Science and Politics Clash as Humanity Nears Climate Change Tipping Point
By Greg M. Schwartz
Despite having had a heart transplant three years before, Lonnie Thompson ascended to 22,000 feet and braved -35 degree F temperatures on a mountain peak in far western China in 2015 to do his job as an ice-core paleoclimatologist. The renowned professor from the Ohio State University has extracted and examined ice cores from around the world since 1974. He testified before the U.S. Senate about global warming in 1992, detailing the havoc climate change is wreaking on the planet.
The testimony came in the wake of Thompson’s 1991 realization that something unprecedented was happening when he observed melting taking place at the summit of the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru. The melting was washing away vital historic data, something that hadn’t happened in 1,800 years of records there. “That was the first time that [I said] ok, there’s something really significant going on here on a longer time scale,” Thompson said, who noted that a recent visit in 2015 revealed the ice cap is now smaller than it has been in at least 6,600 years.
By examining ancient ice cores and their surroundings, Thompson assesses how rapidly ecosystems changed in the past, then compares those systems to today’s systems to forecast the climate changes that await current and future generations. “I enjoy what we do and I believe what we do is extremely important,” said Thompson, 67. “Many of these ice fields that we drill, particularly in the tropics in low latitudes, will disappear.” A large majority of scientists are now convinced that global warming poses “a clear and present danger to civilization,” according to Thompson.
“Ice is fine up until you reach the melting point and then everything changes. And it changes very abruptly. Every system that has been studied has thresholds in it, and a lot of those thresholds in the future we don’t know,” Thompson said. “Those surprises are what’s most difficult for societies to adapt to.”
Thompson’s concern about the unknown is tempered however by his faith in humanity to alter course.
“At the end of the day, we advance as we go through time. We didn’t leave the stone age because we ran out of stones, we found a better way to produce energy … This is ultimately what happens now,” Thompson said, noting that Ohio State now gets 25 percent of its electricity from wind and has installed geothermal fields to heat and cool its dorms. “So the change is coming and it will be fought, and the last people to change will be our government on this issue, but the change is coming from bottom up …”
The COP21 United Nations Climate Summit
To address the global threat and resistance to change, representatives from 196 nations attended the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), held in Paris late last year as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
COP21 was widely billed as humanity’s last chance to draft a plan to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The ultimate goal was to have the participating nations agree to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions to the extent that the average global temperature would not rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average pre-industrial temperature. Though that 2-degree goal has generally been deemed by scientists to be sufficient to contain the damage done by climate change, many particularly vulnerable nations advocated for a 1.5-degree target (which remains a UN goal.). Germany proposed the 2-degree threshold in the 1990s, and more than 100 countries agreed on that limit at the Copenhagen Accord at COP15 in 2009. The global temperature has risen .85 of a degree C since 1885, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The scientific community generally agrees that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at its current rate, the 2-degree increase could be reached by mid-century, and 2100 could see an increase by as many as 5 degrees. Reports from the IPCC, World Bank and National Research Council indicate that the 2-degree rise would lead to much larger wildfires, more intense hurricanes, a reduction of important food crops, extreme drought, continued Arctic melting, a drastic rise in sea level and increased flooding.
The IPCC has said that a 5-degree rise would lead to “major extinctions around the globe” and to a “reconfiguration of coastlines worldwide.” A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences indicated that doing nothing to reduce climate change would lead to a sea-level rise that would pose an “existential threat” to cities such as Boston, New York, Miami and New Orleans.
In October 2015, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, announced that the voluntary emissions goals that participants had submitted for COP21 would only limit forecasted temperature rise to 2.7 degrees, at best.
Greenpeace and Amnesty International released a joint statement during the summit that said, in part, “Climate change is a human rights issue. Already today, many people around the world have their rights to life, water, food, health, housing and other rights impacted by climate impacts.” The statement then denounced the 2.7-degree level. “This is far higher than the 1.5-degrees C most vulnerable countries see as the maximum, if they are to survive …”
President Barack Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry, among numerous other politicians, proclaimed triumph at the end of the summit, as the agreement represents the entry into what some participants called “the beginning of the end for the fossil fuel era.” The agreement commits the 196 signatory countries to work together to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees C, while calling for a stop to the rise of greenhouse-gas emissions as soon as possible. Though there is a mandatory review of targets every five years, the agreement has no legal enforcement mechanism.
The climate-justice community had mixed reactions to the summit process and outcome. Karen Orenstein, a senior international policy analyst with non-profit organization Friends of the Earth, said Obama’s actions don’t match his rhetoric.
“It’s hard in Paris to see U.S. media and others … sort of framing the U.S. and Obama as climate leaders and climate champions when that couldn’t really be further from the truth,” Orenstein said in an interview during the summit. “When you look at what the U.S. is putting on the table as far as emissions reductions, as far as financial contributions for developing countries, it’s just magnitudes below what would be called for if the U.S. were living up to its responsibilities.”
Orenstein cited Friends of the Earth’s “Keep It In the Ground” campaign—which calls for the end of leases on public land for fossil-fuel extractions—as one of the organization’s primary efforts to address climate change. Others include trying to eliminate corporate loopholes from the tax code and cutting subsidies to Big Oil.
In Paris, Sec. of State Kerry announced the U.S. would double its $430 million pledge to the UN’s climate Adaptation Fund. That figure to assist developing countries with climate mitigation and adaptation projects, however, is dwarfed by the $20.5 billion the U.S. doled out in fossil-fuel subsidies in 2015, according to environmental advocacy group Oil Change International. Orenstein credits President Obama for being ahead of many members of Congress but says he’s still way behind the science.
“Those guys [climate change deniers in Congress] are sort of living in the dinosaur ages. And so Obama is maybe 1950, or something like that, but we’re actually 2015, where we know what the science says and we know what the science says we have to do about it,” Orenstein said. “But our politics get in the way. And you can decide that your yardstick is the current political reality, or you can decide that your yardstick is physical reality. For Friends of the Earth, our yardstick is physical reality.”
Orenstein also cited the importance of fossil-fuel divestment, the need for cities to decentralize and localize their energy sources and the need to decrease the influence of money in the political process. Electing politicians who have the ambition to fight the climate problem will also help, she said.
One high-profile politician who has displayed such ambition is Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. After politicians in Paris claimed triumph at the end of the UN summit, Sanders issued a press release with another view: “While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough. The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that,” Sanders declared. “We’ve got to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and fight for national and international legislation that transforms our energy system away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible.”
Two days before sending out the press release, Sanders had announced a “People Before Polluters” climate action plan to cut U.S. carbon pollution 40 percent by 2030, and more than 80 percent by 2050, by taxing carbon polluters, repealing fossil-fuel subsidies and making huge investments in clean energy.
Cities can and have taken the lead where federal policy lags. San Diego, California made a trailblazing move shortly after the summit when it passed an ordinance vowing to move to 100 percent renewable energy in 20 years. Portland, Oregon passed a resolution in November that opposes local expansion of any new fossil-fuel storage or transportation projects, and Boulder, Colorado has been working to dump its investor-owned energy utility and launch a public municipal utility that would have an easier time moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources.
The energy debate also includes those who advocate for nuclear power but the Nuclear Information Resource Service in Washington DC held a “Paris and Onward” telebriefing in early February where energy experts testified strongly in favor of renewable energy. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), lauded COP21 as remarkable for getting all countries to unanimously agree to take action for the first time and for targeting a goal of 1.5 C. But he noted that Earth had passed the threshold for 1.5 C in 2011, explaining this means we must not only go to zero emissions but to negative emissions. He flat out rejected nuclear power as a solution due to its logistical limitations.
“We have no time or money to waste, we can’t afford to be pursuing technologies that cost too much for not enough impact,” Mahkijani said of nuclear power in the telebriefing before concluding that “Nuclear is everything we don’t need.”
ClimateChange and the Fossil-Fuel Economy
Friends of the Earth’s Orenstein also lamented the difference between the non-binding nature of the Paris agreement with global trade agreements: “The degree of legality and commitment in this negotiation is nothing compared to a trade agreement.”
Michael Stumo, CEO of Coalition for a Prosperous America, a DC–based nonprofit that aims to establish “a new and positive” U.S. trade policy, wrote in an email, “The trade agreements are a major contributor to increased carbon emissions. The U.S. promotes global supply chains rather than domestic supply chains. Most carbon emitting industries in the U.S. are quite efficient in relation to the past and in relation to the non-European world. As U.S. government trade policy incentivizes those industries to be relocated in non-regulated, developing-world countries and China, the emissions escalate. If the U.S. was still the manufacturing powerhouse instead of Asian countries, carbon emissions would be far less globally.”
President Obama and Kerry have worked hard to gain support for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries. Many environmental, labor and civil rights groups object to the agreement, however. “The TPP will likely cause more global carbon emissions than any Paris talks could possibly negate,” Stumo said. “Any environmental provisions in TPP are either not coupled with enforcement measures or highly unlikely to be enforced by the U.S. government. We have never done so before under past trade deals.”
While in Paris for the summit, Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, wrote in an email, “The United States is clearly pursuing a trade agenda that would undermine its goals on climate change. The TPP would empower foreign corporations to challenge climate policies in private trade tribunals and would require the United States to automatically approve exports of natural gas to countries in the agreement. The TPP is counterproductive to the goal of the Paris talks to reduce global climate threats.”
Shortly after the Paris summit, Sec. Kerry appeared on ABC’s This Week and declared, “The result will be a very clear signal to the marketplace of the world that people are moving into low-carbon, no-carbon, alternative, renewable energy. And I think it’s going to create millions of jobs, enormous investments into R&D, and that R&D is going to create the solutions, not government.”
However, John Perkins, former chief economist for a major international consulting firm and bestselling author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (an exposé on international financial skullduggery by what he terms “the corporatocracy”), has another view: “If you read some of the most celebrated economists in the world today, two Nobel prize winners, Krugman and Stiglitz, you’ll hear both of them saying the market really doesn’t determine much from a standpoint of supply and demand,” Perkins explained. “Supply and demand curves are meaningless, the market is driven by politics. And politics is driven by big corporations and so therefore big corporations drive the market. The old economic theories are basically BS. They’re beautiful wonderful theories but they don’t really have any relationship with the reality of global economics today.”
Renowned author and climate justice activist Naomi Klein agrees that markets can’t be relied on to solve global warming. She credits Kerry for connecting climate change with the civil war in Syria, but feels his approach to the problem is lacking. “I think his solutions are completely inadequate, as are Obama’s,” Klein said in a February meeting in Santa Monica, California with supporters of Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots organization devoted to electing politicians that prioritize climate justice.
Climate Change and Terrorism
In addition to the environmental and economic effects of climate change, extreme weather conditions are now affecting political stability in some regions. The Pentagon and Department of Defense released a report in 2014 calling climate change a “threat multiplier,” then followed with a report in the summer of 2015 on “the security risks of climate change.” The second report stated that climate change can and will aggravate problems such as poverty, environmental degradation and ineffectual leadership, and will hamper the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations.
Francesco Femia was ahead of the curve when he co-founded the Center for Climate and Security in 2010. The DC-based think tank, which consists of a board of senior retired military leaders and security professionals, aims to address the unprecedented challenges that climate change presents to security. Many security analysts cited climate change as a factor in the November attacks by ISIS terrorists on Paris, while also acknowledging that political unrest and the refugee crisis in Syria contributed. Femia said, “the risk factor of climate change has gone up significantly” in recent years and cited research indicating that the recent worst drought in Syria’s history was made two to three times more likely because of climate change.
“Now, of course, it wasn’t just climate change that contributed to the unrest and that migratory flow,” said Femia. “It was also natural-resource mismanagement by the Assad regime. They were heavily subsidizing cash crops like cotton, which are very water intensive, using flood irrigation where you waste 60 percent of your water. So you can’t absolve governments of their responsibility. But, yeah, climate change is basically putting an additional pressure on existing security risks. And then when a state fails, obviously terrorist organizations can take advantage of that failure.”
The drier the climate gets, Femia said, the more precious water resources become, giving terrorist organizations like ISIS the ability to seize those resources and leverage them against their opponents and populations at large.
“The point is that climate change makes all of these other risks worse, and so we should do something about it,” Femia said. “So there’s been a debate about, ‘Well, is climate change the biggest security risk?’ That kind of misses the point—it’s kind of the wrong question. The issue is that climate change interacts with other security risks and makes it worse. And so I think that’s how we should be thinking about it … and that’s definitely how the security community thinks about it.”
Some observers found the timing of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks suspicious, in that they created a national state of emergency in France that led to a ban on the huge climate justice protests that were planned for COP21. While not speaking to a conspiracy theory per se, Naomi Klein has suggested that the ban on protests in Paris had a significant effect. “I don’t know that it would have changed the agreement, but I think it would have changed people’s understanding of what happened. I think there would have been a million people in the streets of Paris without that ban. That’s what they were projecting,” Klein said in a January talk in Canandaigua, New York billed as “Capitalism vs. The Climate: Reflections on the 2015 UN Climate Conference.”
Saving the Planet
Two days before the Paris summit was over, an international coalition announced a “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” global action for May 2016 that intends “to shut down the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects and support the most ambitious climate solutions.” Though it lacks an enforcement mechanism, the Paris agreement at least generated a wealth of political capital that will pressure governments and the corporate sector to take action against climate change.
“Most of the needed words are there; however, they are, for the most part, weak,” IEER’s Makhijani wrote in a December blog post. “To give them effect and keep most fossil fuels in the ground will take the global equivalent of the movement that stopped the Keystone Pipeline… Actually achieving a limit of 1.5°C will mean taking the tiger out of Exxon’s tank and putting it into the Paris Agreement.”
Such a political battle is already occurring against entities determined to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was temporarily halted by a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court in early February, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory effort to reduce pollution from power plants was challenged by a 29-state coalition led by Texas and West Virginia. The plan seeks to cut carbon emissions from power plants by roughly one-third by substituting natural gas and renewable energy sources for coal. Litigation over the plan will continue in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit though and advocates for the plan believe it will stand on its merits.
“The Clean Power Plan has a firm anchor in our nation’s clean air laws and a strong scientific record, and we look forward to presenting our case on the merits in the courts,” Vickie Patton, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement following the decision. The case demonstrates the nature of the political obstacles to implementing the goals of COP21 influence the fate of the planet. If enough people demand Earth-friendly products and energy solutions (and politicians who support such solutions), grassroots movements can become groundswells, then economic tsunamis. Whether the political capital from the Paris summit is enough to power a consumer movement to catalyze the clean energy revolution needed to halt global temperature rise may well determine the fate of the free world.
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