An essay by Jan W. Dash, UU-UNO Climate Initiative Chair
The Durban Climate Conference (COP17), deadlocked, ran overtime with contentious debate. Youth spoke passionately about how climate change would affect them. Finally, all 194 countries pproved a compromise “Durban Platform”. The Durban Platform calls for a legally binding climate agreement to be formulated by 2015 and ratified by all countries by 2020. Developed and developing countries are to be on the same footing for greenhouse gases emission reductions. Progress occurred for the framework of a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change, the Kyoto Protocol was extended, and agreement was reached on other issues. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the deal represents “an important advance in our work on climate change.”
But is the Durban Platform a success or a failure? The answer is neither. The underlying problem is that human consumption of cheap fossil fuels enabled the development of modern society, but also produced the greenhouse gases (mostly CO2) resulting in global warming and increasingly severe climate change impacts. Developed countries used the most fossil fuels historically and so are responsible for most existing greenhouse gases (the point developing countries make), developing countries like China and India are rapidly increasing consumption of fossil fuels (the point developed countries make), but science says the planet’s atmosphere now contains nearly or possibly more than critical amounts of greenhouse gases – so fossil fuel consumption cannot long continue by anybody if we are to avoid disaster. Only a compromise was possible. The Durban Platform is not a success because it just outlines intent, but there was no failure. A real failure would have been no agreement at all, with a breakdown in the entire process of trying to deal with the underlying problem.
Climate impacts are occurring now and are becoming more severe, but these impacts are only a faint rumbling of the much more severe impacts our grandchildren will experience if we do not hold greenhouse gases concentrations below the levels that science tells us are needed. The goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C adopted at Copenhagen and Cancun will probably not be possible with the voluntary efforts announced so far, and will be made much more problematic with delay. We are already seeing possible climate impacts with California wildfires, Texas drought, and increased hurricane intensity. Future disasters, far worse if we do not act quickly enough and thoroughly enough, will by 2100 probably include meters of sea level rise with flooding, greatly increased disease, increased drought and water shortages, decreased crop yields and food shortages, increased extreme weather, increased military conflicts over resources, mass climate-induced migrations, the possible breakdown of economic and political systems, and mass species extinctions.
The elephant in the room is this question: Can the Durban Platform lead to success through the sensible climate risk management needed to avoid increasingly severe climate impacts? The answer to the question is that we do not know. The answer depends on what we do. Effective mitigation and adaptation risk-management efforts will be difficult and costly, to be sure, but the costs of future disastrous climate impacts if we do not act sufficiently will likely be far greater. There are indeed uncertainties in these impacts (largely due to uncertainties in human behavior, not the climate models). But since risk increases with uncertainty, uncertainty cannot be an excuse for not acting.
The human race is stumbling along with the looming disaster of climate change complicated by complex goals including quality of life, economic development, poverty reduction, human rights, intergenerational equity (our grandchildren), and renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. Climate change is linked with many goals that we care about, and there can be no long-term solution to any issue without a solution for climate.
So what should we do about the Durban Platform?
We need to act so that the Durban Platform goal of a robust climate accord is formulated, ratified, and implemented. In the U.S. as elsewhere, there will be vicious struggles with greedy vested interests, ideologues, and their media outlets that will be in opposition to a climate treaty – even to mitigation of climate change – in full battle gear including a loud obstructive disinformation campaign.
We do not have to give up progress. It is possible that with renewable energy, innovation could eventually greatly increase our quality of life. Our spirit of innovation could be a breakthrough to progress that could transcend our present addiction to fossil fuels. We need to act to promote the renewable energy future that can mitigate climate change.
Many other climate action suggestions for mitigation and adaptation, with references and links, are in the UU-UNO Climate Portal. A portfolio of action is needed. There is no silver bullet and no one right answer.
The ultimate statement is that the earth cannot be fooled. We are at a crossroads. There is no safe haven. Let not future generations, impacted by global warming, say of us, “They knew but did not act”. We look back at human history of 10,000 years. The lives of our grandchildren and possibly the existence of future long-term civilization of the human race depends on what we do right now.
Let’s get to work.