Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Weight of the World - by Elizabeth Kolbert

Can Christiana Figueres persuade humanity to save itself?

Thermometer Touching Planet Earth (Illustration Credit: Ben Wiseman) Click to Enlarge.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or U.N.F.C.C.C., has by now been ratified by a hundred and ninety-five countries, which, depending on how you count, represents either all the countries in the world or all the countries and then some.  Every year, the treaty stipulates, the signatories have to hold a meeting—a gathering that’s known as a COP, short for Conference of the Parties. 
The purpose of the U.N.F.C.C.C. and of the many negotiating sessions and working groups and protocols it has spun off over the years is to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  In climate circles, this is usually shortened to D.A.I. In plain English, it means global collapse.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change is overseen by an organization known as the Secretariat, which is led by a Costa Rican named Christiana Figueres.  Figueres is five feet tall, with short brown hair and strikingly different-colored eyes—one blue and one hazel.  In contrast to most diplomats, who cultivate an air of professional reserve, Figueres is emotive to the point of disarming—“a mini-volcano” is how one of her aides described her to me.  She laughs frequently—a hearty, ha-ha-ha chortle—and weeps almost as often.  “I walk around with Kleenex,” another aide told me.

“I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’ ” Figueres told me.  “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Of all the jobs in the world, Figueres’s may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none).  The role entails convincing a hundred and ninety-five countries—many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy—that giving up such fuels is a good idea.  When Figueres took over the Secretariat, in 2010, there were lots of people who thought the job so thankless that it ought to be abolished.  This was in the aftermath of the fifteenth COP, held in Copenhagen, which had been expected to yield a historic agreement but ended in anger and recrimination.
The debate over what to do—or not to do—about global warming has always been, at its core, an economic one.  Since the start of the industrial revolution, growth has been accompanied—indeed, made possible—by rising emissions.  Hence the reluctance of most nations to commit to cutting carbon.  But what if growth and emissions could be uncoupled?

In some parts of Europe, what has been called “conscious uncoupling” is already well along. Sweden, one of the few countries that tax carbon, has reduced its emissions by about twenty-three per cent in the past twenty-five years.  During that same period, its economy has grown by more than fifty-five per cent.  Last year, perhaps for the first time since the invention of the steam engine, global emissions remained flat even as the global economy grew, by about three per cent.

Figueres maintains that global uncoupling is not only possible but obligatory.  “We frankly don’t have an option,” she told me.  “Because there are two things that are absolutely key to being able to feed, house, and educate the two billion more family members who will be joining us. You have to continue to grow.  And, particularly, developing countries need to continue to grow.  But the other sine-qua-non condition is that you can’t continue to grow greenhouse gases, because that kills the possibility of growth.  So, since you have those two constant constraints—you have to grow G.D.P., but you cannot grow G.H.G.s—what option do you have?”

Read more at The Weight of the World

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