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Climate Change Reality Check: The Gap Between Theory And Action

April 16, 2013

I’ve long been struck (dumb) by the enormity of the chasm between the policies and actions climate change demands, and the policies and actions humans and their governments are actually willing to take (no, buying a Prius isn’t enough).

Grist’s David Roberts digs into this problem, with a look at just one industry, the shipping industry. First, some general context:

There is a titanic gulf between what we say ought to be done about climate change and what we are doing. This ineluctable fact has loomed behind national and international policymaking for decades, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore…[snip]

Needless to say, we are not acting in a fashion that would put us on any of those emission curves. According to International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol, our current trajectory is “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6°C, which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Here’s a quick graphic on what sort of reductions Annex 1 (developed countries) and non-Annex 1 (developing countries) would have to accomplish to achieve different probabilities of avoiding the 2 degree C increase in global temperatures that is the guesstimated dividing line between sorta bad consequences and really bad consequences (click image to enlarge).


Not looking very likely, is it? And here is why the shipping industry, and its stated plans to help reduce carbon, can help explain why this gulf exists:

In fact, note Anderson and Bows, “the shipping industry’s EEDI and SEEMP leave the sector on a trajectory for emissions to be approximately 2200% higher by 2050 than is their fair and proportionate contribution.”

Let that sink in for a moment: 2,200 percent. That’s the size of the gulf between the industry’s stated intentions and the industry’s real-world policies, between what it says it intends to do and what it’s doing. Anderson and Bows call this a “Machiavellian duality,” and it is by no means unique to shipping. It is true of most industries and most countries. We talk a good game about 2°C, but nobody, anywhere, is doing close to what would be necessary to make it real.

To add a kind of surreal twist to all this, the industry talks constantly about the emission “reductions” it plans. How can it do this when, as the graph makes clear, it plans enormous emission increases? What enables this kind of Orwellian doublespeak?

The answer is that the reductions are relative to a baseline projection of growth. They’re lower than they would be otherwise, without policy to reduce emissions. You hear this all the time, from companies, industries, agencies, and countries, about emission “reductions” that are, in fact, merely slightly-less-enormous emission increases. And so we lull ourselves with the thought that we’re doing something, making progress.

So there you have it. The reality of climate change is met by the fantasy that incremental change will get the job done. Unless that fantasy is made apparent and banished, and real changes on the scale reality requires are implemented, things are going to get mighty warm up in here.

What should we do if everyone wakes up and suddenly says, how do we achieve the change required? Repeat with me: price carbon. The change will follow.

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