Coasting Toward Disaster
They made some progress at the latest round of international negotiations on controlling climate change, held earlier this month in Qatar. They agreed that countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the loss and damage mechanism, has no numbers attached to it, but it’s a step forward — the only one, unfortunately.
In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation” — that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That made good sense, but it didn’t happen. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising.
So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation.” If we can’t agree to do what’s needed to keep global temperature from rising, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and heat that are coming? For coping with massive floods that will drown river valleys and coastlines?
Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the new emphasis is compensation. In principle, says the loss and damage mechanism, rich countries that are responsible for the warming should pay the poor countries that will suffer terribly. But the mechanism has no method for assessing damage or allocating blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little practical use.
Besides, the rich countries are going to be too worried about covering the cost of their own damages. Consider the $60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters.
So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation can’t keep pace with climate change, and if compensation is a nice, empty idea, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?
There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but not until rising temperatures, food shortages, and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their lethargy, probably quite late in the decade — and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point where we could hold the rise in average global temperature to two degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
We will, in fact, be on course for 3, 4, or even 5 degrees C of warming, because beyond 2 degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks” — releases of natural sources of carbon dioxide like melting permafrost that we cannot shut off.
So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want to act, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough anymore. We’ll need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose 10 percent of global food production for every one-degree rise in average global temperature.
There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus-2 degrees C and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it will take to get our emissions back down. It’s called “geo-engineering” — direct human intervention in the climate system. Greenhouse gas emissions are an example of inadvertent geo-engineering. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering may be needed to stop it.
Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible but with major potential side effects. Oddly enough, the biggest problem is that it’s relatively cheap: Dozens of governments could afford to do it — and just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.
So the fourth phase of the climate talks will be about when to start geo-engineering, what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won’t agree on that either, so things will drag on until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement, and brings on a major war.
Maybe the fossil fuel industries are right, and global warming is a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making this stuff up. Keep your fingers crossed.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.