The latest word on climate change is not good — world emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use rose 1.4 percent last year to set a new record, according to the International Energy Agency. At this pace, the agency reports, global temperatures could rise a startling 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, which would be disastrous for all nations.
And yet this latest report has received minimal attention in the United States, at least outside the climate science community and its usual advocates. While House Republicans spin their wheels trying to blame the White House for errant IRS officials, and the Senate just seems permanently gridlocked on any topic of substance, elected officials in Washington appear incapable of grasping the seriousness of the problem.
Nero might as well be fiddling while Rome — and every other human habitat — faces an uncertain future. U.S. energy policy ought to be near the top of the national agenda, but instead it's treated as simply part of a political game (and a monotonous one at that), with every debate about renewable energy or reducing dependence on fossil fuels generating a predictable argument over short-term consequences like prices at the pump or whether it means more or fewer jobs on Gulf of Mexico oil rigs or Canadian pipelines next year.
Meanwhile, the enormous long-term costs of adding so many man-made gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere are hardly discussed at all. Well, here's a wake-up call, America. The IEA report suggests that unless the U.S. and other countries take more aggressive steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, any hope of limiting global warming to something manageable — less than half that 9 degrees — will probably be lost.
It's not hard to understand how this might happen. It's much easier to deny the problem exists. Oil and coal suppliers have considerable political clout — and money to support their cause. Today's consumer pocketbook concerns about gas prices are much easier to grasp than what it might mean if rising sea levels swamp coastal communities, millions of acres of cropland are no longer productive, nations are destabilized, and health pandemics arise, all of which are direct consequences of man-made climate change.
But what's truly frustrating about this lack of interest is that the IEA report contains some hopeful information that suggests not all is lost. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions actually diminished 3.8 percent last year, despite economic growth. The reason? The switch by power plants and manufacturers to natural gas extracted from shale deposits and away from coal.
China is actually a bright spot, too. While emissions in that country continued to rise, the rate at which they are growing is far smaller than in the past — 3.8 percent last year, which is less than half the increase of the year before. China is investing in renewable energy (and not just coal-fired power plants), and that is having some positive effect.
But these trends alone are not enough. As the report notes, the U.S. gains could easily be reversed if natural gas prices rise. Last year's mild winter was also helpful. And the trend is not as favorable in developing countries, which will need help from the industrialized world to invest in energy efficiencies or less-polluting sources of electricity.
How discouraging that so much human energy is exhausted on an uninformed debate over whether man-made climate change exists at all. Pseudo-scientists and right-wing radio provocateurs continue to peddle hokum about the climate that is demonstrably untrue — like how the planet isn't warming or that ice sheets are getting bigger. Weather is not climate. A cool month or week is not a meaningful measure of what's going on.
Admittedly, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is challenging and involves a certain amount of international cooperation and shared sacrifice. It would be nice if the problem would go away for a few years until the global economy is in better order. But that's just not an option. We can't afford to have climate change continue to fall on the national and world political agendas, not if we want to avert the looming disaster.
The time to act is now. The longer we delay, the more we are locked into energy technology and infrastructure that is unsustainable. The worst effects of global warming might be averted if, as the report's authors point out, greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020 and decline after that. But such a shift won't happen unless we change course without delay. There's a silver lining in this gathering cloud, but it's not going to be there forever.