The climate debate is shifting from “How do we keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius?” to “How do we manage life in the Anthropocene?” For the fact is that we’ve now entered a new era that we cannot negotiate our way out of, and we need to implement policies that manage the risks associated with temperature increases well above that threshold.
Climate change. Global warming. Climate Disruption. At this point, does it really matter what we call the dramatic changes in the Earth’s average temperatures that are driving the extreme weather events we now live through on a regular basis? For some experts, the answer is an emphatic no.
“I’m not a scientist,” Patrick Parenteau, professor of law and senior counsel, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, Vermont Law School, said at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans earlier this month. “I don’t play one on TV. But I do accept the views of 97% of climate scientists – people who have actually published scientific literature – that humans are causing the increasing temperature globally that we’ve seen over the last 100 years and that these impacts are already being felt everywhere.”
Substantial evidence of a shifting climate already exists. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide, according to the World Meteorological Organization. In the United States, the average temperature during the past decade was 0.8° Celsius (1.5° Fahrenheit) warmer than the 1901-1960 average, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. Global sea levels are currently rising at a rate of nearly 1.3 inches per decade.
“We’re not going to negotiate our way out of this,” Parenteau said. “We don’t negotiate with the climate. We don’t decide how much pollution is OK in Lake Erie or Lake Champlain or the Gulf Zone or how many species we’re going to save.”
For people such as Parenteau, it is well past time we acknowledge the new era we have entered, referred to by some in the scientific community as the Anthropocene. Part of this entails a recognition that fossil interests are not going to relinquish the stranglehold they have on the world’s energy supply. A perfect example of this was oil major ExxonMobil’s March response to shareholders on managing climate risk, which made clear that the company has no expectation of government regulations that would strand its oil and gas reserves in the ground and would spend millions and even billions to continuing digging, literally, for more hydrocarbon reserves.
It also requires a more realistic approach to international climate negotiations. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is hosting a daylong Climate Summit for more than 100 heads of state in New York City on Tuesday. President Barack Obama will attend on behalf of the United States, but other key leaders will be noticeably absent, including China’s President Xi Jinping. China is sending Zhang Gaoli, Vice Premier and the official in charge of the country’s climate policy, and he is the right person to attend the summit, Bob Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, Executive Office of the Secretary-General, United Nations, said at a Center for American Progress discussion on September 17.
“Obviously, China and India are central to the overall climate equation and to the global negotiation,” he said. “The fact that we have the right people coming, even below the head of state level, is important. In fact, what we want more than anything is for everyone to look at what the leaders bring, not just China and India, but all leaders. It’s about not just showing up and giving good speeches. It’s about what are they committing to, not just for the agreement, but for their own national policies.”
Orr and fellow UN staffers have gone to great pains to separate the summit from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiating process, in part because of the debacle of the Copenhagen round of negotiations in which Obama and other world leaders reached an agreement that was not legally enforceable and that climate negotiators had difficulty putting into actual practice. But there’s no question that what will be discussed in New York this week will set the stage for the next round of UNFCCC negotiations in Lima, Peru in December, and perhaps more importantly, for the Paris negotiations in 2015.
The UNFCCC’s stated goal is to keep average global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would allow for a 50% chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. But an April report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that the current trajectory would translate to a rise in average global temperatures in the 3.7-4.8 degrees Celsius range (6.7-8.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Refusing to acknowledge this reality, some experts argue, is leaving us completely unprepared for the dire situation we will soon find ourselves in.
“The chances of staying at two degrees are actually pretty slim – slim to somewhere close to none,” said Mark Trexler, Chief Executive Officer of the climate strategy and risk group Climatographers. “In fact, we’re so focused from a policy perspective and even from a technical perspective on what do we need to do to stop at two – when in reality we’re not going to stop at two – that we’re not even thinking about getting to three, four, five, six, seven.”
The policy community has been reluctant to even discuss higher thresholds of temperature rise because it does not want to be accused of botching its efforts to forestall catastrophic climate change, he argued. “No one wants to fail so we’re going to focus on two until we pass two and that’s not a very good way to approach the risk of climate change,” Trexler said.
But some of those most intimately involved with the Climate Summit or the UNFCCC process have not lost hope that these international discussions can produce concrete actions to counter that upward swing in global temperatures.
“Optimism that isn’t based on fact is dangerous,” Orr said. “I sit here as an optimist because I think it’s based on fact. I see what people are doing. It’s not an empty optimism. But I think here we do need to make sure that we are serious, sober, pragmatic about the absolute scale of this challenge. Then we have to make sure we can match against that a scale of effort. And only on that basis are we entitled to any optimism.”