Climate Utopia

By Keith Kloor | June 1, 2011 12:05 pm

I’m confused. We have this news:

Worldwide carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels reached a record 30.6 billion metric tons in 2010, an international energy group reports.

And this admission:

The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius ““ which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” ““ is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

But utopia must remain our goal, reports the Guardian today:

The world should be aiming to limit global warming to just 1.5C instead of the weaker current target of 2C, the United Nations’ climate chief said on Wednesday.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told an audience of carbon traders: “Two degrees is not enough ““ we should be thinking of 1.5C. If we are not headed to 1.5 we are in big, big trouble.”

Big trouble. That’s what I tell my two beautiful boys when they won’t listen to me. If you don’t stop fighting, you’re both going to be in big trouble. (I always repeat the phrase for emphasis.) Big Trouble!

Of course, they don’t listen to me. That’s because I’m nothing like my father, who just had to look at me a certain way and I would pee down my leg. But that’s another story.

My point being, the world will not respond to empty threats. And since a dictator does not rule the planet, and the consequences from climate change will not be dire enough to command the world’s cooperation anytime soon, perhaps it’s time for a new approach.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Sorry Keith I don’t get what your problem is here.  To say that we’re in big trouble is simply the logical conclusion of our current understanding of climate science and our current emission path.

    What else is there to say? Or more specifically what else should the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC be saying?

  • Keith Kloor

    I’m looking for a reality check. The news from yesterday indicated that 2 degrees is not realistic–not by a long shot, given the trajectory.

    Today, though, we hear that we have to keep it under 2 degrees. So is Figueres just posturing, then? Just spouting meaningless rhetoric in the face of contrary facts? Maybe it’s me, but I don’t see a continuation of such rhetoric moving the ball.

  • Eric

    Agreed. The executive of the UNFCCC has to broker viable agreements that will garner consensus of the signatory nations and achieve positive outcomes with regard to GHG emissions. She must be in touch with the political reality as well as the environmental risk. Raising the bar even higher when we can’t even successfully get to the lowest bar is Bill Mckibben’s job, not Figueres’.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    What would you have her suggest? 4C? It seems to me that your larger beef may be with article 2 of the UNFCCC charter, which speaks to ‘dangerous interference’ not ‘realistically achievable minimum interference’.  IOW, what Figueres is really saying is that our current understanding of the science, and all its attendent uncertainties, suggests that the safe level of warming is lower than previously though, down from 2 to 1.5 C.

    FWIW, you might find this paper by Michael Oppenheimer on the origins of Article 2 to be of interest….

  • grypo

    “perhaps it’s time for a new approach.”

    This is a new approach.  2C has always been a dangerous number.  Just politically feasible.  it appears the smaller, poorer, and most-at-risk nations are taking control of the situation

  • Sashka

    As we were not impressed enough with the generals and urban planners, here’s another authority on climate: executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention. OMG!

    It’s not quite true that scientists say that 2C is a threshold. More precisely, some scientists say that. Without much basis, I have to add.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Three cheers for Sashka the Sophist Solipsist!!!

  • Eric

    Well, I have no idea what Figueres should suggest. Her job is looking more and more like a fool’s errand, especially in the years since the date on Oppenheimer’s paper (I’ll have a look at it). Also, I’m not sure that “the safe level of warming is lower than previously thought … down from 2 to 1.5 C” is necessarily consistent with the guidance she has received from the IPCC. Regardless, if the UNFCCC charter is forcing her to pursue a goal that is politically unachievable, then her job is by definition a fool’s errand

  • kdk33

    “told an audience of carbon traders”

    Perhaps tailoring the message for the audience.

    There won’t be any meaningful reductions in emissions in the foreseeable future.  So, given time-lags, non-linear responses, tipping points, collapsing continental ice sheets, and other such really scary stuff… we’re all in big trouble.

    or not.

  • Sashka

    Don’t forget to flush, Marlowe.

  • jeffn

    #5 ” it appears the smaller, poorer, and most-at-risk nations are taking control of the situation”
    Yes, this has been true ever since the big push to turn global warming “action” into a $30 billion slush fund for “poorer, and most-at-risk nations.”
    Funny, ain’t it, that the minute you offer to give somebody a big stack of cash, that somebody is very interested in seeing the process proceed. Of course, it could just be that poor nations have the best science departments.

  • harrywr2

    Keith Kloor Says:
    June 1st, 2011 at 12:16 pm
    <i>I’m looking for a reality check. The news from yesterday indicated that 2 degrees is not realistic”“not by a long shot, given the trajectory.</i>

    Steam coal on global markets has been rising 20%/annum for 8 years. Is continued burning of coal realistic giving the cost trajectory?
    Planning for new generating capacity commences 10 years prior to actual operation. The 2011 trajectory reflects the economics of 2001.

  • grypo

    I see I’ve inadvertently dug up a new possible skeptic meme.  “Poor nation’s scientists are making it all up!”  That’s all right, if we wait long enough, we won’t have to worry about it.  I’m sure sand wrapped in banana peels will be an effective adaption strategy to a problem they didn’t cause.

  • jeffn

    Riiight, that’s what I was saying. Wasn’t anything about the money.
    Walk me through how you see it working to hand billion of dollars for AGW “adaptation and mitigation”  to poor nations wracked with urgent problems of malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS?
    Ah yes, you’ll just start blaming every third world ill on climate change- no matter how weak or non-existent the linkage. So suddenly, the only way to get your cash from the UN is to play the warming game. And, remarkably, they do.

  • David Palmer

    Focussing on hypothetical 2 deg C or 1.5 deg C or 4 deg C is just so useless.

    If the concern over rising CO2 levels is of sufficient importance the focus ought to be on what technologies are there (being developed) to deliver low CO2 and affordable energy. At the present time all the projections on CO2 emissions are flat for the developed world and rising for the developing world. Whether we like it or not these nations intend doing for their people what we have done in the West. They will use the cheapest sources available. Solar and wind are not up to it, especially as their penetration increases exposing the need for back up gas fired turbines to make up for their intermittency.

    The issue is not forecasting temperature rises and peeing in our pants but what to do about bringing in low CO2 alternatives over time that can compete with fossil fuels. We all know the answer: nuclear in some form or other.

    And what are the Germans proposing: shutting down all their nuclear capacity within 10 years – how stupid is that? Guess whose carbon issues are set to increase!

  • Hector M.

    The idea that developing nations are behind the global warming orthodoxy is not quite right. I could be so for very small nations (such as some island countries that would supposedly be at risk of been flooded by a rising sea). But in more general terms, developing countries have for a long time opposed curtailment of emissions, in the name of their pursuit of economic progress. That is not only the position of China but also of Brazil, India and several other important players. Of course such countries are all in favor of conserving the environment and biodiversity, reducing urban pollution, and other environmental goals, but are loath to accept any stiff targets for emission reduction. After all it was this that brought down so far the possibility of having an agreement on a “Kyoto-2” protocol.

  • Jack Hughes

    We should aim for 2.4 degrees in the next 5-year plan.

  • grypo

    “Wasn’t anything about the money.”


    “Walk me through how you see it working to hand billion of dollars for AGW “adaptation and mitigation”  to poor nations wracked with urgent problems of malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS?”

    Without adapting to the changing climate, these problems ill be exacerbated.  And not all poor countries suffer from the same problems.  It will be up to the individual countries on how best to use this for adaption.   You could think of it like this.  We are screwing undeveloped countries.  We got rich by doing something that will keep them poor.  It’s an ethical question.  I believe, we in the west, have an obligation to right that wrong.

    “So suddenly, the only way to get your cash from the UN is to play the warming game. And, remarkably, they do.”

    So it is about the money then?  Which is it?


  • kdk33

    Undeveloped nations will get screwed when we restrict their access to low cost energy – to assuage the consciences of guilt-ridden-angst-filled-rich-white-folk.

  • grypo

    Ethics get more complicated than mere guilt.  It also has international reaction and consequence.  But who cares, right?

    Your point about low-cost energy restrictions is valid and not ignored.

  • jeffn

    “So it is about the money then?  Which is it?”
    Sarcasm is apparently unfamiliar to you, so I’ll explain. Many, but not all, “poor” nations want an immediate inflow of cash from other countries. At Copenhagen, a $30 billion inflow of cash was offered to “poor” countries under the stipulation that they agree to publicly blame all their woes – sickness, food shortages, etc – on large American cars. Many, many poor countries – knowing that their own corruption and failed policies were the true causes of their ills, were more than happy to sign onto that deal.
    Remarkably, that effort failed when nobody agreed to write the checks in Copenhagen. So, we have status quo from the 1980s when Hansen first went to Congress- the “climate concerned” aren’t concerned enough to accept the only viable alternative to coal so they play around with different ways to slap the word “climate” on all their old, failed, policy ideas- redistribution, higher taxes, international regulatory regimes, etc.

  • Jeff Norris

    Not only is it about the money but it is also about who is in charge.  As witnessed by the tremendous progress made in Mexico recently:)
    How is that respected diplomats can gather to work on a global problem of historic proportion and spend most of the time arguing who gets to hold the gavel and sit in the big chair.  Additionally one of the major sources of funding for the GCF seems to be in some jeopardy.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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