Editorial: Future history of our planet now being written in Paris



Last modified: Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The year 2015 will be the hottest on Earth. Even with a month to go, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report reached that finding recently, regardless of December temperatures around the world.

Last year, when world governments met in New York for a climate summit, they did so in the hottest year to date. As temperatures rise, so does the risk that all the scientific knowledge in the world won’t be enough to reverse the damage greenhouse gases are doing to the planet.

Researchers say global temperatures have risen an average of 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the industrial age. To prevent catastrophic changes in climate, experts say that average temperature must climb no more than another 1.7 degrees in the decades ahead — meaning the quest to avoid sea level rise, devastating storms, prolonged droughts and food shortages is already half lost.

Now, representatives of nearly 200 nations gathered in Paris will work for two weeks to make something important in this great capital, where echoes of the Nov. 13 terror attacks reverberate. People around the globe are waiting for good news, including the hundreds who turned out at Sunday marches and rallies here in the Valley.

With growing acceptance of the threat climate change poses, it seems at least possible that a landmark agreement could be reached in the City of Light to limit carbon releases.

Even so, after 20 years of annual climate summits convened by the U.N., it is disheartening that the world is poised to take only the first real step against a problem scientists say is now close to irreversible. French President Francois Hollande, leader of a country that’s seen great hardship in the past century, said Monday the stakes for the world have never been so high.

What optimism there is stems from the fact that leaders of both the United States and China arrived in Paris having stated a willingness at long last to rein in carbon releases. The U.S. pledges that by 2025 it will cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent from 2005 levels. China says it will create a cap-and-trade system to limit industrial emissions by 2017 and vows that overall emissions will begin to fall no later than 2030.

But this is the third time nations have taken a run at this. In Kyoto in 1997, some of the largest economies received binding targets on cutting carbon releases, but India and China were not among them. President Clinton, knowing the treaty would fail, never sent it to the Senate for ratification. In Copenhagen in 2009, a new pact failed to get the unanimous approval required in U.N. proceedings.

This time, the conference will use international peer pressure rather than a treaty that could not pass the GOP-dominated U.S. Senate. Nearly all nations in Paris have committed to enacting policies to reduce emissions. But any deal faces the risk that one nation — Malaysia, say, or Sudan or Saudi Arabia — will say no.

Even if agreement is reached, pledges to date do not fix the warming problem. They would only blunt its worst impact, according to an analysis cited in the New York Times. If all the pledges on the bargaining table in Paris were withdrawn, global temperatures would rise 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. With those same pledges, according to experts, temperatures would still climb over 6 degrees — and that’s much more than the 3.6-degree increase countries agreed in 2010 should be the maximum.

The goal in Paris shared by responsible nations seems to be to get a deal of any kind and then keep working to make it better, as the odds of staving off disaster worsen. And so a bleak picture remains so. Even a landmark agreement could someday be seen as just another failure. A deal in Paris gives the planet a fighting chance, but only that.




 


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