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Passing the one degree threshold

The UK Met Office this week issued a press release highlighting the news that the global average temperature this year is set to be a full degree higher than the pre-industrial norm (Warming set to breach 1C threshold, according to the BBC report). As we near the start of the Paris climate change summit, we can expect to see more stories like this. The only surprising thing is that the press release got relatively little coverage in the mainstream media.

The implication of the report is, of course, that we are now halfway to the nominal 2° threshold of ‘dangerous warming’, which knowledge is intended to put increased pressure on the teams of negotiators (and the senior politicians who will make the decisions) to agree a binding deal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. To up the ante even more, we read that ‘Life on planet at stake’, France warns as climate ministers meet.

But, as should be clear by now, such scare tactics do little to change minds. Public demonstrations by activists do not mean that they have the backing of their fellow citizens and, without that public support, elected politicians are constrained in the action which they can take. Indeed, there are always commentators who make the point that the threat of climate change cannot be addressed through democratic politics, but needs nations to be put effectively on a war footing (for example, James Lovelock; see Can democracy cope with climate change?).

The EU, with its strong and influential environmentalist movement, is the political bloc most in favour of radical action to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. But even here, taking action is easier said than done. The energy committee of the European Parliament recently narrowly voted against a proposal to introduce more stringent (and legally binding) 2030 targets for emissions reductions, renewables and energy efficiency.

There is every chance that this vote will be reversed in a plenary vote later this year but, in the broader context, is this really of any significance other than signalling Europe’s willingness to lead on this issue? One of the tenets of those who want to lead is that others will follow. By committing to more ambitious policies, other major economies should be more inclined to join in.

There has been a concerted attempt to build momentum for this by asking countries to make their emissions reduction pledges in advance of the Paris summit. The Economist explains more in this article: What climate talks in Paris will mean. Although welcoming the approach, the piece also introduces a note of realism: “As with many other pledges, these plans are less impressive upon closer inspection: America is already half way to reaching its target thanks to its fracking boom. And no one knows precisely how much carbon dioxide China releases into the atmosphere each year, so its efforts to cut back will be difficult to measure.”

Another dash of cold water is added by John Kerry, who suggests that the Paris climate deal will not be a legally binding treaty. Not that ‘legally binding’ in terms of international law seems to mean a great deal, but a treaty may have put more pressure on backsliding countries. In any case, the deal arrived at is likely to be pretty weak. To get what it says it wants, the rich world will have to put its money where its mouth is and stump up the promised $100bn annual climate fund for developing countries, and there is little certainty of this. China and India will commit to no more than moves towards peak emissions and reduction of carbon intensity. At best, this is in exercise in keeping a disparate coalition of nations tied into a continuing collaborative process.

A look at the facts shows us that the chances of achieving the proposed 80% emissions cuts by 2050 with current technology are vanishingly small. The only realistic path is a massive expansion of nuclear energy in parallel with an intensive programme of R&D into new energy generation and storage methods. But wherever we look, we see politicians reluctant to take radical steps and a key reason for this lukewarm attitude is the elephant in the room: the lack of an upward trend in global temperatures since the end of last century.

That’s why the Met Office press release was potentially important. Convincing policymakers that there has been no hiatus in rising temperatures for the last 15 years or more could just prod leaders into more action. However, there is a large element of smoke and mirrors in the arguments being put forward. In particular, a very significant reason for the average global temperature to have been nudged up a fraction is an intense El Niño event, the warming of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America which has a disruptive effect on many worldwide patterns of weather.

Similarly, there is much talk of more extreme weather events and what might happen in decades to come. But, at this stage, this is all conjecture. Since it is quite possible to make a case that everything is ‘linked to’ or ‘consistent with’ climate change, you can bet your life that many damaging things will be.

What this shows is the fact that natural variability can be at least as important as the undisputable positive impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on average temperatures and regional weather patterns. This is the basic argument of those who are so often dismissed as sceptics or even ‘deniers’ by those who choose to put their faith in the incomplete climate models that have completely failed to reproduce the present trends.

How long can the climate change policy juggernaut grind on if the present flat temperature trend (El Niño excepted) continues? Over the next five years, we will see for sure whether there is any underlying upward trend in temperatures unexplained by factors such as the Pacific Decadal and North Atlantic Oscillations or El Niño/La Niña events. If not, then a rational view would be for the whole UNFCCC process to fall apart. However, these international initiatives often have a life of their own, so in these circumstances we may still be reading about annual negotiations in successor events to Paris.