The last time global negotiations collapsed like this was in
When the climate talks in
De Boer might pretend that this is just a temporary hitch, but he knows what happens when talks lose momentum. A year ago I asked him what he feared most. This is what he said. "The worst-case scenario for me is that climate becomes a second WTO … Copenhagen, for me, is a very clear deadline that I think we need to meet, and I am afraid that if we don’t then the process will begin to slip, and like in the trade negotiations, one deadline after the other will not be met, and we sort of become the little orchestra on the Titanic."
We can live without a new trade agreement; we can’t live without a new climate agreement. One of the failings of the people who have tried to mobilize support for a climate treaty is that we have made the issue too complicated. So here is the simplest summary I can produce of why this matters.
Human beings can live in a wider range of conditions than almost any other species. But the climate of the past few thousand years has been amazingly kind to us. It has enabled us to spread into almost all regions of the world and to grow into the favourable ecological circumstances it has created. We enjoy the optimum conditions for supporting seven billion people.
A shift in global temperature reduces the range of places which can sustain human life. During the last ice age, humans were confined to low latitudes. The difference in the average global temperature between now and then was 4C. Global warming will have the opposite effect, driving people into higher latitudes, principally as water supplies diminish.
Food production at high latitudes must rise as quickly as it falls elsewhere, but this is unlikely to happen. According to the body that summarizes the findings of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the potential for global food production "is very likely to decrease above about 3C". The panel uses the phrase "very likely" to mean a probability of above 90%. Unless a strong climate deal is struck very soon, the probable outcome is a rise of 3C or more by the end of the century.
Even in higher latitudes the habitable land area will decrease as the sea level rises. The likely rise this century – probably less than a meter – is threatening only to some populations, but the process does not stop in 2100. During the previous interglacial period, about 125,000 years ago, the average global temperature was about 1.3C higher than it is today, as a result of changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun.
A new paper in the scientific journal Nature shows that sea levels during that period were between 6.6 and 9.4 meters higher than today’s. Once the temperature had risen, the expansion of sea water and the melting of ice caps in Greenland and
As people are displaced from their homes by drought and rising sea levels, and as food production declines, the planet will be unable to support the current population. The collapse in human numbers is unlikely to be either smooth or painless: while the average global temperature will rise gradually, the events associated with it will come in fits and starts – in the form of sudden droughts and storm surges.
This is why the least developed countries, which will be hit hardest, made the strongest demands in
The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama.
The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the
The British and US governments have blamed the Chinese government for the failure of the talks. It’s true that the Chinese worked hard to mess them up, but Obama also put
Why would he do this? You have only to see the relief in Democratic circles to get your answer. Pushing a strong climate program through the Senate, many of whose members are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the energy industry, would have been the political battle of his life. Yet again, the absence of effective campaign finance reform in the
So what happens now? That depends on the other non-player at
Is this music not to your taste, sir, or madam? Perhaps you would like our little orchestra to play something louder, to drown out that horrible grinding noise.