Barack Obama will be there. Justin Trudeau will be there. Everyone who's anyone will be descending on Paris next month to strike a global deal to fight climate change. At stake is nothing less than the future of the planet. "We are at a turning point now," declared UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. We are at "a moment of remarkable transformation."
Hmm. Haven't we been here before? The last turning point was six years ago in Copenhagen. It was a conspicuous fiasco. It turns out that getting every country in the world to sign a binding treaty that will affect their sovereignty and economic interests is really hard.
There will be no fiasco this time. That's because there will be no binding treaty. Countries will show up promising to do their level best. And if they fail? Well, shame on them.
At least that was the plan. But now, the European Union is insisting on a legally binding treaty after all. John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, says that's not on, because, among other problems, it wouldn't pass the U.S. Senate. How they resolve this impasse should be interesting.
Then there's the matter of India and China, which account for 36 per cent of the world's population. They argue they have the right to modernize like anybody else. That inevitably means large increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed "uncompromising commitment on climate change," providing it doesn't affect India's ability to raise hundreds of millions of people up from poverty. One analysis found that if India sticks to its growth plans, its carbon dioxide emissions will treble over the next 15 years. China's emissions will keep soaring, too. The world's biggest emitter has promised only that emissions will peak by 2030. In the next 15 years, its greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by one-third.
This brings us to the less wealthy nations. They think the rich nations should pay for them to confront climate change because the rich nations created the problem in the first place. They've threatened to walk out if the developed world doesn't fork over at least $100-billion (U.S.) a year. "Whether Paris succeeds or not will be dependent on what we have as part of the core agreement on finance," declared South Africa's delegate, who speaks for more than 130 nations.
Good luck with that. "There is no way that rich countries can get their voters to agree to the kinds of transfers that people are talking about," says Mark Jaccard, a climate scientist at Simon Fraser University. Although he is a forceful advocate for action on climate change, he's skeptical that 200 countries can reach a consensus. So is Joseph Stiglitz, the liberal-leaning Nobel laureate in economics. He says voluntary action won't work. He calls the Paris talks a "charade."
Even if all these problems were overcome and every nation lived up to its commitments, the effect on the planet would be negligible. Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, did the math in a new study published in the journal Global Policy. "If all nations keep all their promises, temperatures will be cut by just 0.05°C (0.09°F)," he stated in the news release. "Even if every government on the planet not only keeps every Paris promise, reduces all emissions by 2030, and shifts no emissions to other countries, but also keeps these emission reductions throughout the rest of the century, temperatures will be reduced by just 0.17°C (0.3°F) by the year 2100."
The hard truth about global warming is that there is no public policy solution. We need a lot more candour about that. Until we develop significant technological breakthroughs on a massive scale, nothing that we do will make much if any difference. Even if we figure out substitutes for fossil fuels, converting our entire global infrastructure to other power sources will take decades.
About 80 per cent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency estimates that global energy demand is set to grow another 37 per cent by the year 2040. As greenhouse gas emissions level off in the developed world, almost all of that increase will come from poorer countries such as China. By 2040, the IEA estimates, 75 per cent of all our energy will still come from oil, gas and coal – the major sources of greenhouse gasses.
The other hard truth is a simple human one. No one is going to give up the material comforts of life today for the avoidance of an uncertain disaster many years in the future. Any politician who fails to reckon with that will soon be turfed from office.
Is this a counsel of despair? No, it's not. Sooner or later, human ingenuity will bail us out. There's also a good chance that the catastrophists are wrong, that global warming won't be as severe as feared, that climate systems are more resilient than we think and that people are, too.
Mr. Trudeau's sunny ways won't change the facts. The climate talks that are about to take up so much air time are purely symbolic. They are a chance for the virtuous leaders of the world to parade before the cameras and display their good intentions, in order to win approval from the folks back home. Let's just hope our guy doesn't give away the store.