The sidelines of the international climate talks in Katowice, Poland, this week are bustling with activists, scientists, and officials warning of the urgency to get climate change under control.
Acute tension at the U.N. Climate Conference exists between those on the same side of the climate fight: between the grindingly slow climate talks trying to hammer out rules and those who call for a solution to what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called an existential crisis for humanity.
“Things are obviously proceeding very slowly,” Richard Betts, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, said. “As a scientist, it’s still frustrating to see that we’re at this point. Emissions are still going up. I would have hoped we’d be seeing a bigger change by now.”
The talks in part aim to finalize rules for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which officially kicks in at the start of 2020. Those rules are intended to give countries confidence that if they cut carbon pollution to address climate change, other nations will, too, and possibly boost their ambition to cut even more.
‘We Have Run Out of Time’
The U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October scientific report showing climate pollution must peak by 2020 was an urgent call for immediate action, Marcel Alers, head of energy for the U.N. Development Program, told Bloomberg Environment in a Dec. 12 interview at the talks.
But that warning hasn’t been well heard by many countries, Alers said.
The tension became clear on Dec. 8 when the U.S. joined with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia to reject language that would “welcome” the IPCC’s dire report.
“It’s the whole U.N. process,” Alers said. “If you have 200 countries that have to agree on things, it only takes a handful of recalcitrant countries that could seriously slow down or even block progress.
“This is just part of the process, and it requires time,” Alers said. “We have run out of time. There is no more time.”
“We are in a state of climate emergency,” Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network-Canada, told reporters Dec. 11. “The world has 12 years to make significant strides to protect our environmental and economic future on the path of net zero emissions by 2050.”
Higher Seas, Less Food
The stakes are high.
Scientists say that climate change, caused by fossil fuel emissions, will inundate coastal cities as seas rise, collapse polar ice sheets, bring more severe heat waves to millions of people across the globe, destabilize food systems, threaten coastlines with more extreme hurricanes, and spread poverty, disease, and death.
The Paris climate agreement aimed to avoid many of those consequences, trying to arrest rising temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above averages from before the Industrial Revolution—but preventing it from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
But with today’s level of climate pollution, the Earth is on track to warm by up to 4.4 degrees Celsius (7.9 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century, Betts said Dec. 12, speaking at a presentation at the climate conference.
With 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, “Southern Spain will become part of the Sahara,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a professor of theoretical physics and founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said, speaking at the talks on Dec. 12.
‘All Aspects of Society’
The IPCC’s October report showed that countries have to slash climate pollution by about 45 percent by 2030 in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
Accomplishing such deep decarbonization of global economies will require “unprecedented transformation” to “all aspects of society,” IPCC Chairman Hoesung Lee told ministers Dec. 11 at the meeting, known as COP24.
But even if countries hit their targets—scientists say it’s unlikely—the pollution already in the atmosphere will warm the world, resulting in dire consequences whether emissions are cut today or not, scientists say.
The Paris pact is “a firewall,” Schellnhuber said. “It’s not helping us to keep the world as it is now. We’ve lost this opportunity already. It’s a firewall against climate chaos.”
But turning the Paris pact into urgent action isn’t something that happens overnight, and it’s not foremost on the minds of negotiators hammering out the rules for the Paris agreement as the talks enter their final days.
“Absolutely it’s an emergency, but my focus here is on getting the rulebook, getting clear, transparent rules because that will drive the ambition we need,” Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, told Bloomberg Environment in a Dec. 12 interview at COP24.
“I think we all know we need to be ambitious,” McKenna said. “First, you need rules.”
The Paris pact and the process to finalize its rules are not really the best venues to drive immediate action, Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told Bloomberg Environment.
“There may have been a time when we looked at the multilateral process to be a principal driver of action,” Diringer said. “We’ve learned that it can’t really play that role.”
The Paris agreement establishes a framework helping countries become more confident that the greenhouse gases they promise to cut will make a difference for climate change, but it doesn’t result in immediate action, Diringer said.
Getting a good set of rules in place can boost countries confidence, he said.
Those involved in the rulemaking process aren’t hearing the calls for action by youth groups and other activists in the hallways at COP24, Schellnhuber said.
“Angry young people can change the world,” Schellnhuber said. Many countries aren’t hearing that anger yet, “but I hear it all over the place. They are waking up. It is their future we are stealing.”