Sunday, April 12, 2009

You can't use half an ark: compromise on climate change is suicide.

More forboding insights from Gwynne Dyer (published April 8, 2009):

"We want to be in (the new UN climate pact), we want to be pragmatic, we want to look at the science," said Jonathan Pershing, the head of the U.S. delegation, during the talks on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Bonn last week. So how will the Obama administration reconcile political "pragmatism" with the scientific realities? "There is a small window where they overlap. We hope to find it," Pershing explained. But it doesn't really exist.

Signing the United States up to the new climate treaty that will replace the Kyoto accord in 2012 is essential. The 1997 Kyoto treaty was gutted to accommodate American objections, but even so President Clinton, who signed it, never dared to submit it to Congress. Then President Bush "unsigned" it.

A dozen wasted years later, the climate problem has grown hugely, so this time everybody else is determined that the U.S. must be aboard - and Barack Obama also wants the United States to be part of the treaty. But we recently learned what he thinks is "pragmatic." It is that the United States should cut its emissions back to the 1990 level by 2020.

The Hadley Climate Centre in England, one of the world's most respected sources of climate predictions, recently released a study showing that even rapid cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, turning the current one per cent annual growth into a three per cent annual decline within a few years, would still warm the world by 1.7 degrees Celsius by 2050.

That is dangerously near the two degrees C rise in average global temperature which is the point of no return. Further warming would trigger natural processes that release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from melting permafrost and warming oceans. These processes, once begun, are unstoppable, and could make the planet four, five or six degrees hotter than the present by the end of the century.

At those temperatures, much of the planet turns to desert, and the remaining farmland, mostly in the high latitudes, can support at best 10 or 20 per cent of the world's current population. That is why the official policy of the European Union is never to exceed two degrees of warming.

The Obama administration's offer falls far short of that goal.

Obama is clearly calculating how much he can get through Congress. But this isn't an ordinary bill where you settle for what you can get through Congress after the usual horse-trading. If there's going to be a 40-day flood, you either build an ark or you learn to breathe underwater. Building half an ark is not a useful option.
Obama's offer means that the United States would be cutting its emissions not by three per cent annually, the minimum global target if we hope to avoid more than two degrees of warming, but by only half that amount. In the long term, it leads inexorably to disaster. Most other industrialized countries are on track to meet or exceed their modest Kyoto targets. Britain and Germany will both be 20 per cent below their 1990 emissions level by 2012, and Germany is promising 40 per cent cuts by 2020. The European Union as a whole promises a 20 per cent cut by 2020, but will go up to 30 per cent if other industrial countries do the same.

Even that would barely meet the annual three per cent cut in emissions we need if we are not to sail through the two-degree point of no return and trigger runaway warming. And we have yet to figure out how to bring the rapidly developing countries into the regime, for their emissions are growing very fast.

We are in deep trouble, and "pragmatism" will not save us.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His column appears each Wednesday. His new book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.

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