Gwynne Dyer: Climate change's impossible deal

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      For “shall”, substitute “may”. For example, change “countries signing this climate change treaty shall state how much they are going to cut their greenhouse emissions” to “countries signing this climate change treaty may state how much they are going to cut their emissions if they feel like it, but if they don’t, hey, no problem.”

      It’s like the old Irish joke. A lost traveller comes up to a local resident and asks how to get to Dublin. “Well, sir,” replies the local, “if that’s where you want to get to, I wouldn’t start from here.”

      If you ask anybody involved in the climate change negotiations how to get to a global deal, you’ll probably get the same answer. “If that’s where you want to go, sir, you shouldn’t start from here.” But here is where we have to start from, like it or not, which is what makes the negotiations so difficult.

      The last preliminary meeting on a global treaty to stop runaway climate change has just wound up in Lima, Peru, two days late. The final two days were spent watering down various parts of the text so that no country would just walk away. That’s where shall was changed to may, not once but many times. So quite a lot of the substance has been lost even before the final negotiations begin in Paris next December.

      It was bound to happen. That’s what diplomacy is for: devising some way of making the problem a little less bad even when a comprehensive deal that really solves the problem is impossible. But why is the comprehensive deal impossible? Because of the history.

      There is a fair deal that well-informed people in every country would accept, and everybody involved in the climate negotiations knows what it is. Most parts of this deal were on the table at the last big climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, but its political implications were so big that many governments simply ran away. The deal collapsed, and we lost five years.

      Here’s the only deal that would be fair to everybody. The “old rich” countries—those that became industrialized countries a hundred years ago or more— would make big cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions starting now: say, 40 percent cuts in the next 10 years, or four percent a year.

      That’s a lot, but it is achievable, because the demand for energy in most rich countries is already in decline, and much of the energy that they do produce is wasted. Getting the first 40 percent is not all that hard, and cuts of that scale up front would give us much more time to work on the remaining emissions.

      This is not the part of the deal that drives the governments of the developed countries into headlong flight. It’s the other part, in which the developing countries (the other six-sevenths of the world’s population) only have to cap their emissions for the next decade, not actually cut them.

      You can legitimately ask the developing countries to cap their emissions, but you can’t insist that they stay poor. Even the biggest developing countries like China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are still comparatively poor, and to give their people a developed-world living standard they will have to go on increasing their energy production for decades.

      If they can’t do that by building more fossil-fuel plants (because they have capped their emissions), then they will have to do it by building more “clean” energy sources: wind, solar, nuclear, anything except coal, oil, or gas.

      Those “clean” energy sources are generally more expensive than the fossil fuels they used to depend on, so who covers the extra expense? Answer: the developed countries.

      This is the deal killer. You cannot get the developing countries to cap their greenhouse gas emissions unless they get subsidies from the rich countries to help them build “clean” energy sources instead. And the developed countries regard this demand for subsidies ($100 billion a year was the figure on the table at Copenhagen five years ago) as outrageous.

      It is not really outrageous at all. In view of the history of greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite fair. But almost nobody in the developed countries knows that history.

      It’s quite simple. The developed countries are rich because they started burning fossil fuels between 100 and 200 years ago and industrialized early. The developing countries only started burning fossil fuels in a big way 30 or 40 years ago, and are still climbing out of poverty. So 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin in the atmosphere were put there by the rich countries.

      The rich countries caused this climate crisis; the developing countries only inherited it. So the responsibility for dealing with it—and paying for it—rests mostly with those who caused it.

      Until public opinion in the developed world understands that this deal is fair, no government in the rich world will dare to sign up for it. It would be political suicide. And until that deal is signed, no major developing country will agree to cap its emissions.

      In the developing world, everybody who counts politically understands the history of greenhouse gas emissions very well. One does sometimes wonder if the rich world’s apparent ignorance of this history is a little bit self-serving.



      Climate Change PPM

      Dec 15, 2014 at 10:50am

      It's real and getting worse.

      The irony is that Climate Change does not discriminate Rich vs Poor, White, Black or Yellow or any colour, mammal or insect, Fish or Fowl.

      We all die if the Earth changes a few degrees warmer and the Oceans turn to Carbonic Acid because of C02 dissolving into Sea Water.

      Climate Change Asst PPM

      Dec 15, 2014 at 11:13am

      "It's real and getting worse."


      "We all die if the Earth changes a few degrees warmer..."

      Disagree. I don't think we're all going to die, but a large chunk of humanity is going to be miserable. Many will die.

      Similarly, the oceans are not turning to carbonic acid. Again, some sea life may be wiped out, and many marine ecosystems will be damaged. I don't mean to minimize the very serious problem of ocean acidification, but overstating the issue is like that is fearmongering.

      my view

      Dec 15, 2014 at 11:31am

      There are parties missing from the table.

      It’s huge multinational corporations that are the major perpetrators of climate change.

      Until they are part of the discussion then no agreement is going to make a significant difference anyway.


      Dec 15, 2014 at 11:35am

      @Climate Change PPM

      "The irony is that Climate Change does not discriminate Rich vs Poor, White, Black or Yellow..."

      Disagree. North America and the EU have high grain production, spent feeding meat animals and the surplus is exported. The reality is the poor will die first - and in somewhat surprising places.

      Solar power and lithium batteries are dropping very fast in price, and will be below the cost of fossil fuels. But the full transition will take time, and will probably be slowed by a going-out-of-business-sale drop in the price of oil from the middle east as the dominance of solar becomes obvious to the futures markets.

      Most middle eastern countries are heavily dependant on food imports, for half their calories or more, have had population explosions, and don't have much going for them other than oil.

      So any place with high population densities and hot weather is at risk of starvation, the middle east most of all. The nuclear-armed grain-surplus northern nations will have a very rough ride, and probably make many cruel decisions about refugees and our own diet vs the starvation of others, but we likely won't share their fate to the same degree.


      Dec 15, 2014 at 12:05pm

      The change will happen regardless. The increased ability to measure and discuss change is irrelevant to the change. Why does anyone think governments should do something about change? Government is for human systems. Roads. Borders. Laws. Taxes. Schools, in some cases. Governments are the last human organization I want looking at change. Change is inevitable and unstoppable. I don't think anything is more guaranteed to happen than change, except the sale of worry over it. This is the true story of what is happening. Yes, things are different. Yes, it can be measured better than ever. Yes it can be discussed more thoroughly than ever. It does not mean that it should be characterized in any way, for the benefit or to the detriment of anyone. And that is all that happens. The sale of worry.
      Ignore the commodification of worry. There will never be a time when people do not think they have reached some limit. Never. It is a human trait to extrapolate, based on available technology. The fears and worries of this age will seem simple in 50 years, compared to what science will be able to measure and discuss. Same as it has ever been.


      Rudy Haugeneder

      Dec 15, 2014 at 12:26pm

      One of the biggest problems politicians in the developed countries confront is ageing boomers who want to maintain not only their lifestyles after retirement, but keep all their wealth so that they can pass it on to their children and grandchildren. This means that sharing the wealth with the developing world is totally out of the question, even if in their shortsightedness, the very people boomers want to pass their wealth onto have to live with the hell rapid Climate Change is certain to deliver. Boomers -- myself included -- are and incredibly stupid bunch who can't see beyond the economic and physical dementia awaiting them, starting now.


      Dec 15, 2014 at 1:20pm

      This is typical Doomsday prophecy, and no Doomsday prophecy has ever come true.

      Climate Change PPM

      Dec 15, 2014 at 2:08pm

      I want to address some of the initial posters wrong assumptions.

      When I say we are all going to die I mean a Mass Extinction event # 6 primarily due to Human actions leading to Climate Change and Pollution. Earth already has 5 Mass Extinctions on Record.

      Ocean Acidification-Not alarmist...

      "If atmospheric CO2 can be stabilised at 450 ppm, (one possible target that has been discussed by politicians) only 8% of existing tropical and subtropical coral reefs will still be in waters of the right pH level to support their growth."

      Thats a 92% destruction of the current Ecosystem of Reef's (the rainforest of the Ocean that provide nursery and food for about 25% of all marine life).

      "In fact, colder water absorbs higher levels of CO2 than warmer water. Our polar seas are already so acidic that they are starting to dissolve some shells."

      That's us in Canada in the Polar regions Einstein's.

      Real Science Source :

      Agricultural Food Production - Temp., increase decreases Yields.

      Every 1 degree increase in temp., = a 6 to 7% decrease in yield on crops like Wheat & Corn.

      Sources :

      David Lobell, the associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, and Claudia Tebaldi, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

      That's NOT counting the effects of Drought and/or other extreme weather!

      Mass Extinction Event # 6 - Five (5) Previous Mass Extinctions on Earth Record.

      “Anthropocene defaunation” - As studied and told by large groups very credible Scientists

      "The modern rate of extinction across species is 1,000 times that of the background rate before humans began altering the globe and thousands of times faster than the creation of new species, according to a new study in the journal Conservation Biology.

      The findings echo and expand on previous research published in the journal Science, which also suggested that humans are on the verge of causing a sixth mass extinction on Earth."

      Real Science Source :

      My statements are strongly supported by hard Science & Data not my "opinion" like @Bruce and a few others.

      Bruce Knecht

      Dec 15, 2014 at 2:44pm

      Rational Rose: Your comments offer small comfort. It's true that many "doomsday" prophecies have been issued through the centuries by cranks, religious wackos, etc. That is, by people whose credibility hovers near zero. In sharp contrast, the current topic is one where scientific investigation is, or at least ought to be, our primary source of guidance. Sober scientific predictions are fallible but a rational person ought to accord them a measure of esteem. You've made a categorical assertion that should be modified to be a probabilistic claim - No doomsday prophecy has come true...yet. Beware of complacency!

      Petroleum geologist

      Dec 15, 2014 at 3:23pm

      A few thoughts:

      1) climate change is natural and will occur regardless of industrialization . However, there is truth to the ideas that the change is being accelerated by greenhouse gases. This is mainly due to the specific bandwiths of solar radiation frequencies that greenhouse gases are able to absorb. The question becomes, and arguments arise between scientists, at what rate does change occur. It is not a simple linear relationship between concentrations and temperature increase. One argument is based on the theory that there is a limit to the amount of radiation which can be absorbed by greenhouse gases, and beyond this concentration there is limited warming effect.

      2) stop blaming the corporations. The issue is not so black and white. Energy companies are not blind to the fact that alternative energies need to be investigated. A large portion of geoscientists and engineers are employed by and are executives with energy companies. Theyre educational roots provide more insight on the environment than the majority of the population. Are some purely driven by profit? Yes, but not all. Encana just invested over 200 million in wind farms; this is not a sole case, there are many similar examples of energy companies investing large amounts of assets into solutions.
      Economics will sort the issue out. As petroleum reserves decline and extraction becomes more uneconomical, other sources of energy will become more realistic. This idea is already coming to fruition.

      I firmly believe that energy companies are a significantly larger solution to the problem then people are willing to accept and believe as they are unwilling to see beyond the conflict of interest and turn the issue into a simple " oil companies are bad" outlook. Our consumersim is all contributing to the problem.

      I further argue that I as a petroleum geologist, who takes the bus and invests a portion of my assets into green energies is more of a solution to the problem then a "environmentalist who drives a car, lives the metropolis lifestyle and does little more then complain about the issue". We all know they exist