by Myanna Dellinger, JD, MA – Associate Professor at Western State College of Law and Director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy
Extremely cold weather conditions still haunt the American North and Northeast. Meanwhile, California is suffering through July temperatures in January and the worst drought since 1895. No doubt about it, we are witnessing ever more frequent extreme weather events. Since nations still can’t agree on what to do about this urgent problem, it may be up to local actors such as cities, states, companies, and NGOs to take the required action now.
Nations have agreed to “try” to limit global warming to 2° C and to agree on a new climate treaty by 2015 to take effect by 2020, but in reality, we are headed towards a 5.3° C increase. Even if the 2° degree target were to be met, vast ecological and economic damage would still occur in the form of, for instance, severe economic disruptions to our food and water supply.
Disregarding climate change is technologically risky too: to meet the target of keeping concentrations of CO2 below the most recently agreed-upon threshold of 500 ppm, future generations would have to literally pull CO2 out of the air with either machinery that does not yet exist and may never become technically or economically feasible, or with bioenergy crops that absorb CO2, which would compete with food production.
My article “Localizing Climate Change” argues that effective and urgent action is likely to come from the local and not the national or international levels.
In fact, the parties to the climate treaty framework UNFCCC similarly recently agreed that cities, other subnational authorities, and the private sector must play a role in future treaty-making contexts. This makes sense. Local actors may be the ones best situated to find out what can be done technically and politically in each location. Meanwhile, nations are almost unbelievably playing two fiddles at the same time, subsidizing fossil fuel development much more than cleaner energies. That’s right: although renewable energy policies are becoming more prevalent, they are financially and politically outcompeted by the rapid growth of fossil fuels in the USA and elsewhere. Perhaps indicative of the true state of affairs is the fact that climate adaptation talks are intensifying as mitigation agreements seem to be stalling. It doesn’t help that a secretive network of conservative billionaires is pouring billions of dollars into a vast political effort attempting to deny climate change and that–perhaps as a consequence–the coverage of climate change by American media is down significantly from 2009, when media was happy to report a climate change “scandal” that eventually proved to be incorrectly reported. Little wonder that the most recent IPCC report concluded that it is “extremely likely” (i.e. with 95-100% certainty) that human activity is the principal cause of climate change.
If you think all this is driving you crazy, you may be right. Shifts in climate have been strongly linked to human violence around the world, such as spikes in domestic violence in Australia, increased assaults and murders in the United States, land invasions in Brazil, police violence in Holland, and civil conflicts throughout the tropics.
What are we, as a nation, doing about this? In the summer of 2013, President Obama announced the first-ever United States Climate Action Plan. This relies on a number of Executive Orders, as the Senate is still unlikely to ratify a climate treaty. As with other recent Congressional gridlock, this highlights the importance of local action. If the United States was willing to ratify a new climate change treaty, this could spur much-needed action by the relatively low number of nations needed to make a big impact on the problem. After all, the world’s top ten emitters account for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
This leads to my questions: Where is the most likely and substantively effective action going to come from: local or national/supranational entities? If you think climate change must be countered at the national and international levels, who is then responsible? For instance, should it be the historically largest emitters (among them, the USA and China), the most capable (the industrialized world), the most progressive (arguably the EU), or . . . ? Is anything even going to happen at all, or are we as human beings simply incapable of worrying about the future as a recent study indicated?