(Lima, Peru—29 November 2014) Thursday was Thanksgiving in the USA, but turkey wasn’t gracing holiday tables in Lima, Peru. I am headed for a midafternoon dinner of Sancochado, little-known outside South America but greatly prized within. The Andes foothills, their more distant peaks obscured by smog, rise sharply to the east. The high gray ruins of the Inca city of Macchu Picchu are to our southeast, the Amazon rainforest—lightly laced with nascent roads—on the northeast. The Pacific ceaselessly strokes Peru’s western shore, its distance from the city center masking waterline deposits of plastics. But then, we’re not here for the scenery.
In the coming fortnight, Lima’s population will swell by 12,000 visitors from 195 nations, almost every country on earth. These pilgrims meet annually to bicker and bargain over the fate of a world struggling with sudden, massive climate change. Over the past 32 years, since the first international climate pact in Rio de Janeiro, national representatives have hammered out brilliant, but often cumbersome and occasionally farcical agreements on the nature, common threat, and anthropogenicity of climate change. They have finally also begun to devise ways of forestalling, mitigating, and adapting to it.
Each year, the challenges become more acute. A landmark date was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement 17 years ago that committed all parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduction of carbon emissions and singled out binding targets for 37 industrialized countries as of 2005.
The final result was flawed because the Senate of the United States, then the largest greenhouse gas emitter, passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution 97-0, stopping American Kyoto participation in its tracks. The resolution reversed the declared US role because the administration and conservative congresspeople believed that it favored developing nations such as China and India unduly. The resolution stated that adopting the protocol “would cause serious harm to the US economy.” In reality, the policy reversal benefited only the US fossil fuel industry and its supporters in the administration and the Republicans in Congress. With the largest world emitter out of the Protocol, worldwide hopes for handling climate change dimmed.
Fast-forward to 2014. The world economy has improved. President Barack Obama has not only accepted the science of client change, he has also set the nation on a path toward planning for it in earnest. The country remains divided, thanks to both a general inward focus and lack of interest in international affairs and a public disinformation campaign wielded by moneyed fossil fuel interests and myopic politicians. The evidence of human-caused climate change has increased, the world’s national governments have begun to act on it, costs of renewable energy have plummeted, and progress has been made in implementing climate actions on local, commercial, and some industrial levels.
Enter the long-awaited and decisive international Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The UNFCCC’s Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had begun to assemble it in October 2009. Between September 2013 through April 2014, working groups of the world’s top scientists, climate policy advisors, and economists researched these three subjects:
- The physical science of climate change,
- Impacts, adaptations, and vulnerability, and
- Possible mitigation measures.
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, presented the group’s final synthesis less than a month ago. Its conclusions:
- Evidence of a substantial human contribution to climate change is irrefutable.
- Restricting global warming to 2ºC is still practical and affordable.
- Costs of renewable energy have fallen since the technologies’ slow start.
- Deforestation has partly slowed or reversed due to the UN’s REDD+ emissions trading program.
- Other investments by developed countries have moved climate mitigation forward, very importantly with practically no impacts on global economic growth.
- Perhaps most significant, experience has shown that continuing to invest in long-lived and capital-intensive fossil fuel infrastructure could lock us into an emissions pathway that would prove harmful or even deadly.
The IPCC reports offer the most thorough compilation available anywhere of current world environments, recent climate science, industrial forcing, and future scenarios. Many independent national, nongovernmental, and academic studies this year echo the findings. In the US, the Third National Climate Assessment, released in May, confirmed that climate change is affecting all Americans and weakening key sectors of the national economy.
The complete text of the report is unavailable online without completion of a “security check” that requires a sign-in from everyone who attempts to access the document, which was publicly funded. Such a procedure is not required for most government reports and will deter many people from reading it.
Warmer and more furious weather creeps toward the poles. Sea levels rise. Rain and snow patterns become less predictable and more intense. Glaciers and polar ice diminish. Wildfires defy containment. Droughts persist. Once-friendly gases turn earth’s light atmospheric blanket into a suffocating quilt of greenhouse gas.
The more our human activity disrupts the climate, the greater the risks become. Over the past 50 years, human activity has had tangible and measurable negative effects. As the IPCC noted this fall, in no uncertain terms:
The final report states that the scientific case is irrefutable and action is needed immediately…. Agreement becomes more important every day in the face of conflicting national priorities and escalating climate changes.
Every government in the world has had an opportunity to review and comment on the IPCC’s draft. Despite temporizing from some, and absolute denial from those with deep investments in or a clinging fondness for the status quo (e.g., driven capitalists, their political hangers-on, and many influential clerics as well), the scientific community has now reached a virtual consensus (97%) on both the inevitability of change and the pressing need to do something about it.
World awareness and apprehension grows each time a new study is published. More and more, our efforts have begun to focus not on the existence of the problem, but on ways to mitigate it and adjust human lifestyles accordingly. In the end, the much-argued causes of global climate change hardly matter.
What does matter is readiness for the inevitable. From the fossil record, humans have outlasted past ice ages and their warmer interludes for hundreds of thousands of years. However, an expanding quest for energy and technology seems to have usurped our traditional devotion to maintaining an environment once deified by man.