Next week, the nations of the world will meet in Durban, South Africa, to hash out a new treaty to cut carbon pollution. Mid-level officials from nations all over the world will arrive in black SUVs, carrying reports on future emissions trajectories and the economics of solar power. They will meet in air-conditioned rooms and engage in heated debates through their translators, and there will be much chest-thumping about the need to take action to reduce the risk of climate change. And nothing much will happen.
At least that’s what the Guardian reported on Sunday. "Ahead of critical talks starting next week," the UK paper reported, "most of the world's leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020."
If this were a treaty to reduce the number of, say, rubber duckies manufactured by toy makers, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But something more than the entertainment of babies is at stake here. If we wait until 2020 to start cutting carbon pollution, we’re cooked. As Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, told the Guardian: "If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, the target most scientists believe we need to avoid dangerous changes in the earth's climate] will be closed forever."
This is an important moment. For the last 20 years, environmentalists and clean-energy activists have argued that the best hope of addressing climate change is that the good nations of the world will come together under the auspices of the U.N. and hold hands and recognize the threat that a superheated climate poses to us all and sign a legally binding treaty to reduce carbon pollution.
And they have failed, again and again.
Back at the first Earth Summit in 1992, when the first U.N. treaty to address carbon pollution was born – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – it was possible to argue that the scale of the climate crisis was still unclear to many scientists and political leaders.
No longer. The science is solid. The economic benefits of taking action are clear. And the crisis is already upon us. In the U.S. alone, weather disasters caused $50 billion in economic damages in 2010. Just last week, the U.N. issued a report predicting that weather extremes will get much worse in coming decades. That means more record high temperatures, more coastal flooding, more extreme precipitation. "A hotter, moister atmosphere is an atmosphere primed to trigger disasters," said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist and a principal author of the new report. "As the world gets hotter, the risk gets higher."
Meanwhile, carbon pollution continues to increase. A few weeks ago, the Department of Energy reported that carbon dioxide emissions made their biggest jump ever in 2010, growing by six percent. The International Energy Administration recently warned that, if we continue with business as usual, we are headed for irreversible climate changes in just five years.
The climate negotiators in Durban will know all this. But it won’t change the outcome. You can blame Big Coal lobbyists or Fox News or cowardly politicians or the fake “climategate” scandal that erupted in 2009 (and is getting replayed this week ahead of the Durban talks) or the way our minds are wired to be afraid of monsters emerging out of the darkness but oblivious to planet-wide threats to our existence. But the bottom line is, despite nearly twenty years of thumb-sucking by U.N. negotiators, the climate crisis has only grown more dire.
No wonder 10,000 activists turned up at the White House a few weeks ago, demanding that President Obama kill the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought dirty tar sands oil down from Canada. No wonder Tim DeChristopher decided stopping oil and gas companies from drilling on public lands in the west was worth going to jail for. Judging by the actions of the U.N., nobody else really gives a damn.