Climate optimism, steady state economics, the rise of global extremist groups and conservation: COP 21, Paris. Connecting disparate dots. (#COP21PARIS).
The Climate talks in Paris (COP21) opened this week (Nov 30) and who, exactly, should care? Yes, this is the 21st annual meeting. Yes, all the previous agreements appear to have had minimal effect on rates of burning fossil carbon. Remember Kyoto (1997)? It came into effect in 2005; with a target date of 2012. It seems few countries took any direct action to meet Kyoto goals as we zipped straight past 2012, increasing global emissions more or less on the business as usual trajectory (see global emissions graph below). Countries such as Australia took the bold move to set carbon taxes, but then the government changed and away went taxes.
As conservation biologists, why should we pay attention to the Paris talks? Clearly national governments have not gotten serious about policies that curtail emissions. The con sequence is that conservation researchers have been busy exploring adaptation options to the ~ 4oC we expect by the end of the century. We spent a decade trying to persuade the world that climate change would have adverse impacts on nature (large biotic turnover, ecosystem change, increased extinction; reduced ecosystem services). Contrast the literature on ecological impacts of changing climate to the one that argues that climate change is a crime against humanity accountable in the world court by virtue of stripping oceanic nations of their, well, nations. If a threat of war crime accountability does not change government policies, a little extinction, with all due respect to polar bears, won’t either.
So maybe ecologists follow the 99 % of humanity and ignore the COP process. The fact that Paris is reeling from recent acts of terror and now gobs of heads of state are rolling into town is likely to generate more interest than normal, but actual government action? Get real, says my inner skeptic.
On the other hand, there are clear signs of progress on a number of fronts that starts to make one think that maybe we won’t stay on this path to burning every last gigaton of carbon at our disposal. Here are five facts to help you think positively about ongoing climate progress in actions*:
1. US Carbon emissions have been declining since 2007 (EPA 2014 GHG Survey)
2. The cost of photovoltaics is 5% of what it was 20 years ago (Bloomberg)
3. The cost of a battery in a Nissan Leaf is now just $5000, 1.3 of what it was when the car emerged.
4. Wind power now costs less than gas.
5. There are fewer coal plants each year in the US.
1. The Pope is out stumping the climate change message to the 16% of global Catholics
2.Gallup reports that since 2010 the fraction of Americans who think that worries about climate change have been exaggerated has declined 6% and those who think it is underestimated has risen 10%.
3. The New York Times reports that even most Republicans back climate action.
OK, so the bottom line is that countries have agreed to reduce emissions to below what is expected in order to raise the earth’s temperature by 2o C. We are not likely to make that target. However, Climate Tracker rates countries on progress toward this goal. China, the US and the EU all rank as “Moderate” on their scale (by the way, that is good news that encompasses 50% of global emissions). This has been accomplished by economic drivers not government policy. Obama now claims that we can reach our target without slowing our progress in terms of economic growth. These optimistic trends provide the opportunity for governments to provide carrots instead of wielding sticks to get us to the target. Progress is being made.
Where do we stand as conservation scientists? Obviously, changing climates puts additional pressure on nature making the job of conservation even more challenging. However, three additional thoughts come to mind.
Economic growth. A sizeable controversy swirled around the Society for Conservation Biology a decade ago over whether or not to embrace a platform of Steady State Economics. The argument, fundamentally, is simple: if economic growth is largely dependent on the exploitation of resources, then a model of economic growth has a limit on a limited planet, and that shifting the paradigm to steady state economics and improving human well-being is inevitable. The longer we wait, the fewer resources, the less nature, we will have when it happens. Perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Is climate change the opportunity to reframe our societal objectives? Does reducing our carbon footprint through technology work to postpone new measures of successful economies?
Global Extremism. World history is replete with examples of climatically stressed societies ransacking those with more resources (think Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan). To what extend does climate change drive human desperation, resulting in people seeking political asylum from terrorists seeking to terrorize? Are ISIS-like groups fueling the new climate refugees? Can we use some combination of government functionality, climatic stress on social systems and economics to predict where stability will support effective conservation investment**?
Conservation outside the box. After decades of trying to use traditional conservation methods (reserves, community-based conservation...) we aren't getting far enough fast enough. Is it time to take a radical new direction for conservation? Or is that what "new conservation" is?
There are a lot of very high expectations in the climate community about this particular meeting. Of course, once the meeting ends, then action needs to happen. Bill Gates set the bar high at the outset with a challenge for technological advances to reduce emissions through rationale economic choice fueled by venture capital. It will be interesting to hear what governments say that they will do, and then for conservation scientists to think about how it might impact our research to support conservation action.
Follow along and comment on your favorite newsbit from Paris.
* - These five fun facts are based on a talk presented by Brad Udall at the Southwest Climate Summit in Nov 2015. He cited Tim Flannery's book "Atmosphere of Hope."
** Sexton et al. 2010. Incorporating sociocultural adaptive capacity in conservation hotspot assessments. Diversity and Distributions 16:439-450.
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