Gwynne Dyer: Coasting toward climate change disaster

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They made some progress at the annual December round of the international negotiations on controlling climate change, held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the Loss and Damage mechanism, has no numbers attached to it, but it’s a step forward. The only step forward, unfortunately.

In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation”; that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”. That made good sense, but they didn’t get anywhere. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.

So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation”. If we can’t agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What’s the plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys and inundate coastlines?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle, says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming pay. But the “mechanism” has no method for assessing the damage or allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little use to anybody else.

Besides, the rich countries are going to be fully committed financially in just covering the cost of their own damages. Consider, for example, the US$60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from the U.S. Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters, even if the rich ones have good intentions.

So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?

There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won’t happen until quite late in the decade—and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to two degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

We will, in fact, be on course for three, four, or even five degrees C of warming, because beyond plus two degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks”: natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost which we cannot shut off.

So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose 10 percent of global food production for every rise in average global temperature of one degree C.

There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus two degrees C and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it will take to get our emissions back down. It’s called “geo-engineering”: direct human intervention in the climate system. Our greenhouse gas emissions are an inadvertent example of geo-engineering that is pushing the climate in the wrong direction. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering may be needed to stop it.

Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible, though the undesirable side-effects could be very large. The biggest problem is that it’s relatively cheap: dozens of governments could afford to do it—and just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.

So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting late this decade, will be about when it is time to start geo-engineering, and what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won’t agree on that either, so things will drag on further until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of course.

So we had better hope that neutral observers like the fossil fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making it up just to get more money in research grants. That would be a happy ending, so fingers crossed.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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dru

Dec 9, 2012 at 4:39pm

Climate change talks only ever turn into a circus: every country blaming the other, with nothing substantial negotiated because each is too self-serving to make even the smallest of sacrifices.

Climate change being a fraud would be a happy ending, but why should we keep our fingers crossed? The Earth is warming right before our eyes, and all around us.

Judy Cross

Dec 9, 2012 at 6:50pm

Geo-engineering has been going on for a very long time. The contrails that spread out and cover blue sky with a grey film are not natural.
http://chemtrailsplanet.net/2012/12/02/2674/

Using various methods, the US Military has been fiddling with the weather since the Vietnam War when they caused flooding of the Ho Chi Minh /Trail. One would think a military historian would know that.

KD Brown

Dec 9, 2012 at 6:54pm

Today's leaders will not be judged on their legacy of "jobs, growth and prosperity," as we keep hearing from the current government of Canada, but by how they act in the face of the climate crisis.
That will be it.

hd

Dec 9, 2012 at 8:52pm

some areas are warmer some are cooler .Has no one heard of weather change ,it has been happening for billions of years.The world was supposed to be going into an ice age as per Suzuki ,now heat wave by 1 degree then down 1 degree .If we can change the worlds weather than we must be gods.

McRetso

Dec 10, 2012 at 5:21am

The bit about climate change was a joke. If you read any of Dyer's other stuff, he's pretty sure it's real.

Also, "Neutral Observers like fossil fuel industries" lol.

Rob

Dec 10, 2012 at 10:04am

The feedback mechanisms are already happening. The tundra has thawed and is burning. Tundra fires in Labrador impacted the Greenland ice sheet. Before the fires about 40% of the ice sheet showed some summer melting. Four days later satellites detected the melt had grown to 97%. The tundra is circumpolar and is a rich fuel for combustion. And it is all that protects the permafrost beneath it. This is a switch we cannot turn off. We were warned.

Windy Dave

Dec 10, 2012 at 11:24am

"If a pond lily doubles everyday and it takes 30 days to completely cover a pond, on what day will the pond be 1/2 covered?"
The answer is the 29th day, not the 15th day as many people quickly answer.

The lesson is that if you don't notice the water lilies are taking over the pond until the 29th day, you have very little time to respond.

If we wait until we have absolutely irrefutable proof of climate change, there may be too little to respond in a meaningful way. The earth is a dynamic system and various systems interact and feed back into each other. We are not quite masters of this planet, unless we embark on geoengineering of huge proportions.

Ki

Dec 10, 2012 at 11:30am

@Judy Cross: I don't think that there is any implication in this article that geo-engineering isn't already happening, or that Dyer isn't aware of it. On the contrary, his matter-of-fact discussion of it implies that it is old news. He is simply stating that geo-engineering targeted specifically at slowing rising global temperatures is the next stage of climate "action."

James

Dec 10, 2012 at 2:05pm

@hd: The climate was changed after the release of CFC's into the atmosphere which ate away the ozone layer. This is one example of man made climate change. Another was before the removal of sulfur dioxide from coal power, this cooled the earth as the sulfur dioxide reflects the suns rays, this also happens in volcanic eruptions and is related to the question of geo-engineering. Obviously if we require god to change the climate we don't need to worry, even about geo-engineering because it's not possible. Even if it has been scientifically proven it doesn't matter because god is outside of science (he just put the laws of physics there to trick us). If the climate and the whole biosphere is imune to our actions i have an idea. Lets chop down all the trees, poison all the plants and enjoy the space because if we do it then nothing will happen, as long as we are responsible and not Jesus everything will be fine.

Hsaive

Dec 11, 2012 at 6:52am

David Keith let it slip that the timeline for emergency mitigation (more chemtrails) will be 10 to 20 years from now.

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