Another Crime in Paris: Climate Change Talks

Posted on by Mark Nykanen

The international climate talks begin tomorrow in Paris. Hope really does spring eternal, so it’s reasonable to look at the cheer about the conference with a touch of optimism. One-hundred-seventy countries have committed to voluntary cutbacks of some type, and they include the U.S. and China, earth’s biggest polluters. Historically, the U.S. is number one, but China now leads the polluting pack in annual emission of heat-absorbing molecules.


The painful truth, however, is that even if the pledges made by the countries now in Paris were actually acted upon—and these voluntary commitments have proved painfully ineffective in the past—our planet would still see an increase of about six degrees Fahrenheit.


To put that in perspective, we’ve endured an increase of 1.7 degrees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. What has that brought us? Scorching heat. Last year was the world’s hottest since record keeping began—and crowned a chart-topping 15 year period. We’re now looking at an extreme likelihood—as in the high 90th percentile—of 2015 topping last year’s temps.


We need to start acknowledging the implications of the climate change that we’re seeing before our very eyes. It’s so pronounced that solastalgia, a relatively recent coinage, is gaining real traction in our vocabulary. For those encountering the polysyllabic for the first time, it means the distress or existential angst you feel for the decline of the environment in which you’re living, as opposed to nostalgia for a place in which you once lived and for which you long. In the mountainous region of Canada where I made my home until recently, I was cycling in January last year, instead of Nordic skiing. The winters have been growing noticeably milder up there.


In the Pacific Northwest where I now reside, I’m still cycling and will be well into at least December. The winters I cherished for so long no longer linger. This is not a tragedy. This is an inconvenience. I bring it up only to note the obvious: the relatively benign impacts many of us in temperate latitudes now see are only a prelude. If you’re dependent on Andean glaciers, which are melting at rates never witnessed by humans, you won’t be looking at mere changes in recreational lifestyle. One-hundred-million people survive because of the precious water that winds down those mountains.  The same can be said for those dependent on Himalyan glaciers.


Ditto California with its desiccated snowpack. The drought there and throughout much of the American West, of course, is not benign by any measure. It does receive attention but I suspect that as a society we’re becoming inured to the slow motion catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, as we have to the sixth great extinction, which is taking place right now (see Elizabeth’s Kolbert’s stunning book The Sixth Great Extinction).


With these yet modest rises in average worldwide temperatures, we’ve already seen record melting at the Poles and of land-based glaciers worldwide, and extreme weather, including those deeply disruptive droughts.


Let’s hope—why not? It’s easy and takes scarce effort—that the hard work of climate change will emerge with real impetus out of Paris, even though a worldwide carbon tax, widely regarded by economists and scientists alike as the only bankable means of reducing the rate of our collective debacle—was taken off the table before the conference could even begin.


But based on prior climate change summits—Kyoto and Copenhagen come to mind immediately—I suspect the spin coming out of Paris will look like this: nations of the world have made pledges to voluntarily cut back greenhouse gas emissions significant enough to mark a new beginning in the fight against climate change. Translation of said spin? The same grinding reluctance to engage systemically with corporate greed and its heavily sponsored voices in government have failed, once again, to take the necessary steps to insure a stable ecosystem for our children and grandchildren.


I’d love to be surprised by Paris but the business of lowering our expectations began months ago. It’s another form of collectively cosseting us so we have only the veneer of hope, which fades fast when we look closely.


While the terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific, the worst and most far-reaching crime in that beloved city is likely to begin tomorrow.

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