Stabilizing Climate: Beyond International Agreements

The challenge we face isn’t to figure out how to stabilize the climate, but how to do it in the time available. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.

| December 23, 2009

Tibetan plateau

We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions quickly enough to save natural resources, such as the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau?


(The following was written in July 2009, before the Copenhagen climate change conference.)

From my pre-Copenhagen vantage point, internationally negotiated climate agreements are fast becoming obsolete for two reasons. First, because no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed.

And second, because it takes years to negotiate and ratify these agreements, we may simply run out of time. This is not to say that we should not participate in the negotiations and work hard to get the best possible result. But we should not rely on these agreements to save civilization.

Some of the most impressive climate stabilization advances, such as the powerful U.S. grassroots movement that has led to a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, had little to do with international negotiations. At no point did the leaders of this movement say they wanted to ban new coal-fired power plants only if Europe does, if China does, or if the rest of the world does. They moved ahead unilaterally, knowing that if the United States does not quickly cut carbon emissions, the world will be in trouble.

We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet and avoid the resulting rise in sea level? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, the ice melt of which sustains the major rivers and irrigation systems of Asia during the dry season? Can we stabilize population by reducing fertility before nature takes over and stabilizes our numbers by raising mortality?

On the climate front, everything seems to be moving faster. Only a few years ago summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was shrinking, but it was projected to last for several decades. The most recent reports indicate that it could disappear in a matter of years.

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