The Bottom Line on Climate Change

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http://southwestreporter.com/, Cancun, Mexico

While covering environmental issues in the American Southwest over the past eight years, I've come across the folks at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity more than a few times. So I was particularly interested to check out their side event at COP 16 this evening. The event, which CBD co-sponsored with 350.org, also featured author and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben.

I'll admit this: I'm a fan of McKibben's. I appreciate his writing, but beyond that, I've always been struck by the fact that he seems like a good man—and one who is generous with his talents and time.

And so it was sobering to listen to him talk tonight, and to see how tired he looks. Who isn't tired while at the COPs? And of course, he's been keeping up an intense travel schedule. But his exhaustion seemed deeper than that—and twice I noticed him holding and shaking his head, including once when the CBD's climate science adviser Shaye Wolf was discussing the impacts of melting sea ice on the Pacific walrus.

McKibben, who turns 50 next week, opened his remarks with an apology for speaking too frankly. He noted that after years of attending these conferences, he's become more impatient every time—and struck by the “air of unreality” that surrounds the negotiations.

This air of unreality is especially stark in Cancun given how brutal this past summer was for so many people, he said. Not only does Arctic sea ice continue to melt, but Russia experienced a tremendous heat wave—one that prompted the Kremlin to cease grain exports and cause a spike of prices on markets worldwide—and almost a quarter of Pakistan's lands were submerged beneath flood waters. Those were just the obvious weather events; the dramatic ones that grabbed headlines.

Indeed, climate change is happening. And for some, its impacts are already unbearable.

“We're already in a world of hurt, and we're already doing things we can't sustain or deal with,” he said. “And it shows the institutional—I'm looking for a more polite word— insanity of talking about a two degree rise in temperature on the planet as if it were some kind of goal for which we should strive.”

(For those who might have forgotten, in 2009, some world leaders accepted a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures as a goal.)

“If we're already melting the Arctic, what should that tell us?” he asked, adding: “We can't be sitting here having strategies on how to get more carbon in the atmosphere and call it good; we need to be figuring out strategies for figuring out how to get it out of the air.”

Because, let's face it: The two degree goal is impossible. Countries such as the United States aren't making any carbon emissions reductions. And worldwide, carbon emissions continue to rise. The planet isn't stopping at two degrees, thanks to our activities. Just this week, in fact, the Royal Society published a report about what a four degree rise in temperatures will mean. That report can be found at: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934.toc

During their discussion, McKibben and his fellow speakers touched upon the unwillingness of the United States to act on a national or international level to address climate change. But they also talked about some of the ways in which progress can happen. There is movement within the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions. And as the Center for Biological Diversity has proven over the years, the Endangered Species Act is oftentimes an effective way to protect the habitat of imperiled species.

But let's face it, folks: The United States lacks the political will to do much of anything on climate change. And for the most part, the public is disinterested in pushing politicians to tackle this global emergency.

There are a lot of people working hard to turn both those ships around—to influence political leaders and to educate the public—but for the most part, Americans just don't seem to care about climate change. After all, its worst impacts so far are affecting people in distant places. Places such as the Seychelles.

During the question-and-answer period following the talk, a gentleman toward the back of the room stood and introduced himself.

“We will continue to be as noisy as we can until the water covers our heads,” said Seychelles Ambassador to the UN, Ronald Jumeau. “And even when the water is over our heads, when the bubbles pop, you will hear us yelling.”

But Jumeau had something else to say: Thank you. He was thanking the Americans in front of him for trying to get the United States to “see sense” on climate change.

Jumeau went on to explain that when countries agreed to two degrees as a target, they wrote off the small island states whose shores are already being inundated with rising waters. “Rather than doing that, we argue, look at what it takes to save the most vulnerable and then work up,” he said. “If you save us, you save everybody—that's the bottom line.”

Laura Paskus is an independent writer and editor based in Albuquerque, N.M. and a 2010 ENJ Climate Media Fellow. She reports for local, regional and national outlets including the New Mexico Independent, Santa Fe Reporter, High Country News, The Progressive and Women's eNews. This piece, along with other personal reports from COP 16, appeared on her personal blog, http://southwestreporter.com/