Winning the battle over climate change


But losing the war?

Here are a few parts of a sort-of-syllogism that set the stage for some reflections on global climate talks, which recently wrapped up its latest stage in Bonn.

A.  No major industrialized country, including the European Union (EU), is likely going to meet its climate targets for reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2030, as adopted under the Paris Accord.

Note:  There are few reliable methods or systems for confirming the status of compliance with the targets, which remain voluntary and self-selected.

B.  Even if all the countries hit their targets, as adopted in Paris, that would not be enough to stop global warming from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels of about 280 ppm CO2.

Note: The hopes of the Paris Accord are shaky for a 2°C target, and certainly there is little chance of meeting the more ambitious goal of keeping global temperatures from rising 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels.

C.  Therefore, if we cannot keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 – 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels, we will experience, e.g., melting glaciers, rising sea levels, megacities flooded out, millions and millions of environmental refugees, billions of dollars of damages and losses, etc..







So what is the point of the global climate talks?

At center stage, those talks concentrated on specific pathways, or a “rule book,” for nations to up their ante, to increase their voluntary commitments, as built into the Paris Accord to address its acknowledged shortfall.  As noted above, one of the problems with the existing targets is the difficulty in determining just by how much the nations are hitting, or missing, their targets, and how they are making that happen.  The hope is to devise visible, transparent means to hold countries accountable and to monitor their compliance.  The central argument is that by seeing what their actual emissions are, and how that compares with their stated targets, and seeing how they are trying (or not) to hit those targets, it is expected that more progressive parties will be able to persuade more reticent parties to do more.  The power will rest on persuasion rather than compulsion.





That is a reasonable process and goal under all the circumstances, and consistent with how other international agreements function.   A rather large hole in the middle of the argument, however, is that even the progressive parties, including Germany and the entire European Union, are not making sufficient progress to hit their inadequate targets.   So who is going to persuade others to do more?  Meanwhile, the earth continues to glow alarmingly.

Driving the climate talks, and the argument on pressure by persuasion, is the refrain: we have only a limited time, maybe 10 years, maybe less, to take the actions necessary to save the planet from catastrophic disasters.  In an article on the Bonn talks, some are claiming that we have a “window of the next two years” to stop runaway climate change.  The author ends the article with a plea, or threat: “A few years is too late.”

Those from communities vulnerable to climate change rightly demand action now — their lives are at risk now — as do the youth who will have to pay for and suffer through the forces we have unleashed.





But there is a problem with this refrain.  It has been repeated over and over.  We have been saying it since 1995, and earlier, but the ten years or few years have passed, several times.  Yet not much has changed.  Nations continue to do less than what is required to save the planet.

So we should not be surprised if large segments of the public tune us out, or if many sympathetic listeners hear what we’re saying but see no way to do anything meaningful.  Emblematic of this dilemma is a statement in a recent introduction to a series in the New York Times Sunday magazine on a world dominated by self-driving cars.  The editor mentions recent technological improvements to cars, including hybrid and electric drivetrains that “have allowed some consumers to pay for the pleasure of offsetting, ever so slightly, the upward trajectory of carbon emissions that will one day render Earth uninhabitable.”  “Render earth uninhabitable.”  It is said ever so casually, as if predicting it will rain tomorrow.

My first reaction was that we are winning the battle to convince people that climate change is real and as dangerous as hell, even if the comment was from a progressive source.  My second reaction was that winning the battle is of little use if it results in such nonchalance acceptance of the end of the world.



Bill Wasik, “What the car did and what it might do,” The New York Times Sunday magazine (7 Nov 2017).

“Climate target too low and progress too slow: top scientist,” enca (1Nov 2017).

Jonathan Franzen, “Is it too late to save the world? Jonathan Franzen on one year of Trump’s America,” The Guardian (4 Nov 2017).

Natalie Bennett, “ A message for the planet: beware the urgency gap,” The Ecologist (10 Nov 2017).

Brad Plumer, “At Bonn Climate Talks, Stakes Get Higher in Gamble on Planet’s Future,” The New York Times (18 Nov 2017).

John Sweeney, “Some Reflections on Attending the Bonn Global Climate Change Talks,” in the Commentary section of the current (December 2017) issue of





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