Climate Change: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?

Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU and National Ethical Service representative to the UN
Dr. Reba Goodman, member of ECSBC

The current election in the US is very important for many reasons. Climate change action is one of them. A major milestone was reached at the UN conference on climate in Paris during a two-week meeting in December 2015. The international conference, attended by 195 countries, marks the historic international acceptance of the risk of climate change. They negotiated an agreement to handle these risks.

The negotiations were difficult, as in past conferences, with the usual tensions between developed and underdeveloped countries. Poor countries claim, correctly, that they will suffer most from climate change—and that developed countries are responsible as they became rich using fossil fuels and should help poor countries cope with the effects. It comes down to who should do what and who should pay. The differences are being overcome since all realized the serious risks of not doing anything.

We are already experiencing the effects of climate change. The great ice sheets remain imperiled, the oceans are rising, forests and reefs are under stress, and there are heat waves and floods. The year 2015 was the hottest in recorded history. All ten of the hottest years in a global record stretching to 1880 have occurred since 1998.

Energy is fundamental to economic growth. Currently the cheapest way for poorer countries to grow is the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil. Unfortunately China and India are facing a huge air quality crisis because of their heavy use of coal.

Economic growth and the Industrial revolution took off in the west over 200 years ago. Two things powered it: innovation and the use of fossil fuels like coal. Fossil fueled growth has led to many gains in living standards. For example it has dramatically reduced the percentage of people in crushing poverty. In 1820, a time when living on the margins of subsistence was the norm the percentage of people in poverty throughout the world was an astounding 80 percent. During the same period life expectancy has also increased dramatically. For example, in 1913 life expectancy at birth, in the US, was only 52 years.

Poor countries also want and need the benefits of economic growth. The essential issues are how to have economic growth with clean sustainable technologies. Making this difficult worldwide transition is what is driving the climate change conferences.

What was agreed to in Paris?

  1. Goal of keeping the increase of global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level and pursue efforts to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  2. Pledge in reducing emissions was made by 187 countries. There also was a legal requirement to publicly monitor and report what they are doing.
  3. A flow of $100 billion a year was required from richer to poorer countries by 2020 to adapt to climate change.
  4. Schedule of regular review every five years with new reduction targets.

Problems and shortcomings:

  1. Country pledges, if kept, will still only keep the world temperature on course to increase by around 3 degrees Celsius with unforeseen consequences.
  2. Country pledges are voluntary and unenforceable.
  3. The $100 billion flow for mitigating climate change is not legally binding. Even if it were it could not be enforced.
  4. The deal has been viewed as a signal to global financial and energy markets leading to a shift away from investments in coal, oil and gas to carbon free energy alternatives. The strength of the signal will depend on whether governments will promote such investments while removing large tax breaks that favor fossil fuels. In the US, a report by Oil Change International calculates that Federal and State subsidies for fossil fuels in 2013 were $21.6 billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated $5.3 trillion in energy subsidies across the globe.
  5. Politics within countries will have major effects on the feasibilities of the pledges. In the current election cycle in the US climate change has not so far been a significant subject of debate. The Republican candidates do not take climate change seriously. For example, Ted Cruz thinks climate science is ‘a conspiracy’. To get a feeling of attitudes, in 1979 then president Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the white house. President Reagan removed them in 1986.

What can we hope for?
While the Paris agreement has weaknesses it nevertheless has created the precondition for global change action. There are three reasons for hope. Number one is that as the effects of climate change evolve countries may realize that financial and health costs are too high. An example is China where devastating pollution has changed its view toward reliance on coal.

A second reason is significant progress in renewable energy technology. A recent report by the investment firm Lazard states that the cost of electricity generated using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015.The cost of solar power fell 82 percent over the same time period. These costs are competitive with burning fossil fuels. Consumers may ask what happens if the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. This is becoming less important due to improvements in storage technology. The issue here is also very political with entrenched interests and the amounts in subsidies for fossil fuels versus renewables.

A third reason is that an increasing number of countries are imposing a carbon tax effectively putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions to encourage companies to adopt cleaner technologies. A carbon tax is also supported by an increasing number of conservatives who believe in free market solutions.