Smokestacks pollution air quality
President Trump has taken a lot of flack for pulling out of the Paris climate accords, claiming they were a bad deal for the country he leads.
Perversely, the problem with the global climate treaty may not be that Trump's action made the potential for devastation worse, but rather that the effects of climate change are already on track to be so bad as that even compliance with the accord may be futile.
A new article on climate change by New York magazine details a number of studies that draw that conclusion.
Camels, tire tracks, and dunes in Morocco
It starts by noting that not a single major industrialized nation is hitting the targets pledged under the Paris Climate Accords.
If Trump thinks (as he has said) that other nations are taking advantage of America by not meeting their own climate targets while pushing the U.S. to do better, it's worth noting that seven countries counter his statement: India, the Phillipines, Morocco, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Gambia, and Bhutan
We could argue all day about whether any of those are major countries, and their citizens certainly will. Alone, though, they're not big enough to make up for rising emissions in other countries.
Let's quantify that: The Paris Climate Accords laid out a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 degrees C below 2010 levels by 2050 to safely avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Last year, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 1.7 percent, even after the reductions by those seven countries.
To meet the goals of the Paris Accords, the most solid estimates. of what it would take to avoid catastrophic effects of global warming include not just reducing countries' output of new greenhouse gases, but actually producing negative emissions: sucking up and trapping carbon already emitted into the atmosphere.
At present two technologies have been identified for this: carbon capture and storage and good old forestry.
A letter from scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Integrative Research Institute on Transformation of Human-Environment Systems in Berlin, published in Nature Climate Change points out that planting enough forests to absorb that much carbon would take up one-third of the Earth's arable land, with dire effects on food supply, water quality, biodiversity, and even daylight.
That leaves carbon capture and storage, a technology that—while potentially promising—is still untested at scale and uneconomical.
What's at stake?
According to another article in Nature Climate Change, if global warming were limited to 1.5 degrees C rather than 2 degrees C, the difference in premature deaths would amount to 150 million people.
That's three times the number that died in World War II, the most catastrophic human-life-ending event the world has yet encountered.
While that number is not set in stone, it represents only air pollution, not deaths from drowning, displacement, heat stroke, war, or any other act of nature that climate models show would accompany climate change.
Flooded car in parking lot. Photo via Flickr user waitscm/CC2.0
If all that sounds unremittingly depressing, there may be a silver lining, according to the author: If Trump's pull-out undermines an accord that was overwhelmed anyway, it could force nations back to the drawing board to come up with something else.
We're not sure what that would be or how long it would take to accomplish. Meanwhile tailpipes and smoke stacks across the globe are pumping more carbon into the air than the globe's greenhouse can apparently handle. Cleaner cars and cleaner powerplants can't get here quickly enough.
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