“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt,” President Obama declared, “that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet…”
Everyone in the roomful of biologists suddenly perked up. “Did he just reference climate change?” “Wow, shout-out from the president!”
As a flush of excitement ran through me, I had a sudden flashback to the early, painfully awkward days of high school, and the rare occasion when the good-looking, ultra-cool upperclassman tossed an over-the-shoulder smile or “Hello” my way. The sudden sense of nervous optimism and bewitching self-importance were utterly recognizable.
We exchanged nervous glances as the President’s victory speech continued. Could this signal a new era, in which the United States government acknowledged the reality of climate change and, dare we hope, leads the globe in a charge to regulate carbon emissions?
But as I tuned back into the speech everything was thrown back into context. Climate change may be “the” problem of our generation, but it’s a diffuse and long-term one. By contrast, the immediacy of our fragile economy holds our rapt attention.
Still, with superstorms like Sandy – hot on the heels of a record-setting North American drought – we’re starting to recognize the troubling implications of climate disruption. Nothing brings the reality of sea level rise home like a 10-foot storm surge. And widespread crop failures remind us all exactly how reliant we are on favorable weather to fill our stomachs.
The United States isn’t the only country getting nervous: Last week, the United Kingdom suffered severe flooding, and low-lying nations are eyeing their coastlines warily. Meanwhile, recent scientific reports, updated with current emissions and observational data, suggest that, without impossibly immediate action, we’ll soar above any “safe” warming thresholds by 2100.
Sounds like the perfect moment for another installment of United Nations-organized meetings to address climate change.
This year, delegates have gathered in Doha, Qatar, for the 18th Conference of the Parties. First on the agenda: hashing out an amended Kyoto Protocol for the second commitment period, which runs from the beginning of next year through 2020.
They’ll have to do it with severely limited support, however. Besides the absence of the United States – which failed to ratify Kyoto almost immediately back in 1998 – Canada and, last month, even New Zealand, have backed out of their commitments to the emissions reduction contract.
The Kyoto Protocol, which entered force in 2005, couldn’t really have halted climate change. Its regulatory umbrella covers only 15% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, and its reduction goals were far too modest – especially in light of some rapidly growing economies.
Still, it was like a warm-up lap for more aggressive commitments – a warm-up lap that resulted in a crippling cramp.
More optimism attends the ambitions of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (which is mysteriously abbreviated ADP). Formed as a last-ditch effort in Durban one year ago, the ADP has promised to draft a legally binding agreement by 2015, to enter into force by 2020.
Though the three-year lead time seems promising, that leaves only about 100 negotiating days for countries to reconcile a myriad of differences and ensure broad participation. That leaves precious little time for finger-pointing (“But China’s emissions surpassed ours!”) or excuse-making (“Our economy’s still developing!”).
Given the state of the global economy, delegates will also need to hash out financing options. Poorer states have been looking to the wealthier ones to shoulder the burden, especially as they have done much of the emitting, but such financing will only stretch so far. Though carbon markets have been unpopular in the past, they have the scalability needed to get the job done.
Of course, this must also all be done with speed and efficiency. We’ve already shot past safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. And despite helpful upward revisions of target numbers that the planet – and humanity – could “probably” tolerate, our aim is still miles off center.
But those of us crowded into the living room, watching Obama’s victory speech, know better than to dwell on the seemingly insurmountable. We survived the emotional rollercoaster of high school, and we’ll survive the iterative highs and lows of climate change legislation, too. Meanwhile, we’ll keep chipping away at what we can control: reducing our own carbon footprints, writing letters of encouragement and of protest, and convincing the people around us that, yes, this is a real problem.
Eventually, the cool kids will take notice.
Holly welcomes questions and comments at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu. Your Congressperson welcomes thoughts and letters at their Washington office.