being held in oil and gas-rich Middle Eastern country of Qatar—which seems to have the world’s largest per-capita carbon footprint—is perhaps indicative of just how little is expected to be accomplished. The main point of contention is the status of a treaty that is now more than 15 years old—the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997 and which bound developed nations (with the exception of the U.S., which never ratified the treaty, and in fact rejected it by a stunning 95-0 vote in the Senate) to reduce their carbon emissions by 2012. That year, of course, is almost over, and it still isn’t clear what—if anything—will succeed Kyoto. Last year, delegates at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks gave themselves a 2015 deadline to come up with a new, broader global deal—but deadlines are made to be broken, especially by governments. European nations and developing countries would like to see the Kyoto Protocol extended in the meantime, but with the U.S. already out and Japan and Russia against extension, it’s hard to see that happening.

Rich countries have supplied nearly $30 billion in climate grants and loans to poor countries since 2009, but those commitments will expire this year as well. A $100 billion Green Climate Fund for poor countries that was proposed at the Cancun summit in 2010—where the tropical weather seemed to make the delegates unusually agreeable—has yet to materialize. That could mean, as Tim Gore of the British charity Oxfam put it, that we’re about to head over a “climate fiscal cliff” that could see the world actually scaling back on climate action even as humanity continues slouching towards a hotter and more dangerous future.

(MORE: After Sandy: An Environmentalist Goes Home)

It should be clear by now that the U.N. process is almost certainly never going to deliver the kind of breakthrough treaty that environmentalists have longed for. That’s partially because climate change itself is such an intractable problem, wedded as greenhouse gases are to the global energy system. Nor does it help that the countries that will emit the bulk of the world’s greenhouse gases over the coming decades are  developing nations like India and China—which means that virtually the only way to achieve rapid carbon reductions would involve slowing economic growth in the nations that need it most. (India alone has more people in poverty than all of sub-Saharan Africa.) And even beyond climate change, governments are struggling to come up with multi-lateral solutions for multi-lateral problems. Witness the European Union’s continuing inability to agree on a plan of attack for its own wide-ranging fiscal problems—or for that matter, at the push for secession within countries like Spain (Catalonia), Great Britain (Scotland) and to a much lesser extent, even the U.S. (Texas, and just about every state that went for Mitt Romney). If a relatively united supra-national group like the E.U. can’t figure out to save itself, how can the 191 vastly different nations represented at the U.N. summit in Doha agree on anything?

Climate action may work better on a smaller scale, through the actions of individual governments or groups of like-minded nations. But those local actions have to be coordinated to make a real difference, and diplomacy as usual just can’t seem up to the job—as is starkly illustrated by  the new U.N. Environment Programme report on the growing “emissions gap” between current environmental practices  and the cuts that need to be made to avert some of the worst-case climate scenarios. The climate crisis is as real as the fiscal one—perhaps even more so. But we seem set on ignoring it, even as we go headfirst over the cliff.

MORE: The War on Coal Is Being Won in the U.S., but the Real Battle Is Overseas

24 comments
StevePruett
StevePruett

"The climate crisis is as real as the fiscal one—perhaps even more so. But we seem set on ignoring it, even as we go headfirst over the cliff."  Then why has the world wide temperature not risen in the last 16 years:(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2220722/Global-warming-The-Mail-Sunday-answers-world-warming-not.html)

This is not based on data or analysis by "skeptics" but from Hadley Center (of climategate fame).  How can people who call themselves scientists or journalists ignore this? Several mainstream peer reviewed publications in the last few months undermine key parts of the catastrophic global warming narrative.  Again, these aren't "skeptics" except in the sense that all scientists and journalists should be skeptical (http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com).  When Phil Jones was asked why he was so sure CO2 was driving global warming, he said because we can't think of anything else it could be.  Does that sound like powerful evidence to you? It's argument from ignorance.  Unless Dr. Jones think that we understand every major influence on climate and have accounted for them in the models, he should have said, we don't know enough to be sure what is causing warming.  Speaking of models, they predicted rather steady warming (0.2 C per decade), but nature has unkindly refused to cooperate in recent years.  This is outstandingly strong evidence that the models are missing something or somethings that have an important influence on climate.  It would be wonderful if an actual journalist really looked into this, as Michael Crichton did in State of Fear, shortly before his death.

JimBullis
JimBullis

Bryan Walsh(1)Your note that, " ---- climate change itself is such an intractable problem, wedded as greenhouse gases are to the global energy system," is the inciteful point at which we should begin to sort out real answers. Amazingly, there can be a strong link to Krugman, in fact there must be, if a course action is to be meaningful. The global energy system is more than wedded to the global financial system; I would say they are the same problem.

.As an engineer, I am dismayed by the talk of small scale action. Small scale action yields small scale results. Of course, if coordinated on a large scale that could be meaningful, but when people are encouraged to save tin cans, and thus given an excuse for not changing important energy related life patterns - - that is where the small scale thinking is destructive of meaningful progress.

.see (2)

wikusm
wikusm

I am not sure that Mr Walsh has followed the fiscal cliff argument closely, otherwise he would understand why the fiscal cliff gets more attention than global warming. The worry about the fiscal cliff is that the automatic fiscal tightening to fight the long-term erosion of the US debt position is so draconian that everybody agrees that it would would lead to a virtually immediate and possibly deep recession. So everybody worries about the fiscal cliff because it is a problem of today, and not about the debt because it is a problem of tomorrow...

MaryHartman
MaryHartman

Where is the science to support the contention that relying heavily on wind turbines to provide our electricity is environmentally responsible?!  USFWS released a scientific report that shows a 47% loss of raptors in areas after industrial wind is installed.  An Iowa DNR agent who facilitated wind energy siting for 8 years cited a 42% loss of other birds.  And then there is the loss of bats......  The AWEA plan is to get 25% of the electricity for the United States from 8 upper midwestern states but there is not an oita of evidence to suggest that ecosystems can sustain either the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of this.  It appears that our hair-on-fire reaction to global climate change will have us sacrifice our land, water and wildlife for perceptions that this is going to somehow be better.  Swapping one problem for a set of newer, bigger problems, hardly seems like a solution to anything.   IF global climate change is a scientific fact, the solution must also have a basis in science.  Currently we lack the science but are moving full steam ahead because......it looks like it might turn out okay.  Early indicators say, "STOP".  Will true environmentalism replace political and perception based agenda's?  I hope so. 

glubber
glubber

Why not  start listen to voices telling us that climate change is not CO2 driven and definitly not by the percentage provide by humans?.

jbay
jbay

@glubber I would like to believe those voices, too, because it would probably be good news if they were right. But the evidence does not support those voices, and at the end of the day, it's better to believe in the truth than what we want to believe.

  For the same reason, it is irresponsible to listen to the voices saying that we can eat junk food without worrying about health, abuse antibiotics without worrying about drug resistance, or spend money without worrying about debt. In the real world, problems will continue to exist whether you believe in them or not.

glubber
glubber like.author.displayName 1 Like

@jbay @glubber Believe must be factbased. I belive in new facts.

glubber
glubber

@jbay @glubber in percent of the total amont of atmospheric gases. Thus it does not matter what we do. In addition new scientific findings tells us that CO2 is not the bad guy here, it is selveral other factors, water vapor, sun radiation, shifts in earth rotation around the sun and changes in earth rotation. In addition comes IPCC scientists manupilation of data to fit there projection about future development.

jbay
jbay

@glubber When you say "only at the level of below one percent", how is this measured? I was under the impression that human-caused emissions are overall larger than natural sources, in terms of the net difference between carbon added and carbon removed from the atmosphere per year.As far as CO2 not playing the role in climate earlier believed -- what do you mean?

glubber
glubber

@jbay @glubber Climate changes can't be avoided and definitly by human reduction of CO2 emmisions which is only at the level of below one percent. Scientists is finding that CO2 is not playing the role in climate as earlier BELIVED (not documented).

jbay
jbay

@glubber On which facts are you basing your belief? I would very much like to see them, because honestly, believing in climate change (a problem that will not be solved) is adding unnecessary anxiety to my life, and I could do without it. But as we seem to agree, belief must be fact-based.

revamadeus
revamadeus

I have to say that watching the climate hoax implode is both entertaining and encouraging. The more these people keep spewing lies about the supposed evils of "carbon emissions" and humanity the more they expose themselves openly as the dangerous propagandists and authoritarians they are. The US government needs to get out of the UN and de-fund post haste!

BobArmstrong
BobArmstrong like.author.displayName 1 Like

Rational environmentalists have seen the continually accumulating but already overwhelming evidence that the building block of the biosphere has virtually an undetectable effect on our temperature - and therefore climate , but is provably greening the planet and increasing crop yields .

That watermelon global statists could keep alive for so many years such destructive nonscience against the molecule , married with H2O by sunlight , they , like all life , are made , will go down in the history of totalitarian falsehoods like marxism itself .

pwoodsvt
pwoodsvt like.author.displayName 1 Like

UN =  UNAmerican.  This is just another excuse to take money from the U.S. and redistribute it to other countries.  Of course, the UN will probably take some of this distributed money for themselves as well.

Dachman
Dachman like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Well climate change has brought us rapidly rising sea levels, really where is the evidence? I know there is some island nation in the Pacific that is now almost underwater, not sure how that happens when sea level is supposed to be consistant.

We have had super storms like never before, not true, we just are able to cover them and blast them over the over abundance of news sources now.

CO2 has been proven to cause a rise in the temp, not true.

Definatley not because of normal global warming and cooling, we have at least a solid 100 years of good reliable climate data. 100 years should be enough to determine weather trends for the last few thousand years, right?

jbay
jbay

@Dachman You can find sea level data on the NOAA website

http://www.oco.noaa.gov/seaLevel.html

 The rise shown is primarily due to thermal expansion (the tendency for materials to expand in volume as they increase in temperature). Land-based ice has not started melting enough to contribute significantly yet, although it is expected to in the future, which is one reason that sea level rise is expected to accelerate.

Weather trends for the last few thousand years are almost entirely unknown. Climate trends for the last few thousand years can be determined by proxy records, not by direct records.

0Sundance
0Sundance like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here is a great article evaluating political insanity and wasted resources. Why do we keep funding failed systems?

'Global climate talks: If at the 17th you don’t succeed'

Richard S J Tol, 27 November 2012

The 18th UN Conference on climate change negotiations has just started in Doha. This column suggests that the probability of success is a mere 2.3%. Recently, over $100 million per year was spent on fruitless negotiations. Having flogged, ever harder for 18 years, the dead horse of legally binding emission targets, the UN should close that chapter and try something new.

http://www.voxeu.org/article/global-climate-talks-if-17th-you-don-t-succeed

0Sundance
0Sundance like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I agree with Bryan Walsh. There I said it, when I thought I never would. The UN hs failed for 18 years and is incapable of providing a solution and it IS time to throw the UNFCCC, the IPCC and our fear (created by climate change porn) over the cliff and move on.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

The only damage climate change has done is to LAZY COPY AND PASTE "journalism".

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

The SICK Reefer Madness of Climate Blame Fear Mongering: At least Bush didn't threaten my kids with the greenhouse gas ovens of a climate crisis death from Human CO2. And it was SCIENCE that gave us pesticides don’t forget.I can't find one single IPCC warning of crisis that isn't qualified with "maybe" and "could be" etc. Not one. :) So how can we be at the brink of no return as well from a crisis that they think only “might” happen, not “WILL” happen? Exaggeration isn’t a crime, yet. Help my house could be on fire maybe?REAL planet lovers are glad, not disappointed a crisis was just a tragic exaggeration. The rest of you just hated yourselves and all of humanity and wanted to drag us all down with you in your miserable lives and your fantasy of climate crisis misery for billions of helpless children.If you are a planet lover and a progressive then demand that science says in one clear voice that any crisis is real yes or no, not “maybe” a crisis. Only a comet hit could be worse and 26 more years of needless CO2 panic will make fear mongering neocons out of all of us.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

This is ridiculous! Anyone with any sense knows that global warming is caused by things like male pattern baldness, toenail fungus and full moon PMS. 

RedMurray
RedMurray like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Doomed. Greed is for today. Tomorrow is somebody else's problem.