Last week's UN climate change meeting in Durban, South Africa, closed with an agreement to try to agree on a new treaty limiting carbon emissions, to go into effect in 2020. But by then it will be too late (if it isn't already) to prevent an atmospheric temperature rise of more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-Industrial Revolution levels - the threshold for "potentially dangerous" runaway climate change.
The biggest accomplishment of the two-week conclave was that the three biggest emitters - China, the US and India - pledged to work toward an agreement to limit their carbon emissions from fossil fuels. For the past 17 years of UN climate negotiations, developing nations, led by China and India, had argued that they shouldn't have to limit their emissions because they needed leeway to develop their economies and catch up with the industrial countries that had caused the problem.
The Kyoto Protocol provides that by the end of 2012, industrial nations, but not developing nations, must cut their fossil fuel emissions 5 percent from 1990 levels. Developing nations' emissions have increased since the Protocol was negotiated partly because corporations have moved manufacturing jobs there to produce cheap consumer goods for the West.
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At the 11th hour, a Durban "deal" became possible when the US, China and India agreed to a watered-down commitment to try to agree by 2015 on an "outcome with legal force." No one was sure what that phrase actually meant, but it left enough wiggle room to calm fears over surrendering sovereignty.
This vague "agreement" allowed the delegates to declare progress, especially because expectations for UN climate talks have been so low since the Copenhagen talks two years ago.
Whether or not China, India and the US will ever surrender sovereignty by agreeing to a treaty with enforceable quantitative limits on carbon emissions, a more likely way to achieve emissions cuts would be to gradually raise the price of carbon worldwide, giving countries the choice of how to do that within their borders. For most countries, the easiest way to do that will be to impose and coordinate new transparent national taxes on carbon, as Bloomberg News advocated shortly after the Durban conference. A carbon tax would eliminate the taxpayer-funded subsidy for carbon pollution that has helped make the fossil fuel industry the wealthiest in the world.
National carbon taxes would also make it easier for debt-ridden Western nations to raise revenue equitably and cut other taxes, or harsh austerity programs, that are squeezing the poor and middle class. In the US, imposing a carbon tax could open the way to cutting the payroll tax, as President Obama has urged. It makes no sense to tax work rather than carbon pollution. In fact, it's crazy when viewed from any rational perspective.
It is clear that UN climate talks will not be able to resolve the profound geopolitical, macroeconomic and equity issues that lie at the heart of climate change. As John Broder recently wrote:
"Effectively addressing climate change will require over the coming decades a fundamental remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world - the sinews of modern life. There is a fundamental disconnect in having environment ministers negotiating geopolitics and macroeconomics."
Time is running out to find an approach that works. The Durban talks occurred against the backdrop of a dangerous climate change feedback loop already in motion and a record-breaking jump in carbon emissions in 2010. The dangerous feedback loop already in motion includes melting permafrost that releases methane, a greenhouse gas 20-60 times more potent than carbon dioxide and documented upwellings of hydrate gas which has been trapped in ocean depths since the volcanic era.
The staid International Energy Agency (IEA) "calculated that if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32 gigatons by 2020. If this year's emissions rise by as much as they did in 2010 [a virtual certainty], that limit will be exceeded nine years ahead of schedule, making it all but impossible to hold warming to a manageable degree." In the Agency's view, holding annual energy-related emissions to even 32 gigatons is probably not enough to avoid runaway climate change given the dramatic manner in which the climate negative feedback loop has already kicked in globally.
The world cannot afford its self-induced paralysis on climate change. The exigencies of climate change underscore the need to move now to an economic system far different from the broken one at the heart of the present economic and ecological crisis. As Naomi Klein wrote in a recent seminal essay, "Capitalism vs. the Climate":
"The fact that the earth's atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract."
We can and must enhance our capacity for self-governance to counter unrestrained corporate power, as the Occupy Wall Street movement and its many offshoots remind us. Only by creating a deeper sense of community can we overcome our intertwined economic and climate challenges.
Human civilization as we know it is in total jeopardy. We must find a new path that is sustainable, reverse the existing negative environmental feedback loop and steel ourselves with a resolve to save the planet and ourselves. The choice is stark. It is, literally, one of life or death.