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Durban: Where the Climate Deniers-in-Chief Ran the Show

By Mark Hertsgaard (The Nation) - December 16, 2011

A different and more dangerous breed of climate denier commanded the stage at the recently concluded international negotiations in Durban, South Africa. These were not the usual cranks blathering fossil-fuel-industry talking points about how the science is all rubbish aimed at fostering a liberty-crushing world government. No, this breed is even more frightening, precisely because its members are not wacko outsiders. Rather, they are Serious People who actually run governments, or at least negotiate on behalf of those who do. They are lawyers, diplomats and government ministers, and they would be very surprised to hear themselves described as climate deniers.

After all, men such as Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing, the top two US negotiators in Durban, and Xie Zhenhua, who headed China’s delegation, understand the basics of climate science well enough. They know that burning fossil fuels, leveling forests and other types of human activity are dangerously overheating the planet. They know that far-reaching action must be taken if their countries and humanity as a whole are to escape encroaching disaster. They even know—for they explicitly endorsed it at the last round of major climate negotiations in Copenhagen two years ago—that 2 degrees Celsius is the absolute maximum temperature rise that can be allowed if there is to be any chance of avoiding catastrophic and potentially irreversible climate change.

Yet these negotiators just made a deal in Durban that has zero chance of meeting the 2C target. In fact, the Durban deal—if left unchanged—guarantees that we will fail to reach that goal. Given that scientists are warning that the planet is already committed to a “dangerous” amount of climate change, and that crossing the 2C target will bring “extremely dangerous” climate change, what else can the Durban agreement be called but a de facto denial of climate science?

Because the decisions these negotiators—and their bosses in Washington, Beijing and other world capitals—made in Durban carry such immense consequences, and because they reflect the will of the most powerful governments on earth, the negotiators have earned themselves the title Climate Deniers in Chief. Knowingly or not, they have handed down a death sentence, especially to the billions of young people around the world who were already fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest, most volatile climate our civilization has ever experienced.

For the sake of these young people, for the sake of humanity and the countless species with whom we share this planet, the Durban agreement cannot stand. It must be rejected by citizens and superseded by the actions of state and local governments and visionary entrepreneurs throughout the world, where encouraging progress is being made, usually outside mainstream media’s attention span. Beyond that, the Durban agreement must be radically strengthened through follow-up negotiations in the near future—meaning within months, not years.

Indeed, waiting years to require action is the fundamental failure of the Durban agreement: it delays obligatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions until 2020. Absurdly, it delays even signing an agreement about such cuts until 2015. It also says nothing about how large the cuts should be—no small omission, considering that global emissions increased by a record amount in 2010, putting the planet on a trajectory toward a hellish 6C temperature rise by 2100. Yet timing remains the key poison pill. Allowing business as usual until 2020 will make it economically prohibitive, if not physically impossible, to keep temperature rise to 2C, the International Energy Agency recently warned. Likewise, leading scientists have been saying since before Copenhagen that emissions must start declining no later than 2015 if there is to be much chance of hitting the 2C target. And yes, five years of delay makes a critical difference. The inertia of the climate system—including the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries—means that the earth is already locked in to 1.4 degrees of temperature rise. With temperatures rising by approximately 0.2C per decade, there is simply no room for delay if we wish to preserve a planet similar to the one in which our civilization has developed over the past 10,000 years.

While the deniers who crafted the Durban deal are a different breed from the conspiracy-mongers beloved by Fox News, they are by no means new. Ever since the first major global negotiations on climate change, held at the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992, politicians have repeatedly disregarded what science says in favor of what political reality supposedly allows, and many journalists and even some environmentalists have joined in the deception. Thus USA Today and NPR have hailed the Durban agreement as a “landmark” breakthrough, on the grounds that it commits, for the first time, both developed countries and emerging economies to reduce emissions. The Durban deal also extends the emission reductions pledges made by the European Union under the Kyoto Protocol. These two measures indeed required bruising, all-night negotiations, but they will deliver meaningful climate progress only if additional negotiations force the big polluters—particularly the two climate superpowers, the United States and China—to start cutting emissions posthaste. To applaud such an insufficient outcome is to confuse how politically difficult it is to reach a given agreement with how scientifically valid it is—the essence of the form of denial practiced by the Climate Deniers in Chief.

The disaster in Durban makes it clearer than ever that politicians will not save us from the fast-approaching train wreck of irreversible climate change. Salvation must come instead from the bottom up: from extending the victories citizen activism has already won, including the defeat of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in the United States. If people of good will want to halt this train before it’s too late, we can’t leave it to the engineers. More and more of us will have to invade the engineer’s compartment, take over the controls of the train ourselves and steer a path back to life.