Advocates for developing countries are pushing back hard against a consensus in some quarters that a new global climate change agreement need not avert catastrophic warming.
In comments to ClimateWire, several officials said they are concerned about what they perceive as a growing sense of resignation among U.S. analysts that countries will fail to be ambitious in slashing greenhouse gas emissions under a new agreement.
One activist declared that it would be an "act of war" if nations -- especially wealthy industrialized countries -- do not meet the levels of cuts scientists agree is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Others said aiming for anything lower than averting a 2-degree-Celsius rise in temperatures over preindustrial levels -- the "guard rail" of tolerable climate change -- willfully ignores the threats posed to billions of the world's poorest people.
"From the simple perspective of the Philippines, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, failing to meet the 2-degrees target is condemning countries like mine to a dreadful future," said Naderev Saño, the Philippines' lead climate negotiator in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks.
Saño said the December 2015 meeting in Paris, where leaders have vowed to sign a powerful new global agreement in which all countries make contributions to cutting emissions after 2020, is the "last chance" for an ambitious deal that helps the poorest and most threatened countries.
"A Paris agreement that fails to avert the climate crisis will be reckoned as our generation's failure to confront this challenge head-on," he said. "An agreement that does not include the biggest emitters in the world is a sick joke, and one that we will never take with any grain of humor."
A setup for 'failure'?
The demand for a global agreement that drastically scales back emissions clashes with what others -- particularly U.S. analysts -- say is unrealistic and perhaps not even the most important element of a new agreement (ClimateWire, Aug. 21). It also sets up a potential battle leading up to Paris between developed and developing countries over a critical piece of the new agreement.
Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million (ppm) last year for the first time in human history, according to measurements from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. In order to keep global temperature rise consistent with the 2-degree goal, they must stay below 450 ppm. But a study this summer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that based on targets countries are likely to deliver for Paris, concentrations would actually rise to 530 to 580 ppm.
Some say that while this is worrisome, it won't necessarily spell failure for the new agreement. Rather, they say, the real test of an ambitious global deal is one that brings in all major emitters, is transparent, has a strong review mechanism and allows for nations to ramp up targets over time. That camp does not necessarily include members of the the Obama administration's negotiating team, but it is filled with former U.S. diplomats, consultants and administration aides.
Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, called that line of argument "a tone of political realism which is trying to set us up for failure." But, he argued, a Paris deal that is not consistent with the 2-degree target would be "an act of war" directed at the world's poorest people in the most vulnerable countries.
"You're writing off hundreds of millions of people on this Earth whom you know will die," Huq said. "It's a decision to cause harm."
Even some U.S. officials are pushing back against the realpolitik notion that the Paris talks can't achieve the 2-degree target. Former State Department Undersecretary for Global Affairs Tim Wirth called it "exceedingly unimaginative."
"Where is the urgency in any of those statements?" Wirth said. "Where's the imagination about how we might really jack this up and hold it to 2 degrees? We don't have much chance left, but we've got this. Let's use it."
Some are trying to find a middle ground. Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., said the 2-degree target is critical, but that adding up emissions targets is not the only measure of reaching that goal.
"What we're working on is the transformation of the world's economies from high-carbon to low-carbon," she said. "The [Paris] agreement is a lever."
Morgan said an agreement through which countries establish a goal for phasing out emissions and a process to strengthen countries' targets periodically -- along with encouraging countries to establish new renewable energy targets and phase out coal development -- could be a "sweet spot" for shifting investments from dirty to clean energy.
"We need to look, of course, at the numbers. But we also need to look at what countries are already doing," she said. "It's not as simple as adding up numbers anymore."