The Hard Half

As the summit that everyone in the climate world has been pointing to as the "last best chance to change course" gets underway, there is good news and there is bad news.

The good news is that the climate denial-sphere, most active in the "Anglo 3" - the United States, England and Australia - is beginning to lose traction. Just go to any on-line article concerning climate change. Until fairly recently, denialists commandeered nearly half of the comment threads. That number has dropped rather dramatically.

The drop-off is likely due to both events on the ground and to "a feeling in our collective bones".

The events on the ground have become increasingly undeniable. The lead talking-point for the "Koch-istas" and their followers has been: "There has been no warming for seventeen years." While this is patently false, there has, in fact, been a slowdown of the SURFACE warming on the planet (a slowdown, not a stoppage).

The reason this oft-repeated talking point has been mildly deceiving to those not paying close attention is that the "seventeen years" used the gigantic El Nino of 1998 as a starting point. El Ninos, periodic and naturally occurring climate events, famously draw massive amounts of warming out of the oceans (much of the initial warming goes into the seas) and up onto the Earth's surface.

Well, another powerful El Nino is in process and gee-golly-whiz, guess what? Yep, we are about to blow away the hottest year on record (which we just set last year). But this time a quite ominous milestone may be breached: A rise of one degree celsius (1.8 degrees fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

We've already begun to see massive climate influenced destabilization. Syria, which recorded its worst drought ever from 2006-2009, is disgorging more refugees than any nation since World War Two. Can we call these people "climate refugees"? A very good question.

Did the drought, and the resulting lack of drinking water and edible crops contribute to the resulting unrest? Almost certainly. What percent did it contribute? Well, that's not so easy to quantify. But whatever the percentage, you can be certain of this; it will only increase as the temperature rise creeps to 1.1 and 1.4 and 1.7 degrees celsius.

Oops. Sorry. I seem to have veered into the "bad news" portion of the article. The point I was trying to make is that the denial folks are running out of space to take their misguided and, for some, malicious stands. But, let's get back to the creeping temperature rise. Even fairly casual followers of the developing situation may know that a two degrees centigrade rise has been adopted as the point where warming fundamentally destabilizes human civilization. The primary mission of the Paris Climate Summit is to obtain national "carbon pledges" to ensure that the warming does not cross the danger threshold.

This is where the one degree warming triggers that "feeling in our collective bones". Cross one degree and we are over half way there. And this has been the "hard half". There are all sorts of factors - tipping points, feedback cycles, permafrost thaw, deforestation - that will make the next degree warming a much quicker process.

So the "carbon pledges", especially those of the biggest emitters, will have to be significant and trust-worthy. Here's the problem: they are neither.

The pledges as currently tallied are nowhere near enough to avert the catastrophic warming. To put the picture into perspective, China, by a large margin the world's biggest emitter (they do, after all, make most of the western world's stuff) has stated that they will peak emissions "around 2030". This is roughly equivalent to an alcoholic with advancing liver disease half-heartedly promising to only increase the amount he drinks for another fifteen years!

As far as trust-worthiness goes, well, you can probably guess. All pledges will be enforceable by absolutely nothing. Oh sure, they may throw around the idea of imposing penalties for failure to live up to the agreements but, in a world whose religion is demonstrably "economic growth", the penalties are as likely to be enforced as we are likely to see another below-average month of global temperature. (368 consecutive above-average months and counting

Let's finish off with some truly deep-in-the-bones stuff. We are one-fourth of the way to 4 degrees centigrade and counting. A seminal 2011 study found that, on our current track (which has simply accelerated since then), we may reach that mark in the 2060s.

Here's what the study has to say about THAT world: "There is no certainty that adaptation to a four degrees Celsius world is possible...communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation. The projected warming simply must not be allowed to occur. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make this happen."

"No certainty that adaptation is possible." "Only early, cooperative, international actions can make this happen." - The projected world of our children and grandchildren.

A tragic international incident occurred in Paris last week. The world, at least metaphorically, seemed to come to a stop.

The projected, at least semi-failure of the international Climate Summit, would, in fact, portend a situation of a far more devastating scope; one in which "our world coming to a stop" may not be metaphorical at all.

At the end of an article such as this, there is a temptation to include a "What you can do" section; sign a petition, write a congressman, join an advocacy group. Within climate circles there exist two basic camps. One camp believes the world can continue to adhere to our current "continually grow the economy" paradigm by switching to lower carbon energy and increasing energy conservation. The other believes that a much more radical alignment that includes a focus on local economy and shared resources and (shudder) a moving away from laissez-faire Capitalism is necessary.

So, choose a camp. Just know that it is getting quite late in the game. And, maybe, just maybe, take a moment next week during the summit. And let your world come to a stop. And, perhaps, just perhaps, think of your grandchildren.