Climate Change Politics And Diplomacy Outstripped By Geophysics

Global warming is a deceptively backhanded problem in which thermal inertia produces consequences half a century or more after we cause it by burning fossil fuels. 

Our political and diplomatic discussions are triggered by outcomes. 

Political inertia, combined with thermal inertia, offers a challenge to the human species and the planet we govern: design a new energy future before sheer necessity—the hot wind in our faces—compels action. 

Global warming is hazardous because it is a stealthy, slow-moving catastrophe that requires us to recognize a fact decades in the future with a past-tense system of private, legal, and diplomatic response. 

  • Two scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California–San Diego published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2008 that showed that even if greenhouse gas emissions were completely eliminated by 2005, the world's average temperature would still rise by 2.4°C (4.3°F) by the end of the twenty-first century. 
  • The latest carbon dioxide statistics and study, according to Richard Moss, vice president and managing director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, indicate that “we're already locked into greater heat than we thought” (Eilperin 2008; Ramanathan and Feng 2008). 
  • These estimates have been around for more than a decade. These have been wasted years in terms of global diplomatic reform. 

A second key factor that affects climate change, in addition to thermal inertia, is feedback, which includes albedo (light reflectivity).

  • In the summer, when the sun shines at the top of the globe, melting Arctic ice reveals open ocean. 
  • Because dark ocean water absorbs more heat than lighter ice and snow, it heats up and melts faster. 
  • Meanwhile, permafrost on land surrounding the Arctic Circle melts, releasing even more carbon dioxide and methane, hastening the natural process that feeds on itself. 
  • When you add the trigger of rising human emissions to these natural processes, the situation becomes much worse. 

Climate change is a cumulative phenomenon. 

Many of the feedbacks that contribute to increasing temperatures tend to speed up with time, reinforcing each other. 

  • For example, increasing human-caused emissions cause permafrost to thaw, releasing even more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Melting ice darkens surfaces, allowing more heat to be absorbed. 
  • Meanwhile, rising seas are soaking coastal soil, destroying crops, and polluting fresh water sources in low-lying island countries like the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands' foreign minister, Tony deBrum, stated, "The groundwater that sustains our food crops is being flooded with salt." ‘The green is becoming brown,' says the narrator. (Davenport et al., 2014). 
  • “Runaway growth in the emission of green house gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of ‘severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts' over the next decades,” wrote Justin Gillis in The New York Times (2014, August 26). 

Diplomats and climate scientists gather every year in an attempt to arrange a global pact to halt the rise in greenhousegas emissions, despite a growing chorus of warnings that the results will be too little, too late. 

  • As temperatures rise and raging weather becomes a staple of daily headlines, diplomats and climate scientists gather every year in an attempt to arrange a global pact to stall the rise in greenhousegas emissions amid a rising chorus of warnings that the results will be too little, too late.
  • By 2015, global diplomacy's attempts to deal with climate change and its impact on everyday weather had fallen behind. 
  • As wind and solar expanded throughout the globe (Germany, the world's fourth biggest economy, drew one-third of its power from renewable sources by 2016), a renewable energy infrastructure emerged, but it was too sluggish to keep up with the increase in temperatures. 

The fundamental issue is: can mankind alter its energy paradigm fast enough to prevent irreversible environmental damage? 

  • While James Hansen believes the 2°C goal is overly ambitious, some experts believe it will never be met due to the global momentum of greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • In Nature, David Victor (a professor at the University of California–San Diego) and Charles Kennel (of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography) stated, "The objective is essentially unattainable" (Kolbert 2015, 30). To meet the target, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to decrease to almost zero in the second half of the twenty-first century. 
  • Even if all diplomatic recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions made in 2015 were implemented, global warming by the end of the twenty-first century would be restricted to 6.3°F, compared to 8.1°F if emissions remained at current levels (“Climate Scoreboard” 2015). 

If all countries fulfilled their commitments, global emissions would begin to decline within a decade or two, but only slowly and insufficiently to prevent thermal inertia from increasing temperatures, melting glaciers across the globe, raising sea levels, and wreaking havoc on flora and wildlife. 

  • Countries' commitments made before the global climate conference in Paris at the end of 2015 were "a significant step forward, but not enough—not even close," according to John D. Sterman, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Gillis and Sengupta 2015). 
  • In 2014, the US and China signed their first-ever agreement, which included a joint statement that the US will reduce emissions by up to 28% by 2025 and China's emissions would peak by 2030. 
  • The government of India, the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2014, does not anticipate emissions to peak until at least 2040. 

As carbon dioxide and methane levels continue to increase, every action to decrease emissions is “on speculation”—in the future. And as long as these levels increase, humanity will lose the fight against global warming.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

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