Two degrees of desperation

In a newly released report the International Energy Agency warns that "the world is not on track to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperature to two degrees Celsius.

In a newly released report the International Energy Agency warns that “the world is not on track to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperature to two degrees Celsius.” Since the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, the IEA’s 28 member states are in official agreement that the average global temperature must be held to two degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels to prevent environmental collapse. The trouble is that few of them are doing anything about it.

Or that’s one of the troubles. Another is that the two-degree target itself is completely bogus. Thomas Lovejoy, one of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity, wrote in The New York Times this January, “It is abundantly clear that the target of a two-degree Celsius limit to climate change was mostly derived from what seemed convenient … A two-degree world will be one without coral reefs (on which millions of human beings depend for their well-being).”

In 2011, climate scientist James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that “two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster,” including an ice-free Arctic and a rise in ocean levels “in the tens of metres.” The climatologists at realclimate.org warn that two degrees of warming would mean “drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society … the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations … the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years.”

Fortunately, world leaders are already planning to plan to act to keep global warming from exceeding that cataclysmic rise. In 2015 they are to meet to develop a plan to cut emissions, to be implemented in 2020. And if those leaders do what has never been done before, that is to say sign a meaningful, binding agreement on greenhouse gas reductions and then stick to it, the IEA says they’ll already be too late to meet that woefully inadequate target of two degrees.

According to the IEA report, two degrees “remains technically feasible, though extremely challenging.” It “will require determined political commitment to fundamental change in our approach to producing and consuming energy.” The report calls for “an energy sector revolution … very strong policy action. … (Moving) the abatement of climate policy to the very core of economic systems.”

The IEA report is a call to arms, a desperate cry for one last hope that the world’s richest countries might meet their own self-imposed targets for greenhouse gas reductions. On the off-chance that world leaders have the wit and the will to listen and act, those targets lead to a world with flooded cities, lost islands and coastlines, massive species extinctions, widespread ecosystems collapse, and no coral reefs. And that’s the good news.

The bad news is, we’re not going to make it. According to IEA Executive Director Maria Van Der Hoeven “This report shows that the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 C and 5.3 C.” Although she went on to say that it is still possible to turn around, neither she nor anyone else is predicting that leaders such as Stephen Harper are about to wake up and hit the brakes before we go over the petroleum cliff.

I learned of the IEA report from David Crane’s column in the Hill Times, but it doesn’t seem to be a big enough story to excite the national daily papers. The report was mentioned as a brief aside in the Ottawa Citizen, in a story about Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who asserts that despite his recent comments to the contrary, he still considers climate change “a serious issue.” I could find no mention in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, or The National Post. Then again, they do have to prioritize. What’s the looming end of the world as we know it when the latest details of the Ford Family Saga are battling Justin Trudeau’s charity-chiseling for the front pages?

Climate change has a hard time making traction in the media. It lacks the makings of a good story: known timelines, a clear narrative, an easily identifiable villain, some good guys. It also lacks the extra trappings that make a story juicy: cocaine, bikers, and busty hookers, for instance, or politicians on the take. People get bored with graphs and numbers and dire predictions and flip the page to Its Highness the Royal Bump. This may help to explain why governments pay little more than lip-service to an issue that threatens our survival as a species.

Not to worry though, there are bound to be plenty of spin-off stories as time goes on. Forget the dull mathematics of carbon reduction, the Sydney Opera House disappearing under the foam is going to make incredible video. Chasing down the last living members of dying iconic species – the last polar bear, the last elephant – will be brilliant reality TV, and once the food supply crashes there should be enough famine stories to keep the front pages filled till there’s no one left to read.

The truth is, global warming is boring. A two-degree rise in temperature isn’t even a decent heat wave. To make the front pages it has to be warm enough to bring out the bikinis, or kids playing with fire hydrants. Fear not. Climate change may be a snoozer today, but if the word of the IEA is anything to go by, it’s about to get very newsworthy, very soon.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.

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