Yet another United Nations climate confab is about to commence, this time in Paris, France, where the tragic backdrop of terrorism, war, and a growing immigration crisis now grips the country. It’s fitting that global warming talks should happen here, considering the role that climate-induced drought in Syria has played in worsening the wave of the violence and desperate migration that’s spread throughout the region. Perhaps the gravity of the moment will weigh more heavily on UN delegates as they ponder a world where extreme weather, rising seas, and punishing droughts become the norm, leading to ever more conflict and misery.
Still, we’re unlikely to see a plan emerge from the Paris talks that truly stems the tide of rising carbon pollution, much less any binding agreement to ensure that meaningful climate protection goals are met. Those who’ve pinned their hopes on a global accord that ramps down carbon levels are singing from the same songbook as they always have, year after year, from Rio in 1992 to Kyoto in 1997 to Copenhagen in 2009. Time and time again the refrain is always: "It will be different this time."
Environmental commentator Brian Tokar has outlined each of these progressive failures in his painfully incisive piece, Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail? With excruciating detail, Tokar provides a behind-the-scenes look into why these global processes have perpetually missed the mark, concluding that "progress toward a meaningful climate agreement has continued to be stifled by big-power politics and diplomatic gridlock." That appears unlikely to change anytime soon, certainly not in the 20-30 year timeframe that climate activists proclaim is critical to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels to stave off massive climate disruption.
Recent news from climate scientists isn’t encouraging. Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) released a bulletin noting that the Earth’s climate will soon enter a new “permanent reality” when concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are almost certain to pass 400 parts per million (PPM) — already 50 units higher than the 350 PPM ‘safe’ threshold advocated by climate scientists and activists alike. "It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed," said WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud. What’s more, researchers at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research just concluded that a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet has destabilized, the melting water from which is likely to raise global sea levels by three meters. It’s worth noting that more than 150 million people globally live within just one meter of the sea; at 3 meters, the number climbs to at least 300 million. In the United States alone, a 3-meter sea level rise would inundate many of the East Coast’s largest cities, including huge metroplexes like Boston, Miami, and New York.
Climate justice rally, Nov. 21, 2015, Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang
And that’s just a sampling of the climate impacts that are already in the cards. Even if we look optimistically at what we can expect a global agreement to achieve, there’s simply no way it will stave off massive climate disruption. Independent researchers at Climate Action Tracker project a global temperature rise between 2.2°C and 3.4°C by 2100 if all current country-by-country pledges are fully implemented (emphasis mine). Those who are still committed to making the most of the UN talks in Paris, to push global leaders to ratify the boldest, most equitable climate agreement possible, deserve enormous praise and respect. May their efforts bear fruit, in spite of the odds. But given all the well-established impacts of the pollution that has already happened — let alone all the gigatons of carbon and methane releases to come — it’s simply irresponsible not to refocus our efforts on preparing for the worst.
To date, only about $57 billion in annual funds have been mobilized globally to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That pales in comparison to the $6 trillion needed for infrastructure transformation over the next 15 years alone, according to the Global Commission of the Economy and Climate Change. And even that figure sounds woefully inadequate when the costs of shifting from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based entirely on renewables are factored in — roughly $60 trillion to maintain current world per-capita energy use, or $150 trillion to achieve European per-capita energy use, according to Searching for a Miracle, a joint study by the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute. The UN climate negotiations thus far have settled on a goal of just $100 billion annually in adaptation financing — a mere fraction of what’s needed to truly prepare communities for what’s coming.
Of course, were we to downscale our overall energy demand, opt for radical conservation measures, phase out private automobile use, relocalize our economies, and shift our food system away from animal agriculture — then modern society’s energy requirements would be far less than they are now, our lives would be far more fulfilling, healthy, and connected, and our impact on the climate would be drastically reduced. And rather than scramble in vain to maintain unsustainable levels of consumption — albeit through supposed "green" technologies, nearly all of which require extensive fossil fuels and toxic chemicals to produce — we could instead focus on bracing our communities for climate change’s inevitable impacts, simplifying our infrastructure, and moving population centers away from rising waters. Unfortunately, in terms of overall investments and socioeconomic trends, we’re doing precisely the opposite: building more and more energy-intensive infrastructure, sprawling networks of roads and highways, vaster trade routes and shipping fleets, and ever-larger cattle, pig, poultry, and fish production facilities.
Climate justice march, Nov. 21, 2015 Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang
Still, while global climate talks and dominant trends are falling far short, a rising tide of local actions around the world to push governments, institutions, and communities toward climate sanity are providing a glimmer of hope for the future. To name but a few noteworthy developments:
- In Haiti, where people are still reeling from a devastating earthquake, decades of conflict, and lingering poverty, newfound possibilities have emerged to reenergize the country’s economy and power most of its energy needs from renewable sources. Thanks to a recent commitment by Haitian President Jean-Claude Martelly in partnership with a cohort of small businesses and nonprofits, the country has embarked on an ambitious program (called “Give me light, give me life”) to electrify 200,000 rural households, primarily with distributed solar energy. In the capital Port-au-Prince, a newly constructed L’Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (HUM) powered by 1,800 solar panels now provides primary and secondary care services to 185,000 people. According to Worldwatch Institute, Haiti is well-poised to build on these efforts by harnessing its local hydropower, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy resources, which could feasibly meet 52% of its projected energy demand through 2030.
- The province of Alberta, Canada just introduced a far-reaching climate protection strategy that includes a tax on carbon, an unprecedented cap on oilsands emissions, and a phase-out of coal-fired electricity with an emphasis on replacement by wind power. The carbon tax is expected to raise $3 billion a year, which will be reinvested in renewable energy sectors and cover increased costs to consumers. A portion of the revenues will also be invested in truly green infrastructure like public transit systems, along with programs to help Albertans reduce their energy use. Other revenues will help individuals and families make ends meet and provide transitional financial assistance to small businesses, First Nations and people working in affected coal facilities. It’s smart policy on all fronts, and has real economic teeth.
- And in the United States, a blossoming climate justice movement scored a phenomenal victory earlier this month when the Obama Administration finally rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline. A powerful coalition of Tribal Nations, farmers and ranchers, climate scientists, college students, trade unionists, renewable energy advocates, nurses and everyday citizens forced this fossil fuel boondoggle into the national spotlight over the past six years, and relentlessly dogged decision-makers every step of the way to ensure that the project eventually suffered a well-deserved defeat. Similar tireless activism has led to dozens of successful campaigns around the country to shut down fracking wells, stop new coal export facilities, and encourage major funds to divest from fossil fuels.
On the weekend of November 28-29, the Global Climate March will take place in hundreds of cities around the world to coincide with the start of the Paris talks. The breadth and tenacity of the global climate movement has already made impressive strides, having forced governments to take bolder stances than they clearly would have otherwise, and shifting popular consciousness largely away from the deniers and diminishers of our day. But the vital task of shifting trillions away from fossil fueled infrastructure, oil wars, and wasteful consumption toward a just, regenerative, balanced way of life for us all remains the most critical unfinished challenge of our time. It’s too late to "save" the climate as we know it, but it’s not too late to save ourselves.
If we can face the gathering storms, the rising seas, and the social turmoil that’s coming with honesty, humility, and boldness, we may just make it to the other side. How that "other side" shapes up is still largely up to us, depending on whether we continue to squander this planet’s abundant natural wealth or harness its remaining bounty toward a life-affirming future. The costs of fossil fuels on our world have been staggering, to be sure, to our health, to our communities, and to the biosphere at-large. But whether by design or some fantastical quirk of geological fortune, the endgame is nigh for fossil fueled industrialism. The mad dash for more, more, more into the furthest, most remote corners of the globe will eventually fade into distant memory, replaced with cultures and economies that flow with the rhythms of sunlight, water, and wind. Why not get started with the exciting work of recalibrating ourselves to the natural cadence of life on Earth?