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Chronicling the collapse of a failed society
It is always nice to see world leaders attempting to address the climate change crisis, but as usual the proposed solutions fall far short of what is required:
“If countries follow through on the pledges they made in Copenhagen last year, the world could achieve 60 percent of the emissions cuts that scientists say are needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. At last year’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen, world leaders pledged to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). A new report from the United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute released Tuesday indicates that while the pledges don’t go far enough, following through on them would at least put the world on the right path.”
The gist of the article is that a plurality of nations has pledged to curb the growth of their future greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge is not to reduce emissions at all, but merely to reduce the rate of increase:
“The nations of the world released a combined 48 gigatons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in 2009. … If countries decide to go with their least-ambitious pledges, emissions would continue to climb to 53 gigatons per year. However, if the most-ambitious targets are met, they would grow to 49 gigatons.”
48 gigatons is an extraordinarily large quantity. I am not a climate scientist, but I would surmise that, given the lack of action taken on global warming thus far, 48 gigatons is probably a record-setting figure – or at least close to it. How is it possible that limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 49 gigatons will somehow prevent the worst effects of climate change? If we are already influencing the climate at our current rate of emissions, the contention that capping them at 49 gigatons will somehow remedy the global warming crisis seems highly dubious.
“But it’s much better than the alternative, which would mean allowing emissions to continue to shoot up to 56 gigatons, the path we’re on if no one takes action.”
Of course some action is better than no action. However, far too little is known about the nature of climate change to bank on minor reductions in emission growth. The foundation of the Copenhagen Accord seems fraught with arbitrary assumptions. We have absolutely no way of knowing precisely what will happen should greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unchecked. But nor do we have any way of knowing what will happen if we curb emissions at 49 gigatons per year. In light of the vast uncertainty in the arena of climate change, all that lies at stake, it seems that we should be pushing for quite a bit more.
The goal of limiting warming to a global increase of 2 degrees Celsius seems equally dubious. Even if limiting greenhouse emissions to 49 gigatons would cap global warming at 2 degrees, who exactly decided that this was an acceptable ceiling? The science of climate change is still in its infancy, and at this point we simply cannot know what will happen should the earth warm by 2 degrees.
One of most dangerous aspects of global warming is that it often creates positive feedback cycles, in which a minor effect is amplified indefinitely. We have observed as much with the melting of the Polar Ice Cap, which has happened at a rate far more rapid than even the most pessimistic observers had predicted. Although the ice had initially begun melting at a gradual, predictable rate, the slight increase in open water amplified the effect. Since ocean water is darker than ice, more of the sun’s heat was absorbed, which lead to higher water temperatures, which contributed to a vastly accelerated rate of melting. A similar effect is taking place in Greenland as the melting ice on the surface burrows its way beneath the glaciers, which in turn accelerates the progression of the glaciers into the sea.
At this stage, we simply cannot predict what other effects might be created – or are already underway – by a 2 degree increase in global temperature. As such, although the intentions of the Copenhagen Accord are to be admired, the suggested remedy should be subjected to severe criticism. An increase of any size in greenhouse gas emissions is wholly unacceptable, since it is the current rate of emissions that have created crisis in the first place. Furthermore, the arbitrary cap of a 2 degree increase in temperature is equally untenable, since we cannot foresee all of the potential consequences of such a jolt to the global biosphere.
As a civilization we stand at the brink of a darkened precipice. We have no way of knowing whether the void before us it bottomless or a merely a few feet deep. But since the potential dangers are grave enough to displace billions and permanently alter the human experience on this earth, it would seem that drastic countermeasures are in order. The fruits of solving the climate change crisis – renewable energy, a vast reduction in global pollution – will benefit all human beings, regardless of whether the purported dangers of global warming are exaggerated or not. It would be foolish on all counts if we failed to take appropriately rigorous action at this pivotal moment in the history of our species.