I have some things to say about Paris. What just happened, and why does it matter?
In 1988 the UN created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their goal: to provide the best possible objective scientific assessment of climate change. Since 1988, IPCC has released 5 “assessment reports” (ARs).
The most recent, AR5, was completed in 2014. It took 4 years, over 800 authors and was based on nearly 10,000 peer-reviewed papers. When they were done, they had produced a ~4000 page report. It’s much too long and technical for most people (including me) to read the whole thing, but there are useful summaries of everything. They were targeting politicians, after all. (2014 politicians, that is. For politicians in 2017, the summaries would have to just be a picture of the earth with a frowny face saying “I’m fucked!”)
Here are some quotes from the summary for policymakers:
“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.”
“Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.”
Among the scariest impacts is around food security:
“Climate change is projected to undermine food security … Due to projected climate change by the mid-21st century and beyond, global marine species redistribution and marine biodiversity reduction in sensitive regions will challenge the sustained provision of fisheries productivity and other ecosystem services (high confidence). For wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions, climate change without adaptation is projected to negatively impact production for local temperature increases of 2°C or more above late 20th century levels, although individual locations may benefit (medium confidence). Global temperature increases of ~4°C or more above late 20th century levels, combined with increasing food demand, would pose large risks to food security globally (high confidence).”
It said that any temperature rise is bad, and hotter is worse. It also said that 1.5°C increase by 2100 was essentially inevitable.
So in 2015, representatives from around the globe got together in Paris to do something about it. The worst of the AR5 impacts are predicted at higher temperature increases, so the goal in Paris was to keep increases under 2°C.
A lot of people thought the Paris Agreement wasn’t good enough. A key tool in the agreement was “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), voluntary, self-selected emission reduction goals that came with no penalty for noncompliance. They were basically aspirational, and even hitting them would not stop many of the problems predicted by AR5. Some argued that we need to hold to under 1.5°. Obama himself said, “Even if we meet every target, we will only get to part of where we need to go.” But doing nothing puts us on track for an increase of 2.5-5.5° by 2100 which would almost certainly be disastrous.
The US naturally needed agree to do a lot of the work in the Paris agreement — we emit ~15% of the world’s CO2 (#2 behind China) according to the EPA. In fact, China, US, and the EU together emit >50% of the world’s CO2. If those 3 don’t agree to Paris the world might as well not bother. But the exciting thing about Paris was, the world finally agreed: We all have a common problem, and we all need to do something about it. So the scene in late 2016 was basically the 2nd act closer: our heroes are in huge trouble, but there’s a glimmer of hope. We can do this.
So we’re voluntarily walking away from the only shot we had. A shot that wasn’t good enough, but better than, say, actively promoting coal. What will the impact be? I don’t know. IPCC doesn’t have a “maniac decides to emit all the CO2 we’ve got as fast as possible” model.
I’m no climate scientist, but I’m going to say it’s probably not good.
We are already seeing impacts from our failure to act 20 years ago. 20 years from now we will see worse impacts. By the time these impacts are happening they will be unstoppable. They will have a disproportionate impact on the poorest parts of the world.
The good news is: Paris was a long-term deal, and it looks like it’s not falling apart since China and EU are still committed. Maybe we will soon have a sane and competent President. And the US federal government is only one part of our regulatory system, and state and local governments can step up. (In fact both state and local governments are already pledging to do that.) Technology could also help, though we’d innovate more in a regulatory environment that did more to encourage green tech. (Combined with eroding US higher education, this could mean China or India takes the US’s position as world tech leader.)
So that’s where we are. The only thing we can do now is fight for a congress that will limit the maniac’s power.
Your individual action is unlikely to make a noticeable impact by itself., but remember, only your powers combined can summon Captain Planet.