Many hail the Paris agreement—set to cross the threshold this week to come into effect—as a panacea for global climate change. Yet tragically, this perspective neglects to take into account the scientific reality of our climate system, which tells a much different story.
Our latest research, Young People's Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions, recently appeared as a "Discussion" paper in Earth System Dynamics Discussion, and outlines how—if national governments neglect to take aggressive climate action today—today's young people will inherit a climate system so altered it will require prohibitively expensive—and possibly infeasible—extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Global temperatures are already at the level of the Eemian period (130,000 to 115,000 years ago), when sea level was 6-9 meters higher than today. Considering the additional warming "in the pipeline," due to delayed response of the climate system and the impossibility of instant replacement of fossil fuels, additional temperature rise is inevitable.
Continued high fossil fuel emissions place a burden on young people to undertake "negative CO2 emissions," which would require massive technological CO extraction with minimal estimated costs of $104-$570 trillion this century, with large risks and uncertain feasibility.
Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, possibly implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both, scenarios that should provide incentive and obligation for governments to alter energy policies without further delay.
The paper provides the underlying scientific backing for the Our Children's Trust lawsuit against the U.S. government, which argues that climate change jeopardizes the next generation's inalienable rights under the U.S. Constitution to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The paper offers an opportunity to examine the current state of the planet with respect to climate change. Four key takeaways include:
1. The Paris Climate Accord is a precatory agreement, wishful thinking that mainly reaffirms, 23 years later, the 1992 Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change. The developing world need for abundant, affordable, reliable energy is largely ignored, even though it is a basic requirement to eliminate global poverty and war. Instead the developed world pretends to offer reparations, a vaporous $100B/year, while allowing climate impacts to grow.
2. As long as fossil fuels are allowed to be held up as the cheapest reliable energy, they will continue to be the world's largest energy source and the likelihood of disastrous consequences for young people will grow to near certainty.
3. Technically, it is still possible to solve the climate problem, but there are two essential requirements: (1) a simple across-the-board rising carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the source, and (2) government support for RD&D (research, development and demonstration) of clean energy technologies, including advanced generation, safe nuclear power.
4. Courts are crucial to solution of the climate problem. The climate "problem" was and is an opportunity for transformation to a clean energy future. However, the heavy hand of the fossil fuel industry works mostly in legal ways such as the "I'm an Energy Voter" campaign in the U.S. Failure of executive and legislative branches to deal with climate change makes it essential for courts, less subject to pressure and bribery from special financial interests, to step in and protect young people, as they did minorities in the case of civil rights.
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