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December 4, 2014

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Lima Climate Talks in the Spotlight

December 7, 2014


(Much of this information was drawn from the NYT, Nov. 30, 2014.)


What on Earth can be done about stopping climate change? Thousands of diplomats from around the world are gathering for two weeks in Lima, Peru, to answer that daunting question. No binding agreements have happened for about 20 years at such meetings, so is there any hope for Lima?


The answer is a qualified yes. All hopes are riding on a recent meeting between China and the United States, the world’s two leading producers of greenhouse gases such as CO2. President Obama and President Xi Jinping agreed to firm dates for significant progress on the climate. China said it will decrease its ever-climbing emissions by or before 2030 and the US said it would cut its emissions by up to 28% by 2025 as part of the President’s Clean Energy Plan that emphasizes reductions of dirty coal power.


Predictably knee-jerk reactions by Congressional Republicans say that the President’s Clean Energy Plan is a “war on coal,” while completely ignoring global warming’s “war on the world” that is clearly settled science and fully accepted by essentially all the other nations. Such refusal to accept scientific and world’s leaders consensus, is a typical “head in the (tar) sand” approach for a group that otherwise rejects long-accepted science such as evolution of life forms—indeed biological evolution is the basic framework of the modern biological sciences.


In contrast, Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton and one of the world’s leading climate change scientists, has expressed serious doubt that we can prevent very serious consequences for the Earth even with such agreements.

He says, “I was encouraged by the U.S.-China agreement. But, what’s already baked in are substantial changes to ecosystems, large-scale transformations.” Still, absent such a deal, Dr. Oppenheimer says, “Things could get a lot worse.”


Beyond reaching the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) scientifically supported threshold for massive climate change damage, he suggested that the cost “to the global economy—rich countries as well as poor countries—rises rapidly.” Dr. Oppenheimer’s comments come against the background of the prediction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that 2014 is likely to be the Earth’s warmest year on record, and, based on ancient ice cores, is likely the warmest year in 800,000 or more years.


One other very important factor not often taken into account by the mainstream media is that the 2 degree C threshold means nothing if there is a hard-to-predict “tipping point” of methane (CH4), the main constituent in natural gas, and a major constituent of Arctic permafrost.

There is already a steady and disturbing release of methane (an 86 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 for 30 years after released—IPCC finding) coming from permafrost melting on land and at sea. If this poorly understood tipping point begins, which is possible at any time, then a strong positive feedback cycle of melting permafrost leading to more methane, leading to more permafrost melting, forming  more methane, more permafrost melting, etc., could occur, what we refer to as a “runaway greenhouse effect,” which could quickly warm the Earth to a catastrophic extent. I think of this as playing Russian roulette with climate change. Are we feeling lucky?


Lima is a particularly important benchmark for the international effort to stop climate change. Over these two weeks in Lima, negotiators hope to reach for the first time ever, an agreement by every nation to develop their own plans to reduce greenhouse gases. This optimism is well expressed by Felipe Calderon, former President of Mexico and now a UN climate official, “The prospects are so much better than they’ve ever been,” for such agreements. It is expected that by March, the countries of the world will make plans known that will be modeled after those of the U.S. and China. This would lead, negotiators hope, to world leaders signing their commitment to their country’s planned carbon cuts in a December, 2015, meeting in Paris. 


Don’t tell leaders of the Marshall (and other) Islands that climate change effects are in the future. Rising salt water is already destroying crops and the soil in which they grow, and is contaminating drinking water supplies. Tony A. deBrum, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister said it clearly, “The green is becoming brown.” In fact many island nations are trying to buy farmland in higher-lying countries—they may even have to move their entire populations to such places.


Presidents Xi Jinping and Obama, have indeed made a bold move. Will it result in the longed-for cuts in climate change’s grip? And will it encourage the world’s countries to follow suit? The whole world is watching, especially America and China. It is our assignment (yours and mine, Republicans and Democrats) if we chose to accept it, to use less energy, to cut back quickly and drastically on fossil fuels of all kinds, including natural gas, and to institute an all-hands-on-deck renewable energy “moon shot”, mainly by quickly installing massive solar and wind farms.









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