It’s More than a Change in the Weather

After more than 30 years of concentrated scientific research, studies, and policies formulated to address the climate change issue, many of us are still not quite clear about what it is, what’s at stake, and what will happen if we don’t reverse course.

In December 2015, some important talks took place in Paris at an event called Conference of the Parties (COP21). The COP is a very important UN conference that occurs somewhere in the world at the end of each year.

At the COP, world leaders, heads of state, politicians, and delegates — who may have some say in climate change policy decision-making — come together and negotiate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming or in the very least to keep the climate from changing so radically as to make the planet unlivable for our civilization.

This year was the UN’s twenty-first session of the COP. There were nearly 200 countries negotiating how to slash their greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent the planet from warming more than two degrees Celsius. That doesn’t sound like much but keep in mind that this is an average across the entire surface of the planet — all 510 billion square meters of it. A global temperature change of this kind will cause some significant changes to life as we know it.

A Huffington Post article sums up beautifully the terrible consequences of what we can expect with this scale of global warming: doubling or quadrupling of frequencies and magnitudes of wildfires, droughts, heat waves, flooding, rise in sea levels (upwards of 10 feet or more), increase in hurricanes, decrease in food supply, increase in pest infestation, water pollution, and overall economic destabilization across the globe.

What we need to keep in mind is that climate change will accentuate the weather patterns and of the region, and weather-related events will become more unpredictable. Although the Great Lakes may still freeze in the winter in our lifetimes, in some locations winters may be more severe, wet climates even wetter, and hot and dry summers beyond livable.

If you want to know a little more about what this temperature change means for our species, you can also check out what NASA has to say. According NASA’s Goddard Institute of Science, the average global temperature has increased nearly one-degree Celsius since 1880 with two-thirds of that occurring since 1975. In the past, one to two degrees Celsius change of this magnitude has been enough to send us into the Little Ice Age.

If you’re still on the fence about climate change and not quite sure what all the fuss is about, I suggest you check out a recent live presentation by Elon Musk in which he explains how humans have upset the carbon cycle. Although carbon has been circulating in earth’s surface for millions of years, we’ve added a lot of extra to the cycle — much more than can be absorbed by the ecosystem. In the dumbest experiment ever, we’ve been taking billions of tons buried in the ground and adding it to the oceans and atmosphere.

On the bright side, at COP21, more than 150 world leaders provided plans on opening day for drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. These climate plans — called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs — account for more than 86% of global emissions. Unfortunately — although a great start — the goals initially presented were not enough to cut emissions down to two degrees Celsius. Vox reported that current commitments (INDCs) submitted by the COP parties (found at UNFCCC’s website) are woefully inadequate.

This year at COP21 one of the goals of the parties was to reach a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the current commitments ratified by the Kyoto Protocol — a pact linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) international agreement — expires in 2020.

To try to remedy ineffective commitments from previous year’s conventions, a new model was unveiled encouraging each country to suggest a plan that fits their domestic needs to be achieved through emission cuts, financing low-carbon technologies and strategies, and whatever means necessary to achieve intended goals.

To give you an idea of what goes on at the COP, these conventions are like a mini city with thousands of people descending from all over the world. Delegates gather for two weeks talking in the halls, meeting in small groups exchanging ideas, discussing issues, making deals, attending organized sessions and plenaries, and brainstorming solutions all while behind closed doors officials are hammering out agreements.

The COP has been compared to watching an action movie or playing fantasy football. There is a plot with bad guys refusing to play nicely. There are nearly a couple dozen negotiating groups with players participating in multiple teams, making secret alliances to “further ones interests at the expense of others.”

There’s a lot riding on this year’s action-packed negotiations. The world is watching trying to answer a few important questions:

  • Will all of our countries — including China, EU, and US that account for 50 percent of the world’s emissions — collectively agree to a legally binding commitment to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius and below?
  • Will the UNFCCC consider introducing a carbon tax to supplement deficiencies in these and past agreements?
  • Will involvement at COP21 (as with previous year’s events) from the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers water down or impede progress in binding agreements?
  • Will the movement started by a coalition of 100 countries (including African, Caribbean, Pacific countries, the US, and EU member states) to curb global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius take hold?
  • Will the developed countries finally make good on their promise to provide $100 billion in funding towards developing countries efforts to compensate for climate-related loss, adaptation, and financial aid to implement low carbon technologies?
  • Will the world’s private sector billionaires come through with their promise to pump unprecedented amounts of money into clean energy technologies?
  • Will climate deniers finally wake up from their deep slumber, realize the earth is not flat, and join the rest of us in being part of the climate change solution?

Stay tuned for outcomes, successes and lessons learned of the COP21 climate change policy negotiations. Meanwhile, will you join us — and the entire world — in making your own binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in some small or big way?

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