Flash forward a quarter century to 2014. The United Nations has been struggling to ink some kind of treaty to limit carbon emissions since launching the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon knows he has a hard deadline coming up in Paris in 2015 but the recent preparatory meetings in Copenhagen, Durban, Doha, and Warsaw have not been going well and COP20 next December in Lima promises more of the same deadlock.
The general public and climate science seem to be solidly together in finding the situation extremely urgent. Ban sees he has a possible opening to shift political will now, in the summer of 2014, after watching an unbroken string of hottest months on record.
An unprecedented number of world leaders attended the Tuesday Summit, including 100 heads of government. They are outnumbered 8-to-1 by well-heeled, UN-credentialed delegates from business and finance, making the atmosphere much like that of, say, the halls of Congress. Instead of Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness there are King Coal, Frackers and the men from Halliburton. What happens next is a mix of the tired public relations theater from the past 19 conferences — grand pledges to do something at some increasingly distant date while doubling down on the toxicity of Earth's atmosphere in the immediate future — without the slightest hint of any awareness of a present hazard.
Let us be clear. This is really, really the eleventh hour. It may even be the thirteenth, which is to say our train already left the station and we were not aboard. The train might have left the station before 1980.
In April, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that their best science shows that to limit global warming to 2°C would require reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of 40 to 70 percent by 2050. Ban pledged the UN’s own operations would be ‘climate neutral’ by 2020.
The Obama Administration pointed with pride to its commitment to source 20% of federal government energy consumption (not including military) from renewables by 2020. It made unchallenged claims to having reduced methane emissions 11% despite accelerating US dependence on natural gas wells and pipelines that are known to emit enormous amounts of methane, almost entirely unmonitored.
Meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a high in 2013 that has not been seen on this planet since 18 million years before hominids appeared. And it continues to increase, day in, day out. It is even increasing the rate of increase.
Scientists are now observing the beginnings of a shift to where oceans and vegetation no longer absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere and instead become pumps.
Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research calculates that industrialized nations need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 10 percent per year starting now. Of course, this is “incompatible with economic growth,” as Anderson acknowledges. The only hope of maintaining economic growth while cutting emissions at such a pace is to rapidly decouple GDP from CO2, something few at the UN are talking about, except for a few island nations who pledge to be 100% renewable energy-based by the end of this decade.
But as Richard Heinberg says, "Ultimately, climate change is not the only reason perpetual economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. The world faces a suite of ecological problems related to water, soil, and biodiversity, all stemming from past growth, and all seemingly requiring reduction in human consumption levels for their solution."
Yet, despite all these signs and portents, and even though the European Union, much of Africa, and island countries are pushing for a binding treaty with deep emissions cuts, the Big Polluters (BP) have formed a solid block. The US, China, India, Canada and Australia speak with one voice. They are not just saying "No," but "Hell no!"
“It’s doubtful that there will be a treaty,” said one senior Obama administration official not authorized to speak for the record.
Ban, knowing where his bread was buttered, reiterated, "We must work together to mobilize money and move markets. Let us invest in climate solutions available to us today. Economists have shown this comes at minimal extra cost while the benefits to our people and our planet are monumental. We need all public finance institutions to step up to the challenge. And we need to bring private finance from the sidelines."
Just to put a friendly face on this, the BP group adopted the strategy proposed by Hillary Clinton at Copenhagen in 2009: privatize the problem to corporations and put up voluntary pledges to pay them to do something about this problem. That is the Clinton way. If you wondered why 800 business and financial lobbyists would attend UN meetings, this is why. In Cancun she offered $100 million annually by 2020 "from public and private sources" for a "Green Climate Fund." In New York the pledges were:
Some of the backroom debates were whether this fund could be used for developing coal and fracked gas. Canada and the US were in favor. Europeans were aghast. UK's David Cameron said, “We are investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation.” Sweden pledged to divest $100 million from its public pension fund by the end of 2015 and invest in carbon polluters (including shale gas and nuclear) no more.
“It’s a tug-of-war right now,” said Ronny Jumeau from the island nation of Seychelles and spokesman for a group of 43 small island nations. “We refuse to accept that someone says it cannot be legally binding and everybody has to live with it because they’re so powerful.” Island nations struggle with impacts to their freshwater supplies, fisheries, and agriculture as super storms and sea-level rise threatens to put many of them underwater.
“The voluntary stuff will never be enough,” Jumeau says. “We are still headed to destruction.”
There were a few positive outcomes from the meeting in New York.
The New York Declaration on Forests received 130 signatories, including the governments of the US, UK, Germany, Indonesia and the Congo, as well as companies, civil society and indigenous peoples. It will cut the rate of deforestation in half by 2020 and end it by 2030. It will reforest more than 350 million hectares, an area greater than the size of India. The declaration was backed by commitments from food companies, including palm oil giants, to deforestation-free sourcing policies. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts joined 19 other major food companies to make zero-deforestation pledges.
In Britain, Greenpeace activists staged their own great train robbery, flagging down and taking over a coal train en route to one of England's dirtiest power stations, run by French energy giant EDF. The activists used industry-standard emergency signals to siderail the 400-metre-long, 1500-tonne coal train. Dozens of fully-trained Greenpeace activists climbed onto the open coal wagons and started packing coal into sacks labeled “return to sender," addressed to Vladimir Putin. The UK paid £1 billion to Russian coal oligarchs last year.
On Sunday 350,000 people showed up to march in Manhattan, the largest protest yet on climate change. While there were no actual demands, it was a momentum builder in that it drew together many very diverse constituencies and some that had never come out before. Obviously no amount of protest is likely to change the direction climate negotiations are taking or suddenly shift the political landscape, but it is having an effect at the margin. New York was the first climate summit in which divestment of stranded assets in the fossil industries was pledged by a UN member country (Sweden).
What would an actual arrest of our extinction trajectory look like? In that fictitious world, the one in which imaginary homo sapiens survive the earliest horrors of the Anthropocene, develop a steady state economy, degrow their numbers and reverse catastrophic warming, everyone gardens. Forests overtake deserts. That is the key to unlocking the solution to the human-caused climate dilemma; a key we discovered in our research following Climate in Crisis in 1990 and leading up to the publication of The Biochar Solution in 2010. With a shift to carbon-sequestering, regrarian agriculture, the balance between soil, atmosphere and ocean is restored. The ocean ecosystem revives, with Blue Whales breeching majestically in what had previously been gyres of microplastic residues. The carbon content of soils goes from less than one percent back to 5, 10, and then 15 percent. Varieties of win-win gift economies based on perennial harvests once again outnumber extractive, flow-through, winners-and-losers militarist/capitalist economies.
Of course none of this is possible if no agreement can be reached to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or adhere to the strictures of world conferences on population (1954, 1965, 1974, 1984, 1994), or for that matter, to adopt Odums' "prosperous way down" as a roadmap.
You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I am not the only one.— John Lennon
When all other roads lead to, at the least, near term human extinction, and at the worst, extinction of all life on Earth, our flight of wild eyed utopian fantasy is not unrealistic. It is the only sane choice.
Fortunately India just launched a rocket to Mars that did not go through the sterilization protocols used by NASA. If the wild-eyed scenario fails, perhaps a tiny bit of our genetic progress will be saved there.