Sunday, November 2, 2014

Déjà Vu and the UN's Latest Climate Report

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new synthesis report on the science and impacts of, and potential solutions for, climate change.

Here's a taste (excerpted from the Guardian piece linked above):
Climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world unless carbon emissions are cut sharply and rapidly, according to the most important assessment of global warming yet published.
The stark report states that climate change has already increased the risk of severe heatwaves and other extreme weather and warns of worse to come, including food shortages and violent conflicts. But it also found that ways to avoid dangerous global warming are both available and affordable.

… The report, released in Copenhagen on Sunday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is the work of thousands of scientists and was agreed after negotiations by the world’s governments. It is the first IPCC report since 2007 to bring together all aspects of tackling climate change and for the first time states: that it is economically affordable; that carbon emissions will ultimately have to fall to zero; and that global poverty can only be reduced by halting global warming. The report also makes clear that carbon emissions, mainly from burning coal, oil and gas, are currently rising to record levels, not falling.

Droughts, coastal storm surges from the rising oceans and wildlife extinctions on land and in the seas will all worsen unless emissions are cut, the report states. This will have knock-on effects, according to the IPCC: “Climate change is projected to undermine food security.” The report also found the risk of wars could increase: “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”
Two-thirds of all the emissions permissible if dangerous climate change is to be avoided have already been pumped into the atmosphere, the IPPC found. The lowest cost route to stopping dangerous warming would be for emissions to peak by 2020 – an extremely challenging goal – and then fall to zero later this century.
The report calculates that to prevent dangerous climate change, investment in low-carbon electricity and energy efficiency will have to rise by several hundred billion dollars a year before 2030. But it also found that delaying significant emission cuts to 2030 puts up the cost of reducing carbon dioxide by almost 50%, partly because dirty power stations would have to be closed early. “If you wait, you also have to do more difficult and expensive things,” said Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and an IPCC working group vice-chair.
Ban-Ki Moon responded thusly:
“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message,” said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, attending what he described as the “historic” report launch. “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” He said that quick, decisive action would build a better and sustainable future, while inaction would be costly.
I couldn't help feeling a sense of déjà vu when reading this article because of how many just like it I've read over the past decade. 
A new report comes out, highlighting the dire future impacts and current realities of climate change (which both get worse each time) and sounding a clarion call for action (which gets more urgent each time).

With the new report, we'll hear UN officials, environmental groups, and liberal politicians sounding the alarm about the seriousness and severity of climate change and the need for action. Many will say, in whatever words that "the science is settled"--as it has been for a while.

We'll see appeals to "enlightened self-interest" in the business community---as though self-interest is ever enlightened.

And yet the politics remain the same. Because reports do not (and cannot) in and of themselves change political realities.

According to the Guardian, the critique that politicians tend to "engage in short-term thinking and are biased toward the status quo" was dropped from the final report.

But that is exactly why we keep getting this déjà vu. This short-termism is, in no small part, a product of the short-termism of the economic system. A new report will not change the myopia intrinsic to the profit motive. And it will not change the outsized weight of the fossil fuel industry in policymaking. The big polluters will continue to spend generously on lobbying and campaign donations, and will continue to have easy access to those crafting policy, whether in Congress or the White House--or anywhere else.

And as I noted before, when public support is broad but shallow (and malleable) and the pockets of fossil fuel companies are narrow but very, very deep, how do you think politicians will respond?

Between now and the Paris negotiations next fall, I expect to see  many new studies highlighting the direness and urgency of the situation. And I expect them to go largely unheeded. I'd like to be proven wrong.

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