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The Big Lie in the Durban U.N. Climate Talks

Governments are acting like they have more time, and more ways, to tackle global warming than they really do.

Protesters shout anti US and anti World Bank slogans demonstration outside the UN-Climate change Conference in Durban


The problem with the U.N. climate talks in Durban, now into their third day, is not just that the big polluters like China and the U.S. refuse to make any meaningful commitments to cut carbon pollution.  It’s also the fact that the entire negotiation is based on a big lie.  Or, to be more charitable about it, on a mass delusion.

Jonathan Pershing, the lead U.S. climate negotiator, spelled it out yesterday when he said, according to one media report, “there [are] an infinite number of pathways to stay below 2 degrees Centigrade.”

If you are interested enough in the climate crisis to read this post, you probably know that 2 degrees Centigrade of warming (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is the widely acknowledged threshold for “dangerous” climate change.  To meet the 2 C limit, most climate scientists agree that we have to hold levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million.  Right now, we’re at 390 ppm, with a growth rate of about 2 ppm per year.

The entire objective of the U.N. climate talks is to negotiate an agreement under which all the nations of the world agree to work together to prevent, in U.N.-speak, “dangerous anthropogenic interference of the climate system.”  In other words, to limit CO2 levels to 450 ppm. 

But here’s the problem: There are not, as Pershing put it, “an infinite number of pathways” to this goal.  There is, at best, one pathway – and that is a massive, World War II-scale effort to, as climate blogger Joe Romm puts it, “deploy every conceivable energy-efficient and low carbon technology that we have today as fast as we can.”  (You can read Romm’s full analysis of what it would take to stabilize CO2 levels at 450 ppm here.)

So yes, if a Winston Churchill of the climate crisis suddenly emerges and we begin bulldozing coal plants all over the world, we may be able to save ourselves from dangerous climate change.  But let’s not be naive.  Despite all the progress climate scientists have made in understanding the risks we run by loading the atmosphere with CO2, the world is still as addicted to fossil fuels as ever.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is.  In fact, rather than decreasing, global warming pollution is on the rise.  Last year saw a six percent increase in CO2 emissions – the biggest jump ever.  As two noted climate scientists wrote in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:

There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2°C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change.

A recent report by International Energy Administration put the challenge of hitting the 450 ppm target into stark relief, pointing out that within five years,  the infrastructure – power plants, factories, cars, etc. – will be in place to drive CO2 levels beyond 450 ppm.

Even within the Obama administration, the fact that these U.N. targets are unattainable is an open secret.  Back in 2009, while I was working on a Rolling Stone profile (PDF) of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, I asked him about the chances of limiting atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm.  His reply: “The fact is, we’re not going to level out at 450 ppm …. I hope we hit 550 ppm.  Who knows?”

In other words, the U.N. climate talks failed long ago, and what’s going on now in Durban is just a ghost dance.  This doesn’t mean we should give up trying to cut emissions. That’s still hugely important; in fact, you could say that the fate of civilization depends on it.  But happy talk about “infinite pathways” is just bullshit.  Nothing short of an all-out social or technological revolution (I hear engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Lab are making great progress on nuclear fusion …) is going to save us from crossing over into the realm of “dangerous” climate change in the near future.  The sooner we admit that – and the sooner we prepare for it with honest talk about the challenges of living on a hotter planet – the better. 


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