Here's a bet that I probably won't be able to collect upon: I wager that in 50 years, historians gazing back at now will pay less attention to the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, or even the economic downturn. They will wonder why present and past administrations did not sufficiently respond to the threat of human-induced climate change. If the scientific consensus is on the mark, the planet is likely to heat up by several degrees in the next half-century, and this will cause all sorts of severe consequences: droughts and other extreme weather, disease, species extinction, water shortages for tens of millions of people, rising sea levels, and more -- which could cause conflict and dislocations around the globe.
Yet this long-term (but quickly approaching) problem -- which at some point might no longer be redressable -- has become largely a ho-hum matter. Look at the tepid response to (and the tepid action of) the recent U.N. climate summit that concluded a few days ago in Cancun. Far more many people can tell you what happened with Bristol Palin on "Dancing with the Stars" than what transpired in the conference centers of Cancun.
After two weeks of wrangling, 193 out of the 194 nations present backed two agreements.
One postponed a decision on the future on the Kyoto Protocols, which binds most industrial nations to global warming emissions targets (though not the United States, which didn't ratify the pacts). This accord is set to expire in 2012, and Russia and Japan have signaled they want out of the treaty -- especially since the United States, China, India, Brazil, and other major emitters last year cooked up their own deal, under which these nations have to abide by voluntary limits each sets for itself. The second agreement reached at Cancun covers that deal, establishing more specifics for it. Still, there are two bottom lines. First, the emissions limits for these big polluters remain voluntary. Second, they fall far short of the supposed goal of keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Even though Cancun was considered moderately successful by its participants -- largely because negotiators kept the process going -- what's being negotiated is not sufficient to address the potential threat.
The conference did produce a few steps forward. There was an agreement on preserving tropical forests (tropical countries that reduce deforestation will receive compensation from developed countries) and setting up a Green Climate Fund of $100 billion or so that (if funded) will provide financial assistance so developing countries can restrain their emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change.
As important as these advances are, they don't compensate for the lack of an overall global commitment to serious reductions in emissions. While President Obama once vowed to lead the world toward climate protection, his negotiating team was not able to push for a comprehensive global deal, given that the U.S. Senate failed to pass clean energy legislation. And the prospects for extensive legislation in the next Congress are low. (In fact, the number of climate-change-deniers will go up in both the House and Senate, thanks to the GOP victories in the midterm elections.) As I pointed out last week, Obama and administration officials have not been saying much
(if anything) publicly about climate change and the Cancun conference.
Environmentalist groups have tended to talk up Cancun's silver linings. (Friends of the Earth did slam the agreements as "a wholly inadequate response," noting that they do little to limit a global temperature rise that will "devastate human civilization and the natural world.") Whatever the gains of Cancun, global emissions are outpacing these international talks. Yet with Obama not pounding the bully pulpit on this matter -- he is busy with other immediate challenges -- there are few, if any, superpower leaders urging the world to action truly commensurate with the potential problems ahead. Though Al Gore and other enviros a few years ago appeared to have pushed the United States toward a tipping point in favor of significant action, now climate change is no longer a hot political issue. (This article is likely to draw far fewer eyeballs than one on Dick Cheney's love child. What? You didn't hear about that? Well, maybe I'll get to that in the next column.) Sen. John McCain, once a leading advocate for climate change action, nowadays is much more obsessed with gays in the military than global environmental disaster. Insert your own punch line.
"World leaders must significantly raise their game if we're to meet the challenge of climate change," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for Union of Concerned Scientists. "Time is running out, and the atmosphere doesn't negotiate with politicians." Sadly, politicians don't negotiate unless they feel the heat. Though the effects of climate change are mounting, the heat is no longer on.
You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.