What Can We Expect from Paris?

Representatives of the nations of the world will gather together in Paris this week to discuss steps they can take to limit the production of greenhouse gases, and therefore ameliorate the effects of climate change. What can we expect from this meeting? Will it produce any realistic results?

It is easy, and rather tempting, to examine this matter in terms of the exact amount of carbon reduction each nation agrees to commit to; or in terms of the relative contributions of the advanced industrialized nations versus the developing nations; or in terms of whether any given commitment can reasonably be expected to be enforced. But to examine the matter in terms of this kind is to be preoccupied with the fine print, and not the big picture. And if ever there were a problem or issue that requires attention to the big picture, global warming surely is it.

Climate change is first and foremost a planetary problem. I have seen analyses that examine global warming in terms of which nations or regions of the world are likely to suffer the most. Such analyses are rather pathetic in their superficiality.

The climate of Earth is a global system. Earth's atmosphere is a global atmosphere. When we radically transform the atmosphere, and therefore the climate, the effects have no respect whatsoever for national boundaries. Earth's climate system doesn't care where America ends and Mexico begins. The climate only recognizes Earth, one earth, not the petty boundaries humans have constructed between nations.

But nations only care fundamentally about themselves. Each nation represented in Paris is concerned about limiting carbon production only to the extent that it will not damage its own economy. Therefore each nation is conflicted, pulled in two opposing directions simultaneously. Each nation wants to use as much carbon as it can in order to advance its economic interests. And yet each nation also wants all the other nations to limit carbon emissions in order to contain climate change. Precisely this conflict is reproduced in each and every nation represented in Paris.

No effective action on climate change will ever occur unless and until each nation finally realizes that its own national interest is utterly insignificant in the context of the threat posed by global warming. But if any nation realized that, it would of its own accord radically reduce its carbon usage without any meetings or agreements signed in Paris. Only when national sovereignty is put aside in favor of something far greater will any meaningful action occur to limit climate change.

So what results can we expect out of Paris? We can expect modest, superficial, face-saving commitments to limit carbon emissions in a manner totally insufficient to meet the magnitude of the challenge the world faces. Modest, face-saving commitments coupled with grand declarations about the great progress that has been made.

In short, Paris can be expected to produce little more than what we already have in excess: an abundance of hot air.