The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

For All the Beans in Lima

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The results are in; after running more than a day past when negotiations were supposed to finish, the Lima conference has produced an agreement. The world is still on track to make a commitment to meaningful greenhouse gas reduction in Paris, next year. This is unquestionably good news.

And yet it is good news only in context, the context being that many countries–including, embarrassingly, mine–continue to refuse to threaten to do nothing at all. Had the agreement been legally binding, as both Europe and common sense wanted, the United States would not have signed on; Congress remains hostile to any climate progress and so American participation required a deal that could be enacted by the executive branch alone. Had the agreement included any kind of outside review of each country’s emissions-reduction plans, India would have bowed out. It is a welcome miracle that any kind of agreement could pass at all.

The text of the agreement itself is here.

The agreement itself notes “with grave concern” that the pledges being made so far are not enough to keep us under 2° C. of warming by century’s end. What we have here is a foundation for further development only–which is more than we had before, and might well be the best we can expect at the moment.

I have addressed such points before, and I still believe this agreement should be hailed as an important start. But where do these disagreements come from? Why and how did we get the imperfect document we have?

The agreement essentially consists of two parts. The first is that all nations of the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that each will do so by methods and in amounts of its choice. The second part is that the wealthy nations of the world will together create a fund to help pay for poorer countries to adjust to climate change–each contributor will again choose its own level of involvement.

These two parts together really sound ideal, and could fix the problem if all the relevant countries really put their backs into it, but of course everybody is dragging their feet. No one really wants to give up the perks that using fossil fuel yields. Interestingly, so-called developing countries, such as China, get more sympathy in their foot-dragging. For example, in the deal between the US and China, the latter gets to keep increasing its fossil fuel use by an additional decade in order to catch up economically. In this way, current climate negotiations echo the original Kyoto Protocol, which exempted poor countries entirely.

For the US and Europe to bear more of the cost of climate change is quite fair, for obvious reasons. But for the principle of fairness to become a roadblock to a real solution is intriguingly counterproductive.

From Yahoo News:

The Lima agreement also encourages countries to come up with ways to help poorer nations adapt to the impacts of global warming, like sea-level rise or droughts. But this, too, is vague. The US and Europe have long opposed any deals that would require wealthier nations to compensate poorer countries for “loss and damages” caused by global warming (say, low-lying islands that vanish under the rising seas). So this will continue to be a point of contention.

In the meantime, wealthier nations have pledged to provide (voluntary) climate aid. Under a separate deal, nations agreed to raise $100 billion per year from public and private sources to help poorer countries adapt and adjust to a hotter planet. It’s still unclear where this money will come from, however.

That the US and Europe are so far content to leave low-lying nations to their fate (a fate that we unquestionably created) is reprehensible. That the wealthy countries of the world are willing to contribute to the fund is at least a step in the right direction–it indicates some glimmerings of a sense of responsibility.

But the longer we, as a species, go before actually getting off fossil fuel, the bigger the price tag for damages will get and the faster those damages will accrue. China, for one, stands to loose much of its fresh water supply as glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau melt and disintegrate. If China hopes to lift its entire population out of poverty by using fossil fuel for a few more years, it will fail. If the United States hopes to assuage our guilt to the world’s poor by allowing China to keep polluting, then we will fail.

If humanity does agree to forgo fossil fuel entirely by 2050, as we must in order to have a prayer of staying under 2° C. of warming, it is right and proper for the countries that have had such fuels longer to make the deeper and earlier cuts. That is fair. But that isn’t what we’re doing, yet. Collectively, we’re still limiting our emissions reductions to what we can manage without having to make radical economic changes at home. Getting as much energy as we want is still the priority. And China, understandably, wants more energy–it wants what we have, and the world accepts that, in fairness, China should get it.

All of this shows that, collectively, we still don’t believe that global warming is real.

China can’t get what the United States has, because there isn’t enough wealth on the planet to go around. The US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, the wealthy countries of the world took more than our fair share of a limited supply of matter and energy and that supply is mostly used up now; the atmosphere where we send the exhalations of our industry is full now. Pretending that the entire planet can and should come up to our standard of living before our species gives up fossil fuel–in defiance of the laws of physics–will help no one.

That the US is simultaneously clinging to its fossil fuel economy and paying into the climate fund suggests a related disconnect. These payments should be framed as damages–the US has become very wealthy and powerful by reaping the benefits of a rapacious economic system while forcing other countries, its own poor, and the people of the future to shoulder the costs. We should pay damages. But, so far, the US government refuses to admit it. In so refusing, of course, our representatives fail to acknowledge either guilt or debt and so retain the option to make only those payments we can afford–prioritizing our own wealth yet again. Our payments to the climate fund thereby appear as a kind of charity, one paid off the dividends of rendering certain people in need of charity to begin with.

I have a vague memory of a wonderful Henry David Thoreau quote–something about how when people ask him why he does not give money to the poor, he answers “how do you know you didn’t take that money from the poor to begin with?” I can’t find that quote, however, so I can’t see if I’m remembering it correctly. I don’t have a copy of the relevant book. An online collection of Thoreau quotes does supply a passage with a similar sentiment, however:

It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Thus, by not committing to getting off fossil fuel, the would has not only delayed a true solution to the problem but also, subtly but definitely, transformed the principle of fairness into one more excuse for the powerful (including China’s leaders) to take advantage of the powerless.
This does not mean we should collectively reject the results of Lima; on the contrary, we could be looking at the beginnings of a real solution, and the political leaders responsible should be rewarded in their home countries and rewarded lavishly. They just shouldn’t be allowed to rest on their laurels.
We, each of us, need to demand of our leaders even greater cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and even greater pledges to the climate fund. The United States, and other countries in a similar position, must accept responsibility for paying reparations–thereby shouldering the true cost of our own actions.
Take to the ballot boxes. Take to the streets.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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