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Why Copenhagen May Be a Disaster

Treating climate change as just another political problem may mean the end of civilization.

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And here’s the thing: physics doesn’t just impose a bottom line, it imposes a time limit. This is like no other challenge we face because every year we don’t deal with it, it gets much, much worse, and then, at a certain point, it becomes insoluble -- because, for instance, thawing permafrost in the Arctic releases so much methane into the atmosphere that we’re never able to get back into the safe zone. Even if, at that point, the U.S. Congress and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee were to ban all cars and power plants, it would be too late.

Oh, and the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already at 390 parts per million, even as the amount of methane in the atmosphere has been spiking in the last two years. In other words, we’re over the edge already.  We’re no longer capable of “preventing” global warming, only (maybe) preventing it on such a large scale that it takes down all our civilizations.

So here’s the thing: When Barack Obama goes to Copenhagen, he will treat global warming as another political problem, offering a promise of something like a 17% cut in our greenhouse gas emissions from their 2005 levels by 2020. This works out to a 4% cut from 1990 levels, the standard baseline for measurement, and yet scientists have calculated that the major industrialized nations need to cut their emissions by 40% to have any hope of getting us on a path back towards safety.

And even that 17% cut may turn out to be far too high a figure for the Senate.  Here’s what Senator Jim Webb (a coal-country Democrat)  wrote to the president last week: "I would like to express my concern regarding reports that the Administration may believe it has the unilateral power to commit the government of the United States to certain standards that may be agreed in Copenhagen… The phrase 'politically binding' has been used. As you well know from your time in the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment on behalf of our country."

In any case, the Senate has decided that it will not debate any climate-change bill until “the spring,” after health care is settled, and maybe entitlement reform, and perhaps even financial regulation. And awfully close to the next election.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are apparently prepared to offer a 40% reduction in the “energy intensity” of their economy by 2020.  In other words, they claim they’ll then be using 40% less energy to make each  yuan worth of stuff they ship off to WalMart.  Which is better than not doing it, but more or less what the experts think would happen anyway as China’s economy naturally becomes more high-tech and efficient. It’s at best a minor stretch from “business as usual.”

Meanwhile, the Indians almost sacked their environment minister after the newspapers decided he was compromising the national interest by engaging in real negotiations about global warming.

Meanwhile, the Australian opposition last week did sack their leader for being willing to compromise on an already-compromised Emissions Trading Scheme that would have capped carbon -- meaning nothing will pass.


A Challenge Unique in History

A new analysis released Thursday by a consortium of European think-tanks shows that the various offers on the table add up to a world in which the atmosphere  contains 650 parts per million and the temperature rises an ungodly five degrees Fahrenheit.

What I’m saying is:  even the best politicians are treating the problem of climate change as a normal political one, where you halve the distance between various competing interests and do your best to reach some kind of consensus that doesn’t demand too much of anyone, yet reduces the political pressure for a few years -- at which time, of course, you (or possibly someone entirely different) will have to deal with it again.

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