By George B. Kauffman
On Sept. 21, 2014, more than 400,000 people attended the People’s Climate March in New York City, two days before 120 world leaders, including President Barack Obama, but not including China and India, debated actions on carbon pollution at the UN Climate Summit also held in the “Big Apple.” It was the largest climate march in history, much larger than the 40,000 Forward on Climate rally held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17, 2013, which preceded a march to the White House to urge President Obama to take action against climate change and to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
On Nov. 14, the Republican-led lame duck session of the House of Representatives voted (252 to 161) for the ninth time to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Senate was poised to vote on the measure the following week in an effort to boost oil- and gas-drilling advocate Senator Mary Landrieu’s (D–La.) reelection chances. On Nov. 14, in Myanmar, President Obama told reporters that he “won’t budge” on his position until a Keystone review process, including the State Department, has run its course. As Yogi Berra once cogently observed, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
On the People’s Climate March, high-profile environmentalists including Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall and Vandana Shiva marched alongside policymakers such as Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D–R.I.) and Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President 2007 Nobel Peace laureate Al Gore, and NYC Mayor Bill Di Blasio were also there, and more than 550 buses carried in people from around the country. The march was joined in solidarity across the globe from Paris to Papua New Guinea.
On Nov. 2, a report released in Copenhagen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concluded, “In the starkest terms ever used, the scientific community is looking world leaders directly in the eye and demanding that they wake up. We must reduce global carbon emissions and we must do it now.” The final summary report from the world’s top climate scientists underscores three major facts about climate change:
• It’s man-made and already having dangerous impacts across the globe.
• If the world community acts now, warming can still be kept below the politically agreed upon “safe” limit of 2 degrees Celsius.
• The ability to secure a safe climate future is not only possible but also economically viable.
In a statement following the report’s release, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “The silver lining to the report is that it recognizes clean energy climate solutions are affordable and ready to deploy. We do not need any more reports. We need action. The alarm bells ringing from the streets of New York to the halls of the U.N. are too loud to sleep through, and time is of the essence.”
The Synthesis Report, the last installment of the UN body’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), builds on a series of recent IPCC reports that have been released over the last 12 months and have detailed the science, impacts and solutions for climate change. It should provide a foundation for international negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Paris next year. The report states decisively that global warming is “unequivocal” and that humanity’s role in causing it is “clear,” adding that recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history with “widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”
Furthermore, the scientists warn that without “substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it is likely that heat waves and extreme precipitation events will become more frequent and intense, that the ocean will continue to warm and acidify, while the global mean sea level will also continue to rise. Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
The IPCC report also notes that human populations in developing countries “that lack the resources for planned migration” will likely experience “higher exposure to extreme weather events.” Climate change impacts are projected to “make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.”
Despite these dire warnings, the report stated that such a fate can be mitigated if the world community can commit to dramatic carbon reduction so that global greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2020 and fall to zero later in this century. Climate campaigners welcomed the report, agreeing that the only way to reach such a goal is with reduced consumption coupled with a complete switch to renewable energy.
In a statement ahead of the report’s release, Senator Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) said, “The scientific community across the world is sounding the alarm. Climate change is real and it will have devastating consequences around the globe unless we act boldly and decisively.”
One key aspect on which the IPCC and leading environmental groups differ is the UN panel’s promotion of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which permits the continued use of fossil fuels by burying carbon underground, as a recommendation for curbing global emissions. According to Greenpeace Nordic Climate Policy Advisor Kaisa Kosonen, “Using any technology which ‘handles’ emissions rather than replaces fossil fuels is like smoking crack to solve an alcohol addiction.”
The panel concluded that both adaptation and mitigation are essential to manage the risks of climate change and that only with “cooperative responses, including international cooperation,” can we effectively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and address the already-present global warming impacts. Emission cuts coupled with adaptation measures “raise issues of equity, justice and fairness. The evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective [international] cooperation.” Governments of the world’s richest countries have faced harsh criticism at recent international climate meetings for their failure to recognize and address their outsized role in contributing to global carbon emissions.
As leading environmentalists note, this politically sanctioned report leaves little room for leading governments, namely the United States, to avoid taking direct action. According to 350.org Executive Director May Boeve, “The U.S. played a leading role in shaping this report, which says we must stop developing unconventional fossil fuel reserves like tar sands.” She said that it would be “deeply hypocritical” if the U.S. government now should continue to develop fossil fuel infrastructure, for instance, “a carbon bomb like Keystone XL.”
Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists director of strategy and policy and a 20-year veteran of UN climate talks, stated, “The scientists have done their job and then some. The risks are clear. Politicians can either dramatically reduce emissions or they can spend the rest of their careers running from climate disaster to climate disaster.”
As IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said in an opening statement on Nov. 3, “A great deal of work and tall hurdles lie ahead. But it can be done. We still have time to build a better, more sustainable world. We still have time to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change, but we have precious little of that time.”
Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and a principal author of the new report, said that a continuation of the political paralysis on emissions would leave society depending largely on luck: “If the level of greenhouse gases were to continue rising at a rapid pace over the coming decades, severe effects would be avoided only if the climate turned out to be far less sensitive to those gases than most scientists think likely. We’ve seen many governments delay and delay and delay on implementing comprehensive emissions cuts so the need for a lot of luck looms larger and larger. Personally, I think it’s a slim reed to lean on for the fate of the planet.”
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.