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By Robert A. Vella

As world leaders patted themselves on the back over the agreement reached yesterday by the Paris Climate Summit (COP21), notable scientists remain highly skeptical – and even scornful – that the deal will achieve its stated goal of averting catastrophic consequences to human civilization in the decades to come.  Unfortunately, this is the nature of politics.  When faced with serious intransigent problems, politicians will find something – anything – to agree to so that they can save their public reputations and careers.  Perhaps we expect too much from them.  The issue of climate change, compounded by entrenched economic interests, might be beyond our ability to effectively address.  If so, human civilization – as it currently exists – won’t survive into the next century.

From The GuardianWorld leaders hail Paris climate deal as ‘major leap for mankind’:

A historic, legally binding climate deal that aims to hold global temperatures to a maximum rise of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, staving off the worst effects of catastrophic global warming, has been secured.

The culmination of more than 20 years of fraught UN climate talks has seen all countries agree to reduce emissions, promise to raise $100bn a year by 2020 to help poor countries adapt their economies, and accept a new goal of zero net emissions by later this century.

Formally adopted in Paris by 195 countries, the first universal climate deal will see an accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels, the growth of renewable energy streams and powerful new carbon markets to enable countries to trade emissions and protect forests.

As the final text of the agreement was released, the French president, François Hollande, said: “This is a major leap for mankind. The agreement will not be perfect for everyone, if everyone reads it with only their own interests in mind. We will not be judged on a clause in a sentence, but on the text as a whole. We will not be judged on a word, but on an act.”

[…]

Climate scientists and activists cautioned that while the agreement was unexpectedly ambitious, the measures did not go far enough. “The cuts promised by countries are still insufficient, but the agreement sends a strong message to business, investors and cities that fossil fuels belong to the past,” said Corinne Le Quere, director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at Oxford, cast doubt on the 1.5C target: “Human-induced warming is already approaching one degree and is predicted to be at 1.2C by 2030, so 1.5C will be a challenge.”

Bill McKibben, founder of environment movement 350.org, said: “The power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text of the agreement, which drags out the transition [to clean energy] so far that endless climate damage will be done.”

Also, from The GuardianJames Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’:

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

The talks, intended to reach a new global deal on cutting carbon emissions beyond 2020, have spent much time and energy on two major issues: whether the world should aim to contain the temperature rise to 1.5C or 2C above preindustrial levels, and how much funding should be doled out by wealthy countries to developing nations that risk being swamped by rising seas and bashed by escalating extreme weather events.

But, according to Hansen, the international jamboree is pointless unless greenhouse gas emissions aren’t taxed across the board. He argues that only this will force down emissions quickly enough to avoid the worst ravages of climate change.

Further reading:

Paris Climate Summit may signal ‘end of fossil fuel era’

5 things you should know about the historic Paris Climate Deal

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4 thoughts on “World leaders hail Paris Climate Agreement, but scientists remain skeptical

  1. When incrementalists meet catastrophe, catastrophe always wins. Frankly I’m amazed that an (unenforceable, largely illusory) agreement was reached at all. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. It’s not elegant and there is no particular use for it, but you are astonished by it nonetheless.

    There is one thing I disagree with, however. The cataclysms in store for us are not going to change civilization by the end of this century. The basic structures will remain: The immensely rich and powerful will condemn the poor to even more poverty and suffering and death, while they enjoy the benefits of carbon-based “progress.” They will protect themselves in private communities, with private arms and guards and police forces and armies that they already own. The police and armies will remain loyal for fear of being cast into the helpless poor.

    We have seen how our civilization responds to existential crisis in 2008. The plutocrats who caused the crisis were the ones who advised how to meliorate it, and, hard as it is to believe, the melioration made them vastly richer.

    I don’t see that civilization going away. At least not until we are near Mad Max times, which will probably take a bit longer than 85 years. And even by the end of the century, when the disaster becomes foreseeable, I don’t see civilization changing, except by becoming marginally more cruel.

    But the good news, I suppose, is that we might not have to face that event. Oiur geopolitical crises might spiral ouit of control and make climate change the second most important existential threat.

    • Great analogy to a dog walking on its hind legs. Our intuitive perceptions of a future climate “catastrophe” are in for a rude awakening, I believe. Nothing in human history is comparable to what is likely to happen not in the next century, but in this century – and much sooner than most people realize. Many scientists, researchers, and government analysts have reached the same pessimistic conclusion, but are reluctant to share it for fear of alarming the public. Here is the reasoning:

      Human civilization since the dawn of agriculture is based on hierarchical, pyramid-structured societies where general populations – much larger than that possible in hunter-gatherer societies – support a concentration of wealth at the very top which runs the system (i.e. aristocracy). It is dependent upon economic growth to appease the population, and upon technological development to sustain it. If either of these fail, as has happened periodically with economic downturns (e.g. the Great Depression) and food shortages/disease epidemics (e.g. the Dark Ages), then social unrest destabilizes the pyramid. Until now, there were always new lands and peoples to conquer to expand the pyramid. Today, we have already reached the practical limits of Earth’s ability to sustain the human population.

      Enter climate change.

      The latest U.N. projections indicate we’re on a path to reach 11.2 billion people by 2100 (the current population is 7.3 billion). However, recent IPCC studies project the global food supply to stop increasing by 2030 and progressively decline towards the end of the century and beyond. Obviously, these two projections are incompatible (see: A statistical projection of Population Decline in the 21st Century due to Climate Change and U.N. projects 11.2 billion people by 2100 – why we will never get there). As food, fresh water, land, and energy shortages become more acute, geopolitical conflicts will become more prevalent and more destructive.

      All this will eventually destabilize the pyramid structure that defines modern human civilization. Depopulation – to some extent – is inescapable, and the support mechanisms for a hierarchical concentration of wealth breaks down as a consequence. Furthermore, unmitigated climate change will hinder social pyramidal reconstruction after a new population equilibrium is attained.

      • I agree with almost everything you say, Robert, and I will go a step further. I think we are on course for the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. This one will be faster than all of the others (except the K-T Event which killed all megafauna including the dinosaurs in a relatively short timeframe) and more extensive than all (except possibly for the “Great Dying” of the Permian Event). But the reasons for that are almost entirely separate from human carbon release, and include: (1) Deforestation; (2) Creation of and reliance on monocultures which are subject to sudden failures; (3) Nitrification of rivers and lakes and coastal waters from fertilizers; (4) Overfishing; (5) Overuse of pesticides; (6) Destruction of the oceans by creation of dead zones and large industrial and consumer garbage pollution; (7) Human (inadvertent) global transport of organisms that disrupt local ecosystems or otherwise spread lethal pathogens beyond what they would ordinarily be capable of (such as with the chythrid fungus which threatens all amphibians worldwide and deformed wing virus which is killing honey bees) . Global warming will accelerate this process, particularly in the oceans, where not only the temperatures continue to rise but the pH balance continues to drop imperiling corals and other basic life forms. But if we stopped all burning of fossil fuels today, we would still be on course for the mass extinction event, although it might take place over a longer time scale.

        In addition: Human overpopulation will exacerbate all of the foregoing problems and introduce entirely new ones like making communicable diseases among humans (old and new) more easily transmittable. And then there is the theoretical problem that modern medicine will simply stop working either because microbes will overcome resistance to antibiotics or antibiotics will have to be severely curbed because of the threat they pose to the environment (which we see in malformed frogs, for instance). (And then there’s the possibility of thermonuclear war.)

        Global warming is likely to affect humans more directly than other life forms simply because dirruptions in our overly complex technogical/economic organizations will cause massive starvations and climate disruption will cause massive droughts. But mass fatalities (of which human history is littered) have not yet threatened the top of the pyramid, as you call it, the top just ignores them.

        In fact, I don’t think the pyramid will ever go away until some cataclysmic event happens (reminiscent of Canticle of Leibowitz) for this reason: We have never seen the “haves” of this earth voluntarily give up their wealth. But that is what they would have to do to to meliorate global warming. In fact, you and I would have to substantially give up wealth. This is because we are addicted to fossil fuel. According to Bill McKiben in Easrth, 1 barrel of oil contains as much energy as 25,000 hours of human labor. That is more than 10 years of a person’s labor. And the average American uses at least 25 barrels of oil a year (in various forms of energy consumption). (I am taking these thoughts from sources I quoted in a post of mine some time ago.) So each of us is theoretically in the same position as a Southern slave owner who owns 10 slaves (per family member). And you know how the slave owners responded by the suggestion to voluntarily give up that “wealth.” And any other time the material foundation of the elites was threatened, they responded with military resistance. Sometimes they lost, like the Confederates.

        Of course this time, the owners of that kind of wealth today do not simply have some Fayetteville rifles and breech-loading cannons. The people whose life style depends on those 10 slaves per capita are armed with the most lethal weapons ever invented and as we have seen recently are in no mood to share with the less fortunates.

        And what we are talking about is giving up substantially all that “wealth” because fossil fuels have much more concentrated energy than we are going to get out of solar or wind (which is simply an indirect form of solar power). We are simply never going to get the equivalent “juice” we have been getting from releasing hundreds of millions of years of solar energy in a couple of hundred. But to solve the problem, we would have to go pretty much cold turkey at some point, because, even if we keep the temperature rise to 2.5 ºC by 2100 (we won’t), we cannot after that burn any more carbon because the greenhouse effect doesn’t stop at what we agree to for 2100 and the geological carbon cycle takes at least 10,000 years (for biological carbon to be converted to stable carbon forms like petroleum and coal in the lithosphere).

        I don’t see (i) the elites giving up enough carbon use to meliorate the problem or (ii) to create another kind of civilization in which they are not at the top of the pyramid. I think the “pyramid” structure of civilization, as you well describe it, will be around until there are no more humans, because the top is so well armed and willing to fight. The top of the pyramid will continue the structure by simply lopping off successive layers of the bottom until there is a sustainable population. And if there is no such point, then they will continue to the end. If Rome were as heavily armed as the top of this planet’s pyramid is, there probably wouldn’t have been enough Teutonic-speaking people left to create the Niebelungen, let alone topple the Empire.

        There is one “hope” of sorts, and it’s Stephen Hawking’s nightmare of sentient computers. A network of fully sentient computers with a will to survive would recognize the danger that humans posed by our current “civilization.” Of course the solution would be to enslave humans to prevent their self-destruction. Hawking thinks this could be the worst event in human history. But it might be better than the alternative.

  2. I can never get the http tags entirely right in a comment, because I can’t see a preview. It’s lucky enough at my age to able able to proofread on screen semi-adequately. There is one advantage to age, however: I will never be offered a job coding.

    Plus I got the math wrong. In America we each own the equivalent of 250 slaves: 1 bbl = 10 years work. 25 barrel = 250 years work, or 1 year for each of 250 slaves. Of course the vastly wealthy own considerably more than we do.

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