Eccentric orbits

Eccentric orbits

What next after Paris? Time to listen to those most at risk from climate change

Indigenous leaders represented those on the front line of climate change impacts. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Pick any day over the past few weeks and the mainstream media would have told you that the COP21 Paris climate change negotiations were crucial and productive, an irrelevant sideshow, doomed to failure, or even humanity’s last ditch attempt to avoid climate catastrophe.

Dig a little deeper into the internet and you will discover that such United Nations events are in fact an attempt to establish a world government, replete with eye-watering taxes.

Conspiracy theories aside, what actually happened in Paris is that humans came up with an agreed plan to put a brake on climate change. We won’t reverse global warming but we should slow it down.

If we don’t come to our collective senses and rapidly reduce carbon emissions, then we will have to revert to drastic geoengineering to rein in further warming. There is no guarantee that such climate brakes will work. If they fail, our civilisation will be on a collision course with a hotter planet.

Do no harm – to climate and people

The challenge we face is not only to avoid a global collapse of civilisation many decades in the future, but also to avoid harm right now.

Polar bears, for instance, have become an unofficial mascot of climate change. A warmer world will have less ice, and fewer places for them to hunt and breed. Yet they aren’t exceptional in this respect. If we tip the climate into runaway warming, then up to one in six of all species are threatened with extinction.

Global warming is bad news for bears. Anita Ritenour, CC BY

However, the harm I am talking about is not to bears, bats or beetles, but humans. A warmer world means storms with more destructive power. More floods and landslides at the same time as more drought and crop failures.

These impacts are not going to be equally distributed across the world. They are going to disproportionately impact the very poorest. When you factor in the increase in diseases such as malaria, then the prospects for some are very grim.

Countries most affected by climate change drove the formation of the high ambition coalition that was key in getting the 1.5℃ limit of warming in the agreement. This is further away from potential runaway warming, but the agreed text speaks in terms of pursuing efforts and aspirations. We must do better. African nations and low-lying islands are most at risk – and least responsible for the problem of climate change. They must be given a forum, and be properly listened to over the coming years.

Fair and just

Richer nations reducing their carbon emissions and paying developing nations to leapfrog some of the worse excesses of fossil-fuelled development is not some gift, or act of international largess. It’s what is fair, right and just. Not to do that would be to effectively shrug our shoulders and say: sorry, we got here first.

Most of the change in the Earth’s climate is a consequence of carbon that was emitted many years ago. Take the UK for example. While its current emissions may be much smaller than the emissions of developing nations such as China or India, the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gasses means that it is still an important contributor to climate change. This means that responsibilities to address climate change should be differentiated.

A Short History of Global Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning (1750-2010)

It’s easy to feel very pessimistic about the international community’s ability to do the right thing. But we would be wrong to buy into a narrative of fatalism. Not only is there nothing physically impossible about rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels, there is ample demonstration that humans are able to look beyond their friends, families and communities and consider the well-being of others. There have been countless acts of kindness in response to the European refugee crisis. I recently wrote about local communities taking actions themselves to tackle climate change. In these and other cases, the motivation to act is to shoulder a responsibility and help reduce suffering, to help build a solution.

While some humans may be selfish and self interested, Homo sapiens as a species are not. We are extraordinarily social animals. Climate change is a global phenomenon that is driving the rapid evolution of moral codes and laws. In that respect it can even change the world for the better. For that to happen we must realise that we are part of a planetary community and that what we do matters.

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