Pragmatic suicide

2009-04-09 00:00

“We want to be in [the new UN climate pact], we want to be pragmatic, we want to look at the science,” said Jonathan Pershing, the head of the United States delegation, during the talks on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Bonn last week. So how will the Barack Obama administration reconcile political “pragmatism” with the scientific realities? “There is a small window where they overlap. We hope to find it,” Pershing explained. But it doesn’t really exist.

Signing the U.S. up to the new climate treaty that will replace the Kyoto Accord in 2012 is essential. The 1997 Kyoto treaty was gutted to accommodate American objections, but even so Bill Clinton, who signed it, never dared to submit it to Congress. Then George W. Bush “unsigned” it.

A dozen wasted years later, the climate problem has grown hugely, so this time everybody else is determined that the U.S. must be aboard — and Obama also wants the U.S. to be part of the treaty. But we recently learnt what he thinks is “pragmatic”. It is that the U.S. should cut its emissions back to the 1990 level by 2020.

The Hadley Climate Centre in England, one of the world’s most respected sources of climate predictions, recently released a study showing that even rapid cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, turning the current one-percent annual growth into a three-percent annual decline within a few years, would still warm the world by 1,7 degrees Celsius by 2050.

That is dangerously near the two-degrees Celsius rise in average global temperature which is the point of no return. Further warming would trigger natural processes that release vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from melting permafrost and warming oceans. These processes, once begun, are unstoppable, and could make the planet four, five or six degrees hotter than it is now by the end of the century. At those temperatures, much of the planet turns to desert, and the remaining farmland, mostly in the high latitudes, can support at best 10% or 20% of the world’s current population. That is why the official policy of the European Union is never to exceed two degrees of warming.

The Obama administration’s offer falls far short of that goal. Under the Kyoto Accord the U.S. promised a seven-percent cut on 1990 emissions by 2012, but Bush abandoned that target and American emissions are now 16% above the 1990 level. Obama is only promising to get back down to the 1990 level over the next 11 years, and forget about the further cuts that the U.S. signed up to a dozen years ago.

Obama is clearly calculating how much he can get through Congress.

As Pershing said in Bonn, “If we set a target that is not meetable technically, or we can’t pass it politically, then we’re in the same position we are in now — where the world looks to us and we are out of the regime.”

But this isn’t an ordinary bill where you settle for what you can get through Congress after the usual horse-trading. If there’s going to be a 40-day flood, you either build an ark or you learn to breathe underwater. Building half an ark is not a useful option.

Obama’s offer means that the U.S. would be cutting its emissions not by three percent annually, the minimum global target if we hope to avoid more than two degrees of warming, but by only half that amount. In the long term, it leads inexorably to disaster.

Most other industrialised countries are on track to meet or exceed their modest Kyoto targets. Britain and Germany will both be 20% below their 1990 emissions level by 2012, and Germany is promising 40% cuts by 2020. The European Union as a whole promises a 20% cut by 2020, but will go up to 30% if other industrial countries do the same.

Even that would barely meet the annual three-percent cut in emissions we need if we are not to sail through the two-degree point of no return and trigger runaway warming. And we have yet to figure out how to bring the rapidly developing countries into the regime, for their emissions, although starting from a low base, are growing very fast.

We are in deep trouble, and “pragmatism” will not save us.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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