Meteor or man-made, climate change is catastrophic

The climate is changing and the effects are dangerous. The international community has agreed that it is too risky to allow the Earth’s temperature to increase by 2°C, and yet, as greenhouse gas emissions increase, are dinosaurishly slow to respond. Are the Paris climate negotiations finally going to be the turning point in effective action? – Katherine Hall, text &, photo

Ask a dinosaur what it thinks of climatic change and you won’t get an answer. The meteor that plunged into the earth 65 million years ago caused the climate to change rapidly. This led to widespread species extinction – with the dinosaur the main victim. Dinosaurs, you may say, had it coming. Some species moved incredibly slowly, taking minutes to react to harmful stimuli. They were technologically primitive, didn’t know the meteor was headed towards earth, and had no way of averting it. Nor did they have a sophisticated legal system governing global reptilian responses. Yet, despite our differences, we are now in a similar situation.

Our climate is changing – at a rate unparalleled since the dinosaurs’ extinction. At an average temperature increase of 0.8°C since pre-industrial times, Europe has already sweltered through two heatwaves in 2003 and 2010 that killed over 100,000 people, a massive cyclone all but wiped out Vanuatu, and water shortages in Nigeria played a role in the rise of Boko Haram. Current trends have us heading for a 4°C world by 2100 – that would mean catastrophic climate change.

We have been dinosaurishly slow to react to this threat, although we know it is upon us. With the landmark Paris climate negotiations in December this year, the UNFCCC requested all countries to submit their national plans for reducing emissions by the end of March. The response was lacklustre. Only 34 countries submitted by the appointed deadline, together accounting for under one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Mega-polluters US and Russia submitted but China, the world’s largest polluter, did not. Of the submitted national plans, most have medium or inadequate ambition to keep the Earth below 2°C of warming – a threshold the international community agreed it would be too dangerous to rise above.

The Paris climate negotiations are important because it is here the international community will decide on a plan for the post-2020 era. The previous landmark climate negotiations took place in 2009 in Copenhagen, where many countries hoped an international agreement would continue and expand the Kyoto Protocol. However, sour US-China relations, the disorganised Danish presidency, and ideological divisions between developed and developing nations prevented an agreement from being reached, and the conference was widely labelled a disaster. With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase, the stakes at Paris are high. So what outcome can we expect?

Kati Kulovesi, Professor of International Law at the University of Eastern Finland specializing in International Environmental Law, believes “the Paris negotiations are unlikely to produce an agreement with a high level of ambition”. Some countries want an agreement to be based solely on their own national climate action plans, with no international oversight. But using that approach, Professor Kulovesi says, “the levels of ambition will be lower, and will not be sufficient to stop dangerous climate change”.

Another option is that the national plans could “become an element of a top-down international review process” that monitors and binds countries to their pledges. According to Professor Kulovesi, the “best that can be expected from Paris” is “no very strong [emissions reduction] mechanism”. But, she also believes that “the UNFCCC is only part of the reality… [and] becoming a less and less relevant part of the reality”.

The growth and development of green and renewable technologies are key elements in the reality of dealing with climate change. Other mechanisms, including carbon markets, are also gaining importance, with the EU carbon market already in its third phase. Civil society action will play a vital role in promoting and advocating for these developments. The divestment movement, for example, has quickly emerged as a powerful voice, encouraging internationally known names, such as the Guardian newspaper, to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.

So far, the human response to climate change has been painstakingly slow. With technologies, political will, and a strong civil society voice, we can avert the most dangerous climate change, and avoid suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs – we just need to hurry up.

Quiz: Test your knowledge about Paris climate negotiations