By Robert A. Vella

The long-awaited U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP21) kicked off today in Paris with an obvious sense of urgency to take cooperative action on global warming.  However, the 150 world leaders attending the conference understand both the practical limitations of their proposals and the abject failures of past summits on climate.  They are approaching Paris with realistic determination, in my view.

Unfortunately, realistic determination probably won’t be sufficient to avoid a global catastrophe unprecedented in recorded human history, and one that might rival or exceed the Toba super-volcanic eruption of 75,000+/- years ago which geneticists have hypothesized as nearly wiping out the human race.

The Guardian’s addressed these points today in a report titled Paris climate talks: the real test is whether countries will keep their word:

At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 world leaders arrived at the end and could not save it from failure. In Paris, 150 leaders came at the beginning and were confident of success.

That is partly because the negotiators have reset what qualifies as a success – and not just to allow the leaders to pat themselves on the back. They decided that, counter-intuitively, they might achieve more by demanding less. But the new plan comes with a risk.

For more than 20 years, the world has been struggling to tackle climate change, worried about the cost of acting but always knowing it would cost unthinkably more to leave the problem unattended.

Now – in a deal to decide how far emissions are cut until 2030 – rather than horse-trading during the negotiations over what carbon cuts each country will offer, countries were allowed to pledge what they feel is a reasonable contribution to the accepted goal of limiting global warming to 2C.


But even though the mood was optimistic and the words were full of purpose, the attention of the 40,000 assembled officials and media drifted a bit when each leader got down to the details of exactly what their country was actually doing – even at the beginning when there were still plenty of them watching. And that’s the danger.

The pledges made so far will still result in global warming of at least 2.7 degrees, even if they are all met – much better than the 5C rise we might expect without action but still short of the 2C goal. Experience suggests there is a very big “if”, and negotiators have virtually given up on the idea that the pledges should be legally binding. Shirkers will face no real sanction, other than international opprobrium. And that means a system to check and report what each country does is critical.

But the rules for monitoring remain unfinished. The plans to regularly review and ratchet up the pledges to contain global warming to 2C or lower are not finalised either and will be critical. Developing countries argue they still need more finance. Those details matter.

Since the 2C threshold defines the difference between a civilization struggling to adapt to a warming Earth and a civilization unable to adapt, these voluntary pledges – which likely won’t prevent 2.7C of warming or higher – must be seen as an admission by the world’s leaders that humanity is in for a very, very rough ride ahead.

I do not utter this warning lightly, nor am I alone in issuing it.  Facts are facts, and reasonable extrapolations can be derived from them.  At least two distressing things are almost certain to happen by mid-century:  1) climate-caused food shortages will collide with population growth in a scenario too melancholy to envision, and 2) conflicts over land, water, and other natural resources will increase the prevalence and extent of destructive wars.

It’s a fair proposition to say that the Paris climate summit attendees are in a no-win situation.  But, that’s the hand that was dealt to them.  Do they do the right thing, the wrong thing, or do they play it safe and defer real action on climate change to their successors?