Outrage of the Week #2: Ignoring climate change
Over 190 nations have representatives at the UN Climate Summit taking place in Doha, Qatar. With that in mind, here's some late news on global warming:
Start, as always, with the fact that it is all but universally agreed that the increase in average global temperature must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius - or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - to head off the worst effects of global warming. Get above that and you start seeing not only immediate effects but longer-term impacts such as accelerated melting of ice caps the the Greenland ice sheet, both of which are already disappearing but this would dramatically increase the rate, leading to significantly higher sea levels and a drop in the Earth's surface albedo, which is a measure of its ability to reflect sunlight. That is, less sunlight reflected, more heat absorbed, so more warming.
Okay, start with that two degree limit. According to the latest report from the United Nations' Environment Program, which involved 55 scientists from 22 countries, released a couple of weeks ago, in 2020 greenhouse gas emissions - greenhouse gases being those that contribute to global warming - could be between 8 billion and 13 billion tons above what is needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.
And the gap between what countries have pledged to do in the area of cutting emissions cut pledges and what is needed to stay under that two degree limit has widened since last year's estimate of 6-11 billion tons.
What's more, that 8 billion ton gap, in the words of the report, was "even if the most ambitious level of pledges and commitments were implemented by all countries and under the strictest set of rules."
Meanwhile, another report, this one from the World Bank about two weeks ago, predicted that the world is likely to warm by 3-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century and extreme weather will become the "new normal", affecting every region in the world.
A third report, this one published this past week in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change, it appears inevitable that the world will not only hit the 2-degree mark, it will shoot past it to a four to six degree increase, which would be disastrous.
A November report from the International Energy Agency found that if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly cut by 2017, existing power plants, factories, and buildings will be enough to push temperatures past the 2-degree mark.
And the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers recently warned that the only way the world can prevent the 2-degree rise is if the global economy cuts its carbon intensity by 5.1 percent every year from now to 2050 - which would mean essentially slamming the brakes on growth and keeping them on for the next 37 years.
Nobody expects that to happen, especially since even if the current round of talks were somehow to produce significant and enforceable requirements for cuts, the treaty wouldn't take effect until 2020 - so countries won’t even be required to start cutting their emissions for another eight years.
That's where we are. That's what we face. That shows the sort of dramatic action we have to take a damaged world to our children and even more our grandchildren.
So what's the outrage here? Our own responsibility as Americans. To put it into perspective, the EU's greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 18 per cent since 1990, so it can be done, while emissions in the US have gone up by 10.8 per cent in the same period. China is now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, largely because it has so many people. But on a per person basis, the story is quite different: China's emissions have reached 6.6 tons per person, compared to the EU’s 7.3 tons and the US's 17.2 tons.
So what is our government doing at the Doha meeting? What is the word from the delegation sent there by Barack Obama, who makes claims of his deep concern over climate change?
Basically, what we're doing there is bragging about what a great job we claim we are doing and saying China and India are the ones who really need to act. Because, y'see, we are supposedly "on track" to meet our own self-imposed target of cutting greenhouse gas emission to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. But 2005 levels were higher than earlier years and Obama's target works out as a cut of only about 3-4 percent from 1990 levels.
But five years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, said that rich nations would have to cut emissions by 25-to-40 percent below 1990 levels in that same time to head off damaging effect of climate change. We are nowhere near that and are not even trying to be anywhere near that.
In fact, about the only nations that are near that are the members of the European Union. The EU's emissions, again, are already down by 18% compared to 1990 and could easily approach 25% or more by 2020.
One way the EU has tried to further cut its emissions is by a requirement that all commercial flights within the EU pay a fee based on their carbon emissions, a clear financial incentive for the airlines to limit their emissions. Recently, the EU wanted to expand that to include all flights into or out of the EU as a bloc - that is, including for example flights to and from the US to an EU country.
So what did Barack "I am so concerned about climate change" Obama do? Signed a bill exempting US airlines from having to pay the fee. Bluntly, he said that these corporations do not have to follow European laws even in Europe. Leaving aside the astonishing imperial arrogance here, there is the hypocrisy on global warming, emphasized by the fact that the US said that this needed to be solved through negotiations at the International Civil Aviation Organization, even though - shades of Israel and the Palestinians - the EU acted only after more than 10 years of such supposed negotiations had gone precisely nowhere.
Meanwhile, domestically, Obama remains close-mouthed on the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed pipeline that would bring tar sands from Canada to Texas for refining. I've talked about this before: Tar sands are about the dirtiest, foulest, most climate-change-increasing way of getting oil there is. In 2010 the EPA determined that on a well-to-tank basis, oil from tar sands produces 82% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oil does: nearly double. The White House booted a decision until after the beginning of the year so he wouldn't have to make a decision before the election. But the very fact it's still on the table shows just how frail this supposed commitment to resisting climate change really is.
Meawhile meanwhile, in November two companies got the green light from the feds to begin pulling tar sands from places in Utah - and plans are to expand that to more sites with an estimated 32 billion barrels of oil. Sound like a lot? The world currently consumes somewhere around 36 billion barrels a year, so this would rip up the environment and massively increase the production of greenhouse gases - for the sake of less than one year's world consumption. And this, it appears, is fine with our oh-so-concerned administration.
Oh, and by the way, remember that because the Keystone XL pipeline would cross an international boundary, the State department has to pass judgment on if the project is in the national interest. Guess who has major investments in the company extracting oil from Canada’s tar sands, the company building the pipeline that will carry the oil across the US, and the Canadian banks financing the project: Susan Rice - our UN Ambassador who is expected to be nominated for Secretary of State and who would thus become the official responsible for making that determination.
And as a footnote: According to a poll by Yale and George Mason Universities, the portion of Americans who say climate change will affect them by a "moderate" amount or "great deal" rose from 29% to 42% between March and September - and remember, that was before Sandy. As is often true, the people are in front of the politicians - but they spend more time listening to the moneybags who are behind them.