Two words come to mind when reflecting on the United Nations climate change conference in Doha: cognitive dissonance. We talk about the need to address climate change and yet we continue to burn fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow. This dissonance -- the inconsistency between what we know and how we behave -- was on full display in Doha.
Not that anyone expected Doha to raise ambition on climate change. Before it even began, Doha was only always seen as a "transitional" conference. It was about moving forward on a new agreement by 2015 that will require both developed and developing countries to cut their emissions. It was about making progress on a commitment to channel $100 billion to developing countries every year by 2020 (although no clarity was provided in the end).
It was also about launching a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2020 (when the new agreement comes into force). But without Russia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand on board, the second commitment period covers just 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That leaves us with a Kyoto Protocol that is more symbolic than significant.
The negotiations are starting to feel like a car stuck in a snow bank -- the wheels spin and spin but fail to gain traction.
The conference ended with a package of decisions called the Doha Climate Gateway, which at the micro level contains markers of progress but at the macro level reflects the low level of ambition and the lack of real movement that have hampered these talks for the past 20 years.
In the end, the Doha conference achieved what it set out to do. There was progress for the process but action on the ground is happening at a pace far too slow to get us to where we need to go. And so the gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to widen.
A record-breaking year for climate change
Outside the conference walls, 2012 was a record-breaking year for climate change. November was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The first 10 months of 2012 were the ninth-warmest since records began. The volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high and Arctic sea ice shrank to a record low.
Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast. Typhoon Bopha killed more than 1,000 people in the Philippines and left 300,000 people homeless. And in case this wasn't evidence enough, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that found extreme weather events could become more likely, more frequent and more extreme with worsening climate change.
The climate is changing but politics remains still. Every year that we don't deal with climate change, the problem just gets worse and worse. And at a certain point, it will be too late to fix it. There will be too many emissions in the atmosphere and no way back to a world that isn't buffeted by uncontrollable, catastrophic climate change.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke frankly in Doha: "The danger signs are all around. One-third of the world's population lives in countries with moderate to high water stress; land degradation affects 1.5 billion people. Ice caps are showing unprecedented melting, permafrost is thawing, sea levels are rising. The abnormal is now the new normal."
Two degrees: still possible or too late?
The world's leading scientists have been telling us increases in global temperatures must be kept to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. In order to limit temperature rise to two degrees, the IPCC warns that global emissions have to peak by 2015 and then drop to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
But the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research suggests that two degrees is no longer the threshold between "acceptable" and "dangerous" risks but between "dangerous" and "very dangerous" climate change. Scientists there are looking at 1.5 degrees as a safer target. That means cutting global emissions at least 85 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
We're not making much headway on that front. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the gigatonne gap between where global emissions need to go by 2020 and where they are actually going has widened over the last year. It suggests that annual global emissions should be reduced to at least 44 gigatonnes by 2020 in order to have a good chance of meeting the two-degree target. However, emissions were at about 50 gigatonnes in 2010, and they are projected to rise to about 58 gigatonnes by 2020.
Although Doha launched the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the commitments that have been made are far too weak to actually achieve the target of keeping global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius. The IPCC suggested that developed countries should reduce their emissions by at least 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 but current commitments add up to 18 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 -- far below the range suggested by the IPCC.
Governments are aware that climate change comes with a time limit and that the window to stabilize global temperatures is closing. The Doha agreements note with "grave concern" the widening gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Countries also stated an intention to "identify and explore in 2013 options for a range of actions to close the pre-2020 ambition gap."
But several reports seem to be abandoning hope of keeping to the two-degree limit. The UK government's scientific advisor says the target is "out the window." A study published in Nature Geosciences finds temperatures could rise by as much as three degrees Celsius by 2050. (To put it into context, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change predicts that a rise of three degrees would mean 550 million more people would be at risk of hunger, 170 million could suffer coastal flooding and nearly half the world's species could face extinction.)
In November, the World Bank warned the planet is on course to warm four degrees Celsius by 2100 unless urgent action is taken to address climate change. In the report's foreword, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the new leader of the World Bank, writes "It is my hope that this report shocks us into action."
What happens next?
This is the big question: what happens next? Will negotiations during the next three years actually result in real emission reductions or will it be too little, too late?
It's easy to feel pessimistic about international negotiations on climate change. Each meeting seems to follow the same pattern: all talk, no action. World governments have been talking about climate change for 20 years with very little progress. Trying to get 194 countries to move together in the same direction on climate change feels less like building consensus and more like herding cats.
Part of the problem is that negotiations are complicated by fundamental differences of positions, which have yet to be resolved. Countries will have to find a way to work through several key differences, including differences of historical responsibility, differences in development and differences in geographic vulnerability to climate change. International cooperation on deeper emission cuts will be impossible unless these differences can be resolved. After two decades, the split between developed countries and developing countries continues to fracture climate talks.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol enshrined a division between developed countries (which were required to cut emissions) and developing countries (which were not). This principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" compels developed countries, which were historically responsible for pumping the majority of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to take the lead in reducing emissions while providing financial and technological support to developing countries. But the world in 2013 is a much different place than it was when the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated. Back then, China was classified as a developing country. Now it is the world's biggest emitter and will soon overtake the U.S. as the biggest economy. As a result, developed countries are insisting that developing countries take on commitments too.
The changing structure of the world's economy was front and centre at the Durban climate change conference in 2011, where countries agreed "to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties" (to be negotiated by 2015 and come into effect from 2020 onwards). The key sticking point is what applicable to all will mean in the new agreement. In Doha, countries argued about whether or not the Convention principles, especially the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, should be at the core of the new agreement. They will somehow need to resolve this issue within the next three years.
Still, it is impossible to ignore what Lord Nicholas Stern has called the "brutal arithmetic" -- the fact that action by all countries will be necessary to hold global temperature increase below two degrees.
"His new research shows that even if developed countries cut their emissions to zero, that would not be enough to halt runaway climate change -- because emissions from rapidly industrialising economies are now so high. Greenhouse gases from emerging economies -- such as China, South Korea and India, that have industrialised rapidly in the past two decades -- now make up the bulk of the world's carbon emissions," reports the Guardian.
The negotiations leading up to 2015 will likely be complex, difficult and fraught with animosity, especially if developed and developing countries refuse to move beyond their entrenched positions. It's not clear if the 2015 agreement will keep climate change below two degrees Celsius because this would require steep cuts in emissions by both developed and developing countries, starting almost immediately.
The glimmer of hope in all of this is that if governments decide they want to raise the level of ambition on climate change, the new agreement can be a tool to set us on course. Governments can, theoretically, design the new agreement to match up with the deep emission cuts the IPCC indicates are necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The negotiations between now and 2015 will determine if we are serious about solving climate change or not. It's what happens next that really matters.
The unreality of reality
It's worth mentioning what it's actually like to be at one of these United Nations climate change conferences. The Economist described the meetings as a "theatre of the absurd" (an incisive observation that could be equally applied to the opulent Qatar National Convention Centre where Swarovski chandeliers dripped from the ceiling -- all of it paid for by the world's unquenchable thirst for Middle East oil).
Since 1995, representatives of countries from around the world have gathered at the annual Conference of the Parties to hammer out the details of international action on climate change. For two weeks each year, thousands of negotiators, politicians, heads of state, journalists, celebrities, business leaders, academics, youth activists and environmentalists converge in a frenzy of activity.
Comic relief is provided by the small contingent of oddballs that always turns up at these conferences -- like climate skeptic Lord Monckton, whose modus operandi is stopping the Marxists' wet dream of global totalitarian dictatorship. His self-aggrandizing blather has become so legendary that panelists no longer give him the floor during press briefings or at side events. So he decided to don a disguise in Doha, showing up at a press conference wearing an Arabic white gown and head cover. A few days later, he sat at an empty chair in the main plenary, impersonating a delegate from Myanmar to address the conference floor. He managed to give a short speech denying the reality of climate change before the President of the conference realized who he was and cut him off. Lord Monckton was escorted from the building and given a lifetime ban from attending U.N. climate change conferences. (It makes me a little sad to think we'll never see his antics again.)
A surreal location for a climate change conference
Qatar was a surreal location for a climate change conference. Or maybe -- as a living example of what growth at any cost looks like -- it was the perfect place for a climate change conference.
Qatar has the world's highest per capita carbon emissions. Which is not surprising when you consider it burns fuel to desalinate seawater, builds golf courses in the desert and cranks the air-conditioning to the max. Doha is what happens when you build a city in the middle of a desert with no thought to the environment (or human rights, for that matter).
Action already underway
There is a tendency to despair after coming home from these climate change conferences. I'm left vacillating between idealism and cynicism. Hearing about action already underway inspires me; seeing the low level of political ambition on display depresses me. But I recognize the importance of staying away from the extreme end of idealism (the naive and infantile kind of thinking that presumes people are inherently good or will choose to do the right thing) and the extreme end of cynicism (the negative and defeatist kind of thinking that constantly says "that's unrealistic").
There's a quote from a speech that keeps me hopeful: "When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse."
I met many people in Doha working hard to make a difference. But the ones who impressed me the most were the young people. They were a reminder that action on climate change is already underway, that young people everywhere are working to reconstitute the world.
I met Reuben Makomere and Kennedy Liti Mbeva -- two Kenyan youth delegates who voluntarily created a jargon-free guide to the UNFCCC process to help young people better understand the negotiations.
I met a group of young women from the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts who teamed up with Greenpeace to send a Girl Guide from Ghana and a Girl Scout from Peru to the Arctic on an icebreaker ship. They witnessed new scientific research into ice thinning, and are now asking the world to protect the Arctic region.
I met three Japanese students from Doshisha University who explained how their university has been nationally recognized for its efforts to reduce carbon emissions on campus. Some of these efforts include setting the air conditioning at 28 degrees Celsius in summer and 22 degrees Celsius in winter, replacing energy inefficient light bulbs with LED lights and installing solar panels.
The examples go on and on. If I listed all of the brilliant work young people, NGOs, universities and local governments are doing to curb climate change, I could fill a book.
If we want to shift the level of ambition and political will that countries bring to the international negotiating table, we need to ramp up public concern on climate change. Without public pressure for strong action, countries will be able to continue to push for weak targets at international climate negotiations. Ministers will be able to return home from these meetings and ignore the problem until the next summit. Without this mutual reinforcement, international negotiations will continue to go nowhere and emissions will continue to rise.
Although the U.N. process is the centre of international engagement, "it is not the circumference of action on climate change." The fight to protect the climate doesn't begin and end at these conferences; it happens at home. The more we demand fundamental changes, the more space political and business leaders will have to act.
Or as George Monbiot put it: "Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care. Nothing changes unless we change."
So how do we change? How do we create a groundswell of support for renewable energy and sustainable growth? I think it's worth repeating what I wrote before about the four things most social movements tend to share in common:
1. Action. If you want to influence other people, you need to back up your words with action. It's not about being dogmatic or demanding. It's about being the change you want to see in the world.
2. Communication. Share your ideas. If 10 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 100 people. If 100 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 1,000 people. If 1,000 people share their idea with 10 other people, they will reach 10,000 people. Ideas can spread exponentially, so start spreading them.
3. Organization. Slavery in America ended because people organized. The Berlin Wall came down because people organized. The Arab Spring spread across the Middle East because people organized. People need to come together to make their voices heard.
4. Long-term commitment. Urgency does not mean panic. It means continuous, patient action to change the world.
It's easy to blame political leaders for the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the problem goes deeper than that -- there is very little being done to address the root cause of climate change. And while it's true that climate change is caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that's only part of the story. The climate crisis is also a crisis of worldview.
We don't live in an infinite world and yet we act as if we do. We act as if the ocean will never run out of fish or as if the ground will never run out of oil. During the past 250 years, human beings have altered the planet more rapidly than any other period in history. We have consumed resources faster than they can regenerate. We have driven thousands of plants and animals to extinction. The science is clear: a major shift in our consumption and production patterns is needed in order to live within the constraints of the natural systems that support us.
It's time to break the cycle of cognitive dissonance that allows us to talk about the need to address climate change while we continue to burn fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UNFCCC.