The Clock is Ticking
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
With each passing day, the climate clock is clicking towards a global catastrophe. The Doomsday Clock, a scientific measurement of how close humankind is to a global human-made catastrophe, is at 100 seconds before midnight, the Doomsday hour. That is the least amount of time left on this clock since it was started in 1947. The clock factors in the chance of nuclear war and the effects of climate change (1). Any way you look at it, our planet is in trouble.
Scientists have determined that if the average global temperature reaches 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era, global climate-based catastrophes will be unavoidable. I wrote about such events in my previous blog article, Let's Turn Down the Heat. Scientists predict that there is a 95% chance that the planet's average temperate will reach that 2-degree increase by 2100 (2). We have to take action now, strong global action, to do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to try to prevent the planet's temperature from increasing by those 2 degrees.
1979 - The Charney Report
In 1979, the Charney Report was released (3). This report summarized the results of the world's top climate scientists' study about the effects of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on global warming. Their results accurately predicted where we are vis a vis global warming today. They determined that there was no natural regulator, except for a potential better regulation rate by deeper depths of the ocean, that would stop global warming, most likely by 3 degrees Celsius +/- 1.5 degrees. Even if the deeper ocean water takes longer to normalize the warmer temperatures, this just postpones the inevitable by perhaps a few decades. This temperature increase would accompany a doubling of CO2 emissions (4).
Forty years later, their scientific study has proven to be true. Because of the advent of modern-age computers, today's scientists can accurately simulate climate change, which was not possible in 1979. Today's simulations verify the scenarios predicted by the Charney Report. But what have we done to combat global warming? Regrettably for our planet and future generations, not very much.
Enter stage left - our global governments. There are many jokes based on "How many <fill in the blank> does it take to <fill in the blank>. In the case of global warming, the joke is on us, and it's a bad joke too. There's a saying in English that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, which pretty much reminds me of the global reaction to climate change.
I was born in the mid-1950s, and I don't remember watching JFK announce that we were going to land people on the moon by the end of the 1960s. But I do remember watching the first moonwalk in 1969 live on TV, where JFK's challenge became a reality. I remember waiting in gas lines in NYC back in the 1970s due to a fictitious petrol shortage. I remember President Carter symbolically restricting the lighting of the White House Christmas tree to underscore the importance of saving energy. But I don't remember any US President who ever stood up and challenged the USA, much less the world, to tackle climate change as if our lives depended on it. One would think that if 60 years ago, one country could muster the will to achieve what seemed impossible - landing people on the moon in the next 10 years - that the entire planet working together could muster the will to tackle and defeat climate change. One would think, but reality does not bear that out.
Global Actions Via the United Nations - A Chronology
Whatever your opinion is of the United Nations (UN), it is the de facto organization where all countries of the world can get together to discuss global issues and to try to form action plans to address those issues. The following is a timeline of climate issues dealt with by the UN.
1987 - The Montreal Protocol
In 1987, countries worked together to produce the Montreal Protocol, which was an historic agreement to save the ozone layer by limiting and stopping emissions that were creating holes in the ozone layer at the north and south poles. To date, it is the only environmental treaty that was approved by all 197 UN member states (5).
1988 - The IPCC is Formed
In 1988, 9 years after the Charney Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed at the UN. The IPCC body assesses the science related to climate change (6). This body determines if scientific papers are of high-quality or if they require further work. According to an article in 2018 from the World Resources Institute, the latest IPCC report at that time outlined what it would take to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (7). The picture isn't pretty. The effort required to achieve this limitation by 2050 or earlier will be massive.
1992 - The Earth Summit in Rio
In 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the world held the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the Earth Summit. The goal of the summit was to reconcile economic development with the protection of the environment (8).
1994 - The UNFCCC is Formed
In 1994, the UN formed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their goal is to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system (9). Starting in 1995, the UNFCCC holds an annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to make decisions on issues related to their convention (10). It seems that many of these COPs have been unremarkable with little to show from the meeting. There are a few noteworthy COPs.
1997 - COP-3 in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP-3. This protocol set legally binding emission targets for 6 greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, the USA never ratified participation in this protocol (11). Instead, the US Senate passed Resolution S. Res 98, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, 95-0, to express why the US would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol (12). This Resolution let the world know what limits the USA could agree to.
2000 - COP-6 in Bonn, Germany. The body achieved a political agreement on the core elements that were needed to finalize the Kyoto Protocol. The USA did not participate; they acted as an observer only (13).
2009 - COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. COP-15 was notable for its failure (14). The only "tangible" result was a back-door agreement between a handful of countries that declared, well, yes, we should do something to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, but contained no concrete agreements. Basically, a whitewash job.
2015 - COP-21 in Paris, France. COP-21 led to the Paris Agreement. It was signed by 197 countries and ratified by 187. The Agreement became effective in 2016 and sets out to limit greenhouse gas emissions so we can keep the global temperature below the 2 degrees Celsius mark. This agreement looked to replace the expiring-in-2020 Kyoto Protocol. While the United States announced in 2019 that it was going to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, other countries remain firmly resolved to uphold the agreement. We can only hope that the USA will have a change of heart in 2021 and opt back in to the Agreement.
Born in the USA - The Green New Deal
In 2019, H. Res 109 and S. Res 59 launched the first shot in the battle to dramatically shake up the status quo of how the USA government is reacting to global warming. These two resolutions, sponsored by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Senator Ed Markey (MA), put forth bold suggestions on what we need to do now, not tomorrow, to try to reduce carbon emissions and keep our planet from reaching that 2 degrees Celsius increase.
This YouTube video (15) by Vox Media summarizes the Green New Deal. The deal has two parts: Part 1 explains what we need to do to reduce our emissions; Part 2 explains what we need to do to protect American families while we take the actions from Part 1. If we stop making gas-powered cars and shut coal plants from Part 1 of the deal, many people will lose their jobs and face ruin. Part 2 explains what we will do to prevent that ruin from happening and how we will protect all American families. The resolutions are not law, not bills, and not binding. They are a starting point toward an ambitious effort that will require massive amounts of political, financial, and moral will over several decades.
Getting agreement between all parties on the earth is difficult - that's a given. Often it takes an in-your-face emergency to get you to pay attention. Maybe it takes a heart attack for someone to start practicing good food and exercise habits. Maybe it takes financial ruin for people to realize they lived beyond their means.
The difference between everyday emergencies and climate change is that we can’t wait. By the time we realize we needed to do something earlier, it’s too late. This reminds me of the story about the frog who is put into a pot of lukewarm water that is being slowly heated up. The poor frog will sit in the pot as the water gets hotter and hotter. By the time the frog realizes that it is getting boiled alive and that it needed to jump out, it's too late.
Humans need to see themselves as that proverbial frog in the boiling pot. The water is heating up and we sit there watching it get hotter. We know it is getting hotter. We know what is causing the heat, yet, there we sit, talking about what we should do and arguing about how much it's going to cost. Well folks, if you get cooked, all that money you saved becomes worthless. The consequences of NOT doing anything well outweigh the costs of taking action now.
So, the question remains - will we jump out of that pot before it's too late? The clock is ticking.
(1) Doomsday Clock. https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/
(2) Two Degrees Celsius. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6070153/
(3) Charney Report. https://www.nap.edu/read/19856/chapter/1
(4) Charney Article. https://phys.org/news/2019-07-charney-years-scientists-accurately-climate.html
(5) Montreal protocol. https://www.unenvironment.org/ozonaction/who-we-are/about-montreal-protocol
(6) IPCC. https://www.ipcc.ch/about/
(7) WRI Article. https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/8-things-you-need-know-about-ipcc-15-c-report
(8) Earth Summit. https://www.britannica.com/event/United-Nations-Conference-on-Environment-and-Development
(9) UNFCCC. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-convention/what-is-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change
(10) COP. https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop
(11) COP3 Kyoto. https://www.eesi.org/policy/international
(12) Byrd-Hagel. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/a-lesson-from-kyotos-failure-dont-let-congress-touch-a-climate-deal/
(13) COP6 Bonn. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471084601800330
(14) COP15 Copenhagen. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8426835.stm
(15) Green New Deal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxIDJWCbk6I
Global accord history infographic. https://www.iberdrola.com/environment/international-agreements-on-climate-change
IPCC founded. https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/history-of-climate-change
Paris Accord. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-7-d&chapter=27&clang=_en
Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/what-happens-if-earth-gets-2-degrees-warmer/