On December 7, world leaders will descend on Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to determine the future of planet Earth. Or at least they should. So far only 65 national leaders have actually committed to attending the talks. Notable absentees include president Hu Jintao of China and Barack Obama. These politicians, by waiting until the last moment to commit to attending the conference, hope to be portrayed in the media as the saviors of the planet, as the deal clinchers for a sustainable future. Unfortunately, they will be disappointed. Not only will the world not be saved in Copenhagen, because there will not be a treaty to sign, but also there is only one man who can truly salvage the process and play the hero: Barack Obama.
The number of Americans who believe that anthropogenic global warming is occurring has fallen to almost a third. The majority simply do not think it’s that big a problem. This surge in skepticism is the result of public fatigue with the threat of climate change (it’s difficult to understand, the messages we receive are contradictory, and its effects seem far away) and also because of the recession. Climate change isn’t quite as scary as unemployment.
But the scientific consensus hasn’t changed — only public opinion. Yes, we have been in a short period of global cooling, but I’d be more suspicious if the temperature changes were linear: Climate is sufficiently stochastic to make variation expected and so what matters is the trend, not the fluctuation. Which means climate change is just as serious a problem as it was in 2006, when 77 percent of Americans believed global warming was occurring. Despite the slump in public support, climate change requires international attention more than ever.
To limit the global temperature rise to 2°C (36°F), we need to cut emissions by 50 percent before 2050. Should the average global temperature rise exceed 2°C, the game may be up and we will truly be at the mercy of an increasingly inhospitable climate. To reduce exposing ourselves to this climate risk, we have to try both adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation involves developed countries paying $100 billion into the so-called “Mexico fund.” This money will be spent in developing countries to help cope with climate change (80 percent of the impacts of climate change will be felt in the developing world). Mitigation, on the other hand, requires both an 80 percent cut of emissions from developed nations and a 25 percent cut by the industrializing countries.
The need for international cooperation is revealed by the rise of China. Although 77 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases have in the past been from the developed world countries, China is now the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and under business-as-usual China would emit as much greenhouse gases in the next 40 years as the U.S. has done since the industrial revolution. So, to prevent climate change, Obama needs to get the Chinese on board. The question is: How?
Above all, any climate treaty will depend on international trust. The Chinese are concerned about environmental issues: spending on their “Green New Deal” reached $221 billion (compared to the paltry $23 billion spent by the E.U., and $112 billion spent by the U.S.), but they will not commit to further reductions in carbon dioxide emissions if they do not think that the U.S. and other developed countries will stick to their side of the bargain. And they have every reason to be suspicious.
Although the E.U. has instituted a carbon-trading scheme and reduced its carbon emissions in line with the Kyoto Treaty, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in its environmental efforts. The United States signed, but never congressionally ratified Kytoto and instead of the 7 percent reduction of carbon emissions intended, the U.S. has since then increased its emissions by 16.8 percent. Similarly, healthcare reform currently dominates the political agenda, delaying the establishment of a carbon-trading market. The Chinese see this, and rightly ask whether it is believable that the US will actually be able to cut their emissions by the required amount.
For the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to be a success, as part of a “one treaty, two steps” approach, requires the following: there must be agreement on domestic policies for reducing emissions in the developing world, the creation of the “Mexico fund” to pay for adaptation in the developing world, true emissions reduction targets for the developed nations, the creation of a body to assess whether countries are making sufficient efforts to meet their targets, and finally, a roadmap for the signing of a treaty in 2010. For any of these goals to materialize, President Obama must turn up in Copenhagen to reassure the Chinese that the U.S. is ready to take a lead on an issue they have long shirked responsibility over. Obama must also announce America’s short-term emission reduction targets, say 25 percent by 2020, to prove that the U.S. is ready to act now, and not at some point in the indefinite future. If Obama doesn’t take Copenhagen seriously, we will all be left to face the disastrous consequences of climate change.
Erasmus K. zu Ermgassen is an exchange student from the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange program.