During last week my attention has been commanded more than at any other time by the increased attention to the perils of climate change and the clamor for action. I do not tire of reading on this subject, in the hope that one day I will read something that will give some hope of progress. Thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert for weighing in on the debate over whether we should admit defeat, or instead insist on finding another way out of the pending doom, in the manner prescribed by a former Vice President of the USA (a country now officially leading a race to the bottom on this issue):
There are positive signs that the politics of climate change are changing in America. And giving up isn’t really an option.
Late last month, Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Sweden, arrived in New York. Thunberg, who is sometimes compared to Joan of Arc and sometimes to Pippi Longstocking, doesn’t fly—the emissions from aviation are too high—so she’d spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic in a racing boat. When she reached New York Harbor, she told Trevor Noah, on “The Daily Show,” the first thing she noticed was “Suddenly, it smells.”
Thunberg doesn’t adhere to social niceties. (She’s spoken openly about having Asperger’s syndrome.) She began her crusade last year, sitting outside the Swedish parliament building, in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” It’s a trait particularly well suited to the cause she’s taken up: on no other issue is the gap between what’s politically acceptable and what’s scientifically necessary wider than it is on climate change. In an address to the French parliament, in July, Thunberg put it this way: “Maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is, because even that burden you leave to us children. We become the bad guys who have to tell people these uncomfortable things, because no one else wants to, or dares to.”
Thunberg had come to New York to address world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. The summit’s stated goal is to “rapidly accelerate action to implement the Paris Agreement,” which was negotiated in 2015. Under the Paris Agreement, just about every country on earth pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to try to hold it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But, as Thunberg patiently explained on “The Daily Show,” citing last year’s special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the window for meeting these targets is closing fast. To have a two-thirds chance of holding the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the signatories of the Paris Agreement would, collectively, have to limit future carbon-dioxide emissions to roughly three hundred and fifty billion tons. Since global emissions are now running at about forty billion tons a year, this gives the world less than a decade until, as Thunberg observed, “that budget is gone.”
The first global conclave on climate change was held in Geneva, in 1979, when Thunberg’s mother, Malena Ernman, was eight years old. (A few years ago, Thunberg persuaded Ernman, an internationally renowned opera singer, to give up flying, which meant that she also gave up her international career.) The first treaty on the problem—the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—went into effect in 1994, nearly a decade before Thunberg was born. It soon became clear that the treaty was ineffective, and so it was amended, with the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, when Thunberg was a toddler.
The Paris Agreement, it’s now evident, is also woefully inadequate. A potluck supper of a pact, it asks each country to contribute its own emissions-reduction target. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group, only two nations—Morocco and Gambia—have set targets consistent with holding the world’s fever to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Five others have set targets consistent with two degrees. All the rest have targets that are “insufficient,” “highly insufficient,” or “critically insufficient.” Into this last category falls the United States. With less than five per cent of the world’s population, this nation is responsible for more than twenty-five per cent of cumulative emissions. On an annual basis, it’s the world’s second-largest emitter, after China.
To accommodate the U.S.’s unfortunate politics on the issue, the Paris Agreement was not officially designated a treaty. This allowed the Obama Administration to bypass Congress when it drew up its admittedly “insufficient” targets. The Trump Administration, of course, has said that it will withdraw from the agreement, and has been systematically reversing whatever progress had been made. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was loosening the rules on methane leaks from oil and gas operations. (As a greenhouse gas, methane is many times more potent than CO₂.) Last week, the Administration moved to revoke California’s authority to set its own tailpipe-pollution standards—an authority that the state was granted by Congress in 1967.
Are the politics of climate change in America changing? There are positive signs. Earlier this month, the top ten candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination participated in a CNN town hall on the issue; according to the Times, this was “the first such prime-time event” in history. A recent Washington Post poll found that more than three-quarters of Americans now consider climate change a “crisis” or a “major problem.” A survey conducted this summer of voters in Texas showed that, even in the oil patch, a majority are concerned about climate change. Thunberg’s actions have inspired hundreds of thousands of young people around the globe to stage school strikes for climate action. Ahead of the strike called for the eve of the climate summit, the New York City school system said it would excuse students who skipped classes; Thunberg was set to speak to the strikers in Foley Square.
Still, you’d have to ignore most of the past forty years to conclude that action is imminent. The same Post poll that showed rising concern about warming indicated continuing resistance to doing much about it. Fewer than half of those surveyed said that they’d support a two-dollar-a-month surcharge on their electricity bills, and only a third would support a ten-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax…
Read the whole essay here.