Another year, another round of climate talks. We keep hearing that this year is different. That it’s more important. That there’s a big deal to be had. Sure, current international commitments on greenhouse gas emissions are set to run out by 2020, and many scientists are suggesting that we’ve reached a climate change tipping point, but why the urgency? Why do the talks in Paris this year really matter?
Because it just keeps getting hotter and hotter and hotter…
Witness six decades of warming in 14 seconds. The ten warmest years in the 133-year record have all occurred since 1998. It has been a full 39 years since the world experienced a year of cooler-than-average temperatures.
(For a deeper dive, you can play around with the temperature data on this incredible interactive map by Halftone.)
Credit: Climate Central
Through September, 2015 has been the hottest year on record globally, and it’s increasingly likely that the year will end as the hottest year ever in the 133 years we’ve been measuring global temps.
And we’re already feeling the effects.
That map is a look at just one calendar year. The next year, in the U.S. alone, there were eight separate billion dollar disasters caused by warming-fueled extreme weather. And a report published earlier this week by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, revealed a clear tie between man made climate change and the severity and likelihood of many of 2014’s most costly and deadly weather events.
Because human activity has already locked in enough sea level rise to submerge hundreds of U.S. cities.
If we do nothing, sea levels will rise enough to submerge the majority of homes in as many as 1,500 American cities and towns by the end of the century. But according to Climate Centreal research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if world leaders commit now to extreme carbon cuts, more than half of those cities and towns could be spared.
Because the science is settled.
Credit: James Powell
Though cynics and deniers will try, as they do every year, to get in the way of a deal with talk of scientific uncertainty, they are full of it.
Because every year we wait, it gets more expensive to do something about it.
Credit: Council of Economic Advisers
Okay, so the government charts aren’t the prettiest, and certainly not the easiest to understand. But what this is telling you is, basically, the longer we wait to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the more expensive it will be to do so. The most tragic thing about this graph is that the actual targets used are super weak. (We measure climate pollution in the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. A “safe” range – to preserve a climate at all similar to that in which all human civilization developed – would be under 350 parts per million. They’re looking at the 500-700 parts per million range. Not good.) So if we wait five years, it’s going to be twice as expensive to meet a target that doesn’t even prevent some truly disastrous climate impacts.
Because nations are getting closer to hitting emissions targets we can live with.
Though they still have a long way to go. Climate scientists suggest that to preserve a reasonably stable and safe global climate, global temperature rise has to be limited to under two degrees Celcius. (That two degree target roughly translates to the 350 parts per million of pollution in the atmosphere mentioned above.) With the current batch of emissions reductions pledges, we’re nowhere close to making that goal. And with every year that passes without an international agreement, emissions continue to rise and that two degree goal becomes less and less accessible.
Because we’re running out of our carbon budget.
Credit: World Resources Institute
What’s a carbon budget? The amount of carbon dioxide we can emit while still having a likely chance of limiting our global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. (Check out the whole WRI graphic here to better understand the carbon budget. Still confused? This Information Is Beautiful dataviz could help.) The concept has come of age and last year for the first time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a vast coalition of hundreds of the world’s best climate scientists – calculated a global “carbon budget.” They found that at current rates, we’ll burn through the carbon budget in three short decades
Because we’re getting dangerously close to a world that has no international limits on carbon pollution at all.
Credit: The Climate Group
The only international agreement on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2020, and if we fail in Paris, there won't be anything to replace it. These agreements are years in the making, and if world leaders swing and miss in December, there’s no way the diplomatic process would regroup in time to get something done by 2020. (It’s taken us six years to get to where we are – with another chance at a meaningful agreement – after the big flop in Copenhagen.)
So when climate advocates and world leaders say that Paris is a big deal because the UNFCCC has determined Paris to be a big deal, that’s actually kind of true.
The science and economics and human impacts of climate change only get worse and worse and worse with every passing year. The urgency for a global climate deal is long overdue, and world leaders finally seem ready to get it done.