Why is climate change such a popular topic this month?
For the next two weeks, world leaders are meeting at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris. Their mission: to reach a legally binding agreement to reduce international climate impacts. Unlike prior treaties, the COP21’s agreement could hold each nation accountable for reaching its promised carbon goal.
This agreement would aim to keep temperatures below the 2°C threshold to avoid the worst effects of climate change. However, many of the world’s most vulnerable nations think even more extreme measures won’t be enough.
“We all know, and must acknowledge, that the targets on the table now are not enough to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees, although they are a start in the right direction,” said President Loeak of the Marshall Islands. “If we’re to win the battle against climate change, the fossil fuel era must draw to a close, to be replaced by a clean, green energy future, free of the carbon pollution that is harming our health, stunting our growth, and suffocating our planet.”
The Marshall Islands sit less than six feet above sea level, which means that sea level rise could render them uninhabitable by the end of the century. So, for President Loeak, the stakes at COP21 are nothing less than the existence of his country. In that context, his go-for-broke call to end fossil fuel use seems more an act of desperation than one of extremism.
However, international action may come too late. “My country is in its hour of need,” said President Loeak. The Paris agreement “must assure countries as vulnerable as mine that the world’s helping hand will be there when climate change, unfortunately and unavoidably, unleashes its devastating impacts.”
The Elephant in the Room: Reducing Carbon Emissions
The Marshallese are experiencing the effects of climate change, but are far from its biggest cause. They’re only responsible for a fraction of a percent of global emissions (0.0003% in 2013, if you really want to know). Finger-pointers like to direct their digits toward China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide producer, whose 2014 emissions were twice that of the U.S. However, the average American produces more than twice as much carbon as the average Chinese resident. China’s emissions outstrip the U.S.’s only through the booming population of this developing country.
The average American doesn’t want to lose his/her standard of living for the sake of mitigating climate change. I sure don’t.
Good news! You don’t have to make that sacrifice. The U.S. is showing that curbing carbon emissions can complement a growing economy. America’s emissions per capita have been decreasing. This trend which stems, in part, from switching our electricity sources from coal and petroleum to clean(er) energy sources, like natural gas and renewable energy. That’s cause for celebration, because it shows that we don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment.
The “King, the Mice and the Cheese” Dilemma
Despite the good news, our current carbon emissions trajectory doesn’t eliminate the impacts of climate change. Innovators are looking for ways to ease the worst impacts.
These range from fertilizing the ocean to grow carbon-consuming plankton to releasing artificial aerosols that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface. Naysayers argue that these technologies could be a safety net that keeps us too comfortable to galvanize us to curb carbon emissions. More importantly, though, these sorts of geoengineering could create more problems than they’re worth.
And that leads me to the title of this story.
“The King, the Mice and the Cheese” tells the tale of a cheese-loving king whose palace becomes infested by mice. To solve this problem, he brings in an army of cats, which rout the mice but get far too comfortable in the palace. So, the king brings in dogs, who chase away the cats, and then lions to chase the dogs, then elephants to chase the lions. Finally, to get rid of the elephants, he brings back the mice, winding up where he started.
I wonder if geoengineering presents the same problem. Implementing solutions that alleviate our global fever could create side effects that are as bad as the problem itself. For example, aerosols that cut insolation for plant growth and primary productivity. That’s an extreme (and hypothetical) case, sure, but some green technologies we’re already using have fallen prey to this “King, Mice, Cheese” Dilemma. For example, while biofuels reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, they may raise food prices, and encourage ecosystem-damaging monoculture practices.
Ultimately, the “King, Mice, Cheese” Dilemma shows that geoengineering isn’t a substitute for climate action. Maybe geoengineering is like the army of cats, replacing one problem with another.
So, what’s the solution to this dilemma?
In the storybook, after the King’s palace is re-infested with mice, he decides to take a different approach: the King and the mice speak with each other (hey, this is a fairytale, after all). The King agrees to share his cheese, the mice learn proper manners, they usher in a new era of cooperation, and they all presumably live happily ever after.
And, just like the story, this blog post is coming full circle. If we simply point fingers at the largest carbon emitters, China and the U.S., we’ll be addressing the mouse problem by creating a cat problem, and fail to solve the real issue: reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
So, a successful COP21 needs to recognize the shared interests of each member. Instead of ousting the mice, we need to listen to them.
In this metaphor, the cheese could be a high standard of living, a clean planet (use your imagination), but we all want it, and the problem won’t be solved until we stop hoarding and instead share it, King and mouse alike.
Maybe we can’t have it all…but we can have enough.