Climate Change: Connecting the Dots

Sometimes pictures tell the story best.


Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change complied and published the results of several studies on renewable energy. The good news is that there is tremendous potential for the use of renewable forms of energy. But I am struck by two charts in the Summary for Policymakers.

These charts project various scenarios for the portion of the total energy supply provided by renewable energy on the vertical axis and total CO2 emission on the horizontal axis, with color coded dots that indicate projected atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The green dots represent concentrations of less than 400 parts per million (ppm), the yellow 400-440 pmm. There are multiple dots because the charts compile several projections of the future.

The charts confirm what most of us would expect. To achieve lower CO2 concentrations, increased reliance on renewable energy is needed and total CO2 emissions must drop precipitously. Green dots, and to a lesser extent yellow dots as well, predominate in the northwest corner of the chart.

Currently, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are around 394 ppm. And in 2011 total CO2 emissions were around 31.6 gigatonnes. It gives one pause to observe that, according to several projections in the first chart, in eighteen years total emissions must be no more than two-thirds of current emissions (according to some projections much less) to be on track eventually to stabilize atmospheric concentration levels below 400 ppm. And by 2050 the green dots are approaching zero. Note this allows for higher concentrations than the activists at 350.org would like. But the 350–400 ppm range (green dots) is what the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report projected was necessary to stabilize the global average temperature at 2–2.4° above pre-industrial levels. Two degrees was the goal decided upon at the Cancun United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in 2010. The 400–440 ppm range (yellow dots) would make for a likely a temperature increase of 2.4–2.8°.

One story this picture tells is that hitting the two degrees goal requires a dramatic transformation of energy production across the globe in the next eighteen years. Are we politically, dare I say morally, capable of such a transformation? It’s an open question.

The UNFCCC, of which the United States is a signatory, calls on developed countries “to take the lead in combating climate change.” Obviously, it would require considerable leadership to produce an international commitment sufficient to steer energy production and consumption so sharply toward the use of renewables. Leadership of that sort requires, among other things, credibility, good will, and sufficient control over outcomes to produce a difference.

As the second biggest CO2 emitter globally, the United States certainly has sufficient control to have an impact on global emissions. But it lacks the requisite credibility. The U.S. pledge at the Copenhagen meeting of the UNFCCC was to reduce emissions by 2020 to 17 percent below 2005 levels. Compare that to the EU’s pledge to reduce emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels, and by 30 percent if other developed countries make similar commitments and if developing countries make commitments appropriate to their capabilities. The U.S. reduction pledge translated into a common currency of 1990 levels is a miserly 3.75 percent.

This summer the minister of the environment of the conservative (Christian Democratic) German government unveiled an energy plan that includes a unilateral German commitment to a 30 percent emissions reduction. This follows on the heels of the announcement last year that all German nuclear power plants are to be closed by 2020. The so-called Energiewende is meant to modernize the German economy along environmentally friendly lines. The opposition Social Democrats have criticized the plan as being short on details. But apparently there is no lack of commitment to the Energiewende in principle.

It would take considerable powers of imagination to conceive of conservatives in the United States proposing policies that would fundamentally transform the economy away from fossil fuels. Unlike their German counterparts, American conservatives would rather entertain doubts about the reliability of the mainstream science behind the IPCC charts. It is usually easier to be irresponsible than to lead. The U.S. Left can only dream of being able to criticize the Right for its empty rhetorical commitment to doing something significant about climate change.

As a result of the Durban meeting of the UNCCC last year, the signatories are committed to forging a comprehensive climate change protocol by 2015, one that will take effect in 2020. There is no reason to think that the United States is going to connect the dots in time to lead on climate change. The more important practical question for that process is how to push it along given the evident incapacity of the United States not only to lead, but to make any significant commitments regarding climate change.



Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


×

The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

×

Want a sneak peek at our biggest issue yet? Sign up for our newsletter:

×