When leaders of the G-8 club of rich economies gathered in L'Aquila, Italy, in early July, one of the most pressing items on the agenda was to advance a global agreement on climate change. But the environmental news from the meeting was not good. The developed countries failed to take robust action toward radically reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. In response the two largest and dirtiest developing economies, India and China, rejected earlier proposals to radically reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. If rich economies won't sacrifice, why should they?
The North-versus-South climate-change blame game is on. This does not bode well for December's Copenhagen Climate Conference, at which the nations of the world will attempt to halt climate change with a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sought and largely failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
If there is any good news, it is this: the G-8 economies did agree that average global temperatures should not increase more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above average preindustrial levels. They also pledged to cut their carbon emissions 80 percent by the year 2050 and called on developing economies to reduce their carbon emissions by 50 percent during the same period. However, the crucial question remains: 80 percent below what? The G-8 economies could not even agree on a baseline against which to measure the promised reductions. Europe says reductions should be benchmarked at 1990 levels. The United States wants the baseline pegged to current emissions.
The rich economies also refused to commit themselves to the huge funding necessary to assist developing countries in retooling their economies away from fossil fuels. Many experts believe $150 billion a year is needed for developing nations to make the switch from dirty coal and oil to carbon-neutral forms of energy.
Worse yet is that the G-8's stated goal--no more than a 2 degree increase in global average temperatures and 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050--is probably inadequate. For one thing, 2 degrees is a global average, which therefore implies a much larger temperature increase at the poles (probably 4 to 6 degrees). That would almost assure the melting of the polar ice caps and trigger new reactions, like the release of methane gas trapped under the Arctic permafrost. Methane is a greenhouse gas twenty-three times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The Arctic methane belch could accelerate global warming, making the process irreversible.
The earth is already experiencing some of these reactions. For example, diminished sea ice means less of the sun's heat is reflected back into space and more is absorbed by the dark ocean water. The warmer the earth becomes, the faster it will warm.
Leading climate scientists, like James Hansen and George Woodwell, say that to prevent temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide must not exceed 350 parts per million.
Now comes the really bad news: we are already at 387 ppm. And at current rates, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are set to double by the middle of the century. If that happens--which is very likely unless emissions are radically reduced soon--sea levels, already expected to rise three feet in this century, would rise even further, inundating urban areas and decimating the economies of the United States, Europe and Asia. This would utterly transform civilization as we know it.
Scientific fact is not an interest group that can be swayed or negotiated with. If 350 ppm as is far as CO2 concentrations can go, there is no way to persuade the earth to accept 450 ppm. Obama's consensus-building pragmatism might be effective in other arenas, but in the realm of climate change, it won't work. The same goes for the Waxman-Markey bill, which recently passed from the House to the Senate. The bill seeks to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of crucial powers to regulate coal plants and sets the bar for emissions cuts far too low.
Two things have to happen: the United States and the other rich economies must cut their carbon emissions radically and quickly; and there must be massive investment in developing alternative energy sources. Although China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, it is the past industrialization of Europe and the United States that caused most of the problem. Even in the context of the global financial crisis, the wealthy economies must find a way to pony up. They must spend enormous sums of money to subsidize the transformation of developing economies away from coal and oil toward carbon-neutral forms of green energy like wind, solar and tidal kinetics. Call it climate reparations--or simply a survival strategy for the planet.