Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sleepwalking Into Oblivion


The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow has come and gone. The presidents, prime ministers, delegates and fossil fuels lobbyists have all departed along with any real hope of actually avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. The conference’s major accomplishments seem to be the usual pledges to reduce carbon emissions by mid-century or so (with little specific commitment actually fulfill those pledges) and a final statement that explicitly mentions fossil fuels for the first time ever.

It’s hard for me to disagree with the many climate activists and developing nations when they argue that the wealthy nations remain unwilling to address what is arguably the most serious threat to the planet’s health and welfare in human history. COP26 was billed as the last chance for meaningful action to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Little in the reports I’ve read about the final agreement suggests meaningful action. Lots of promises, though but right now the world is on track to warm about 2.5 degrees C by 2100. Looks pretty clear to me that we’ve blown that last chance.

The result is not at all surprising. The world, led by wealthy nations that have growth fat and happy burning fossil fuels over the last two centuries, has been kicking this can down the road for decades. Researchers for oil giant Exxon identified the impact of releasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in 1977. Exxon claims that the research was not definitive but the company spent a great deal of time and money denying that impact even after research in subsequent years further confirmed that impact. An Earth Summit held in Rio de Janerio in 1992 led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calling for stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system." That framework became effective in 1994 after ratification by 197 countries. The Kyoto Protocol, asking both industrialized and developing nations to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997 but due to co complex ratification process, entered into effect in 2005.  The 2016 Paris Climate Accord attempted to elicit specific reductions in carbon emissions but has largely failed to meet expectations.

So we’ve known about this problem for at least 30 years but have done little to address it. The fossil fuel interests and their allies have managed to create sufficient doubt and fear that wealthy nations have been and continue to be unwilling risk their economies by making the changes needed to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side developing nations are reluctant to forgo the benefits cheap energy that served the industrialized nations so handsomely. These diverging interests and national myopia have brought us to the point where the world is on the brink of catastrophic climate change. We are already seeing that impact in the frequent and more massive wildfires, intensified hurricanes and extended heat waves but even in the face of that reality, the best we can do is recommend eliminating “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

I’d like to think the world can do better but the past 30 years offer little basis for optimism. The industrialized nations grew wealthy by exploiting energy their own energy resources and. when those proved insufficient, went abroad to exploit the resources of undeveloped nations, usually to the detriment of the local inhabitants. Those undeveloped nations are now experiencing the worst impacts of climate change caused by the industrial nations emissions and are seeking aid to deal with those impacts. The best COP26 could do was offer a “dialogue” rather than real assistance.

Future generations will not judge us kindly for wasting three decades of opportunity to find a solution to a problem of our own creation.

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