How the World Is Failing to Halt Climate Change

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

There are many, many reports out there breaking down in both complex and very simple terms the issue of climate change. They discuss the environmental protection measures necessary, such as the “carbon budget,” and what responsibilities the global community has taken on. Unfortunately, what most of these reports ultimately tell us is that we are headed for failure — not to put too fine a point on it. Some argue that the universally agreed upon goal of 2 degree Celsius, made in the Copenhagen Accord, was always overly ambitious, while others argue that it’s still obtainable, just at exorbitant costs. However, the reality of the situation is that one way or another, without extreme emission reduction it is likely to be surpassed.

The United Nation Intergovernmental Panel’s recently released its climate change report for policymakers for 2014, outlining the need for considerably greater emission controls and mitigating measures. Dr. John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, emphasized that it showed “even more compellingly than previous studies that the longer society waits to implement strong measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the more costly and difficult it will become to limit climate change to less than catastrophic levels.”

While his statement was made in conjunction with a list of positive actions undertaken by the Obama Administration over the last few years as well as encouragement for more action, it ultimately reflects the steep cuts needed, and to policymakers and nations, the steeper price of those cuts.

Richard S.J. Tol, Professor of the Economics of Climate Change, wrote an analysis of the scientific and political viability of the 2 degree limit, expressing doubt as to how realistic it is. “As emission abatement could cost many billions of dollars, the 2 degree Celsius target deserves serious discussion,” said Tol. “Unfortunately, the governments that support the 2 degree Celsius target are not prepared for such a discussion.” He goes on to suggest that the 2 degree is not justifiable based on cost-benefit analyses, despite what some NGO and governments may say, insisting that these studies ignore “contradictory results.” He suggest that the 2 degree limit could be more of a goal than a limit, or that it represents “a negotiation target,” or “an opening bid for international climate policy,” but emphasizes that the bid may be “too strong for other countries to engage in a dialogue over.”

This is perhaps a valid concern — if 2 degrees is not the answer, finding out what is may be a difficult road to start down. “At some point, scientists will have to declare that it’s game over for the 2 degree Celsius target,” said Oliver Geden, climate policy analyst with International Security Affairs, to Vox. “But they haven’t yet. Because nobody knows what will happen if they call this thing off.” Vox gives a simple yet rather depressing graph from a Sanford study demonstrating how dramatically emissions would need to decline, and showing projections that the earth is presently headed for a 4 degree height by 2050.

global warming


The graph is a more simplistic version of the one the IPCC gives below, which shows a similar trend in emissions going forward. The message is ultimately quite similar, and matches the sentiment of the IPCC’s report in 2007 — it’s possible to stay below emission and global temperature goals, but the cuts would need to be steep, steeper, and even steeper yet. This places governments under tighter time lines, and with greater expenses that would need to be distributed over that shorter time period.


Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

climate change

Collins, M., R. Knutti, J. Arblaster, J.-L. Dufresne, T. Fichefet, P. Friedlingstein, X. Gao, W.J. Gutowski, T. Johns, G. Krinner, M. Shongwe, C. Tebaldi, A.J. Weaver and M. Wehner, 2013: Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.

The World Resources Institute points out that this quick decrease is not only not a “safe bet,” but it may be impossible. “Betting our carbon budget on a fast decline in emissions later will not only be costly, but may be technologically unfeasible given the inertia in our energy system,” writes Kelly Levin, senior associate with WRI. The WRI gives us only around thirty more years before the global carbon budget is surpassed, accurately pointing out that “the planet’s overdraft fees will be much more significant than a bank’s small charges for bounced checks.” This basically reiterates what the IPCC, World Bank, and most other environmental and political groups are warning — that temperature increases will lead to major human impacts as well as their subsequent costs to economies and governments. These include drought, fire, and flooding due to rising sea levels, increased natural disasters, and major effects on the oceans.

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