Climate change

Climate talks underachieve, again

Gwynne Dyer says our inability to do enough to cope with climate change will end in disaster

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 2:55am

They made some progress at the international talks on controlling climate change, held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the "Loss and Damage mechanism", has no numbers attached to it, but it's a step forward. The only step forward, unfortunately.

In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on mitigation, by cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That made good sense, but they didn't get anywhere.

So, gradually, the emphasis shifted to adaptation. If we can't agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What's the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures? What's the plan for coping with massive floods?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays? In principle, says the new mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming. But it has no method for assessing the damage or allocating blame.

So, what is the next stage? For that, we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won't happen until quite late in the decade. By then, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to 2 degrees Celsius.

So then, when it's too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won't be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem.

There probably is a way of stopping more than 2 degrees of warming. It's called "geo-engineering": direct human intervention in the climate system. Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible, though the undesirable side-effects could be very large. The problem is that it's relatively cheap: just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.

So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting late this decade, will be about when it is time to start geo-engineering, what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won't agree on that either, so things will drag on until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of course.

So we had better hope that observers like the fossil fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is a fraud.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist