Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Our Last Chance for a Safe Planet

MELBOURNE – Humanity has just about run out of time to address climate change. Scientists have pointed out that a rise in temperature of 2º Celsius above pre-industrial levels will put the Earth in dangerous, uncharted territory. Yet we currently are on a path toward an increase of 4º or more this century. The last chance for action has arrived.

That chance lies in Paris in December 2015, when the world’s governments meet for the 21st annual United Nations climate-change meeting. But this time will be different. Either governments will agree to decisive action, as they have promised, or we will look back at 2015 as the year when climate sanity slipped through our fingers.

In 1992, the world’s governments adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, promising to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference in the climate system” by reducing the rate of emission of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. But, though the treaty entered into force in 1994, the rate of emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2, has actually increased.

In 1992, global combustion of coal, oil, and gas, plus cement production, released 22.6 billion tons of CO2 into the air. In 2012, the most recent year for which comparable data are available, emissions were 34.5 billion tons. Humanity has accelerated, rather than controlled, human-induced climate change.

This is now the greatest moral issue of our time. Global fossil-fuel use gravely threatens the poor, who are the most vulnerable to climate change (though the rich are the main cause), and future generations, who will inherit a planet that has become unlivable in many places, with food supply subject to massive shocks.

We are causing this harm in an age when technological breakthroughs enable the world to shift from dangerous fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, such as wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro, and reduce the impact of fossil fuels by using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Pope Francis recently put it just right: “Safeguard Creation,” he said. “Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”

Yet, for the many powerful interests, climate change remains a game, with the goal being to delay action for as long as possible. The giant fossil-fuel companies have continued to lobby behind the scenes against the shift to low-carbon energy, and have used their vast wealth to buy media coverage designed to sow confusion. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere stands out as playing a particularly cynical and harmful role in spreading anti-scientific propaganda.

Even so, the politics of climate change may be changing for the better – a change reflected in the Pope’s forceful message. Here are six reasons why the stalemate might soon end.

First, the world is waking up to the calamity that we are causing. Though the Murdoch propaganda machine churns out a daily stream of anti-scientific falsehoods, the public also sees prolonged droughts (now in parts of Brazil, California, and Southeast Asia, to name a few places), massive floods (recently in Bosnia and Serbia), and lethal heat waves (in many parts of the world).

Second, the world’s citizens do not want to go down in flames. Public opinion has so far succeeded in blocking the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would accelerate the production of Canada’s oil sands – a shocking prospect, given that neither Canada nor the US yet have committed to a climate plan.

Third, more severe climate shocks may lie ahead. This year could prove to be a major El Niño year, when the waters of the Eastern Pacific warm and create global climate disruptions. A big El Niño now would be even more dangerous than usual, because it would add to the overall rising trend in global temperatures. Indeed, many scientists believe that a big El Niño could make 2015 the hottest year in the Earth’s history.

Fourth, both the US and China, the two largest emitters of CO2, are finally beginning to get serious. President Barack Obama’s administration is trying to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants, unless they are equipped with CCS technology. China, for its part, has realized that its heavy dependence on coal is causing such devastating pollution and smog that it is leading to massive loss of life, with life expectancy down as much as five years in regions with heavy coal consumption.

Fifth, the Paris negotiations are finally beginning to attract global attention from both the public and world leaders. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for political leaders to attend a special summit in September 2014, 14 months ahead of the Paris meeting, to launch intensive negotiations. The UN expert network that I direct, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN), will issue a major report in July on how each of the major economies can successfully decarbonize the energy system.

Finally, technological advances in low-carbon energy systems, including photovoltaics, electric vehicles, CCS, and fourth-generation nuclear power with greatly enhanced safety features, all help make the transition to low-cost, low-carbon energy technologically realistic, with huge benefits for human health and planetary safety.

Starting this fall, the UN SDSN will create a platform for all global citizens to participate in the hard work of saving the planet. The SDSN will offer a free, online introductory course to climate change, and then host a global online “negotiation” of a global climate agreement.

We expect that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of interested citizens worldwide will participate online, showing the way for the politicians. The control of climate change is a moral imperative and a practical necessity – far too important to be left to politicians, Big Oil, and their media propagandists.

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  1. CommentedSimon Silvie

    Why isn't population control top of the agenda? It reduces the consumption of scarce resources, the impact of climate change (natural or man-made) and, if carbon (dioxide) is proven to be affecting the climate, then it helps with that too. Carbon control, is at best a sticking plaster and at worse a scam. Lets see the UN and the IPCC put their money where their mouths are and put population control at the top of the agenda.

  2. Commentedjohn wondra

    This is exactly what we should expect from Dr. Sachs, author and endorser of "Common Wealth."
    His second paragraph precisely sums up the agenda for CAGW December agenda: " Lies in Paris."
    If CAGW advocates truly believed in 1988 or 1992 the Earth was in danger, you'd think that by now they'd have solid evidence, rather than inconsistent anecdotes, faulty models, and failed predictions/projections.
    Today, with CO2 emissions at their highest levels and growing, we've seen a nearly two-decade "pause" in warming that should be skyrocketing. Even the most ardent CAGW advocates are unable to explain how their "basic science" went so wrong.
    His IPCC acknowledges there is no statistically significant link between AGW and climate phenomena such as floods, droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes; the latter two of which have declined over the last 25 years!
    CCS is NOT feasible yet, and an utterly failed "biofuels" diversion of 40% of U.S. corn production has contributed to global food shortages ("massive shocks") while simultaneously INCREASING net CO2 emissions!.
    Contrary to his baseless assertions, people are not "waking up" to a CAGW reality; concern in the U.S. is at an all-time low. Alarmists and their dogma have proven to be more akin to religion than science. Chanting about a mythical "consensus" doesn't change the science or the facts.
    If China is so concerned, why are they building 20 coal-fired electric plants and planning 50 more?
    Characterizing a speculative threat (at best) as "the greatest moral issue of our time" callously diminishes real and present suffering, criminality and poverty for which we could take immediate effective action at a fraction of the cost of his proposed "remedies."
    If the CAGW dogma is successful in its redistributive agenda, only then could we fairly call it "the greatest moral issue of our time."

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think this or any similar initiative is extremely important.
    Changes will not come from "above", the politicians meeting Paris next year will not suddenly change their minds, directions, they simply cannot.

    They represent, serve the business, corporate mindset, embedded in the constant quantitative growth/endless profit agenda, primarily caring for the markets and financial institutions, and for that agenda climate change, any proposed "slowdown", natural consideration is toxic.

    Change will only come from "below", from the public, from people who are not in distress yet, who are not fighting for their bare necessities, survival day to day, but those who are concerned about the planet, about the future of humanity.

    And for that public to have a voice, more importantly to unite on the same platform and to represent a meaningful force, they need information, global, and integral education based on honest, transparent, scientific data this project seems to offer.

    We need a large enough, "critical mass" of people learning about facts, taking part in public discussions, spreading the understanding in a viral fashion through the mutually interconnected human network.

    So this project sounds very exciting, groundbreaking, worth taking part in.