The road to hell, it’s said, is paved with good intentions. A case in point is unfolding at the landmark United Nations climate summit in Paris, where president Obama and other world leaders seem eager to define a scientific failure as a political success. This triumph of political spin over scientific reality is unfolding for understandable, even well-intentioned reasons, but its effects would be ruinous for human lives and institutions now and for generations to come.
“There is such a thing as being too late,” Obama said today in his speech to the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our short-term interests behind [those of our children’s future], then we won’t be too late for them.”
This lofty rhetoric, however, clashes with the actual proposals the United States, China, and other big powers are putting forward at the summit. As Obama noted, more than 180 countries have outlined pledges for future reductions in heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But the combined effect of these voluntary pledges—even assuming, generously, that each is fully implemented—would still result in global emissions continuing to increase for decades to come, soaring well past the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above the level that prevailed prior to the Industrial Revolution. Temperatures would instead rise to 2.7 to 3.5 C above the pre-industrial level, a catastrophic amount.
How catastrophic? Bear in mind, 2 degrees is often described as a “safe” guardrail, but the latest science and real-world observations demonstrate that in fact it marks the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” warming. Just ask the leaders of Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific island states who are already planning the evacuation of homelands doomed to disappear within decades beneath rising seas. Or ask farmers in the Sahel region of Africa and other areas that already endure hot and dry conditions. Man-made warming has already increased temperatures by 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels, worsening droughts, heat waves, and storms, with predictable impacts on crop yields, rural incomes, and hunger in much of Africa and other poor regions.
Thus the majority of the world’s governments urge a temperature limit of 1.5 C. This view is virtually absent from the US media, perhaps because these governments represent the world’s most vulnerable nations and the US government dismisses the position as unrealistic, but the disagreement is likely to permeate the rest of the Paris summit.