From November 30 to December 11, 196 delegates representing every state in the United Nations will get together in the Parisian suburb of Le Bourget to attempt to come to an agreement on CO2 emissions and Climate Change. The objective of the meeting is to reach a multilateral, global agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2ºC above pre-industrial temperature averages. The consensus in the scientific community is that any rise beyond that will catastrophically and irreversibly alter our planet’s climate and create a world that is much less friendly and conducive to our well-being.
Climate Change Goes Mainstream
If you read stories about the Paris meeting in the media and you’ll perceive there’s an air of finality surrounding them. This is because after two decades of failing to come to a meaningful agreement, for the first time ever there appears to be a growing social awareness of the issue – one that is driven by the scientific consensus finally beginning to permeate society, but also by people directly feeling the impacts of climate change in the form of more super storms, more floods, more forest fires, less glaciers, less snow, less rain, and a range of other phenomena. While it can’t be proven without a doubt that these events are the direct result of climate change anyone that follows the global news cycle would be hard pressed to deny that there’s some sort of trend in motion. Consider the data about the hottest years on record: 3 of the hottest years since we started taking in measurements in 1880 have come in the last 5 years, specifically 2010, 2013 and 2014. And that doesn’t take into account the current year 2015, which with two months to go is predicted to become the hottest on record pushing the figure to 4 out of the top 5.
These types of incontrovertible facts, that can be felt and experienced by people, are arguably more important than scientific reports. Day to day experiences of the effects of climate change have created a groundswell of climate activism on a global scale, with more and more grassroots organizations on all continents getting involved and making their voices heard in the political sphere.
The recent revelation that Exxon knew about climate change in 1981, factoring it into its strategic decision making while at the same time generously funding climate-deniers and lobbyists, shows us that the fossil fuel industry won’t go down without a fight. But our current outlook is better than it has ever been and we can happily claim that world leaders are beginning to feel the heat.
The Movement to Divest From Fossil Fuels
Perhaps one of the most exciting things happening right now in the climate battle is the global movement to divest from fossil fuels. Over the last year thousands of institutional investors, private organizations, and public figures have committed to taking their money out of environmentally damaging holdings. The reason is simple: there are no better means to oppose the fossil fuel industry than those provided by the market itself. And so far it has been effective. At a recent press conference in New York numerous institutions and famous public figures such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio committed to withdrawing up to $2.6tn in investments from fossil fuel assets. According to a report by investment consultancy Arabella Advisors, the divestment movement has grown fifty-fold over the past year – if this were a discussion of digital marketing we would be talking about divestment going viral. The level of attention these gestures by leading public figures are drawing is just important as the money itself, as it pushes society at large to acknowledge the issue.
But divestment isn’t only a moral decision. As the Paris talks approach and the belief that world leaders may begin to take more serious action on Climate Change increases, there is real financial risk for individuals and organizations that have put money into fossil fuels. One group is UK government employees, whose pension funds are said to hold £231bn in assets, of which £14bn are fossil fuel investments. If a changing political and regulatory landscape affects the valuation of fossil fuel resources, or outright bans the extraction of large segments of proven reserves, the holders of these assets stand to lose a significant amount of money.
Two leading institutions that are beginning to work on divestment strategies are the UK’s most renowned universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Together, they hold endowment funds worth close to £10bn, and under increasing pressure from student activists, alumni, and academics they are moving in the direction of divestment from fossil fuels. Oxford has already committed to cease investing in coal and tar sands, but not to totally divest from fossil fuels, while Cambridge has formed a working group to study divestment and submit new investment policy guidelines. For activists these measures are still not a total victory, but they are a step in the right direction, and one that is being echoed all over the world as other major educational institutions do the same.
The 2ºC Goal
Two degrees Celsius sounds insignificant. It’s the difference between being comfortable and mildly hot on a bright Spring day. The difference between an ice cream being firm and mushy. But on a global scale, having 2 degree-higher average temperatures will be a disaster. The worst effects of climate change will be triggered if we activate a series of climate feedback loops that scientists have identified. A feedback loop is a mechanism in our climate system that is self-reinforcing, like the melting of arctic ice. Ice is light coloured and reflective, so it absorbs little sunlight and it bounces a lot of it back into space. However through atmospheric warming we have already lost a large amount of the polar icecap, which has uncovered the much darker coloured and less reflective ocean below. This body of water takes in more sunlight and reflects less back into space, resulting in more warming, which in turn results in more ice melting. If current shrinkage trends persist, it is believed the North Pole will have entirely ice-free Summers by 2040 – and that is if they don’t accelerate. Melting of the polar ice caps and of Greenland’s massive ice sheet would result in sea levels rising significantly, and this would have consequences on a broader scale than anything we’ve experienced before; it would affect our entire civilization. And higher sea levels won’t come alone. Increased atmospheric temperatures would also melt mountain glaciers on which many countries rely for potable water. It would throw our agricultural system into chaos, as crops would be impacted by unstable weather conditions and would be more vulnerable to viruses and parasites as well as excessive or insufficient precipitation. We would see an increase in severe drought and rain episodes, like the massive floods that have recently affected the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, or the worst drought in California’s recorded history, which has lasted 4 years and has large portions of the state on water rationing.
In short, it’s a scenario that must be avoided at all costs, and to do so we will need a strong commitment from world leaders to substantive climate action. This means halting development of new fossil fuel reserves and increasing investment into renewable energy generation while at the same time offering solutions to third world and developing nations that have contributed the least to carbon emissions and are going to be affected the most by climate change. This presents a big opportunity, because like with telephone access, where much of the developing world simply skipped land lines and went directly to cell phones, countries with embryonic energy grids offer the possibility of building renewables first.
The world’s two leading carbon emitters, China and the United States, will need to make big changes to their energy policies. Between the two, they produce approximately 15 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, about 45% of global emissions. To stop Climate Change not only must they and the rest of the world commit to an emissions freeze, halting carbon emissions growth completely, but also to massive decarbonization over the next few decades. We know this is technically achievable, the question is will the delegates in Paris be willing to take the necessary steps. Going on past summits we shouldn’t get our hopes up, but as we discussed above, the climate around this meeting is different.
If there’s one thing common trait of political leaders that deserves criticism it is their fixation on the economics of everything – “How will saving the world from environmental disaster affect GDP and unemployment?” …but that’s not the right question, the right question is “what will be the cost of doing nothing?” or, as long as we’re talking economics, “How expensive will it be to live on a planet that no longer welcomes us?”
The result of this meeting can’t be another agreement to reach an agreement at some indeterminate point in the future. We need climate action now.