By Reginald Johnson
Christiana Figueres, climate chief for the United Nations, said recently that time is running out for reaching an international agreement on dealing with global warming.
Referring to the climate conference in Paris at the end of the year, she told the Associated Press, “We are at five minutes to 12 and Paris is the 12 o’clock strike of the clock.”
Failure to reach a global, binding agreement on curbing carbon emissions --- the key driver of rising temperatures and climate change --- would mean “we are going to be playing with fire,” said the UN official.
Figueres couldn’t be more correct in her assessment. NASA testing shows that the average global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now 400 parts per million. That’s a full 50 points higher than the 350 ppm that is considered by scientists to be the maximum sustainable level of atmospheric carbon. Beyond that level, the viability of human life in the long term could be threatened by sharply rising temperatures and catastrophic climate impacts.
Already temperatures have been rising. Last year, 2014, was the hottest year ever recorded.
And dramatic climate impacts are taking place. We are getting more and more violent, killer storms, like Super Storm Sandy in 2012; more powerful tornadoes, wreaking incredible devastation; brutal droughts in the American west and in other parts of the world; and terrible forest fires, also in the western U.S., which are destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland.
Experts believe that the extreme weather is linked to changes in the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gases.
It’s imperative that we move quickly to massively cut back on carbon emissions, as well as the emissions of other global warming gases, like methane.
But have world leaders been moving to take decisive action to blunt climate change?
So far, the answer to that question is, no.
The United States obviously has a leading role to play in any international effort to fight climate change. For most of his presidency, President Barack Obama has not made climate change a major priority, despite his claims to the contrary. He has never once made a nationwide speech in prime time about the danger of climate change and the absolute necessity that we all work together to fight it. Former Vice President Al Gore called the fight against climate change a “planetary emergency.” He’s right. Obama could have said the same thing. He could have laid out all the awful scenarios that will befall us if we do nothing to control climate change, and really scared people. They need to be scared. This is an existential threat --- far more than anything posed by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or other extremists.
At the same time Obama could have urged people, particularly young people, to get involved in a national effort to educate everyone about the dangers of global warming and the imperative of moving away from carbon-producing fossil fuels. That national address could have been followed by a series of speeches around the country.
A major campaign like that could have put the climate skeptics back on their heels and prompted a strong public demand that Congress pass laws that both control carbon, lessen the use of fossil fuels and put major funding into renewables.
But no such public campaign was undertaken. Obama has not used his bully pulpit to get the nation moving on climate change.
In general, Obama has given out conflicting messages about how serious he is about tackling the central problem of limiting carbon emissions. While his administration worked to get some things done, like improving auto fuel efficiency standards, the president gave the go-ahead for more Gulf oil drilling, even after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Recently, he gave the green light for Arctic oil drilling by Royal Dutch Shell, despite widespread protests.
Everyone knows we have to move away from fossil fuels to control climate change. Why is Obama approving more oil drilling?
Last week, six years into his presidency, Obama announced a new “Clean Power Plan” which plots an outline for tackling climate change. He laid out some steps for curbing carbon emissions from power plants --- which contribute the most CO2 to the atmosphere --- and moving to renewables like wind and solar power.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it’s late. We’re now past 400 ppm of carbon in the air. Why didn’t he announce this plan five years ago?
The administration behind the scenes has done some good work getting preliminary agreements from other major industrial nations like Brazil and China (two nations which previously had been reluctant to work out a deal on climate change) on the need to reduce carbon emissions and move to renewables. The recent talks set the stage for reaching some meaningful agreements at the Paris summit later this year.
One possible idea that could be discussed in the Paris talks is setting up a system to impose a world-wide carbon tax. That would mean that the production, distribution and use of all carbon fuels --- coal, oil or natural gas --- would be hit with a special tax. As the price of carbon fuels rose, it would make the market move more rapidly to the development of non-carbon sources --- wind, solar and geo-thermal.
Whatever specifics emerge for any carbon reduction plan, it’s clear that a strong, binding international agreement on slowing climate change is desperately needed --- now.
It’s five minutes to midnight.