Paris commitments not enough (6.3°F)

Leading up to the Paris climate talks in December, India has now submitted to the UN its plan for curbing carbon emissions. As of this week, almost every nation has announced what it’s prepared to do to keep the rise in global warming 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

Why is it not enough? To begin with, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are voluntary and unaudited. That is, each country decides what it is willing to do for the climate and unilaterally announces its intention. Developed counties, not surprisingly, would prefer that the burden of transition be shared equally.

Less-developed countries, however, point to the fact that most of the CO2 now in the atmosphere was emitted by developed countries over the last two centuries, and they consider it only fair for them to raise their citizens’ living standards in the same Carboniferous way. That means burning a lot of coal—and moving slowly on the transition to renewable energy.

Fortunately, there are some bright spots. China last year reached a landmark agreement with the US to jumpstart its transition from fossil fuels. And India, although it had rejected (along with China) the 2011 UN climate roadmap, has now committed to derive 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and other low-carbon sources. Also, some developed countries are willing to help financially. In truth, it’s a bright spot simply that nearly every country has submitted an INDC. International leaders are really beginning to take climate change seriously.

With the exception of certain politicians and media sources in the United States, that is. When the data are so clearly signaling extreme and increasing danger, when the US has just sweltered through the hottest summer since records began in 1880, some Americans prefer to believe it’s not happening. Or that humans can’t do anything about it, since it’s not caused by humans. Or that technological fixes will save us.

Well, it is happening, and humans are causing it, and the magic technology hasn’t appeared. But facts often don’t seem to penetrate the tribal data-deflecting armor these people wear. So here’s a thought. Most of us Americans, living on our non-metric national island, have no more than an intellectual understanding of Celsius temperatures. It’s 40 degrees? 45? Call me when it gets hot. But Fahrenheit, well there we have a visceral feeling of what it means when the thermometer registers 104 degrees. Or 113. Now that’s a hot day, humidity or no humidity!

So here’s my modest proposal. When speaking to our fellow Americans about the effects of greenhouse gases and the global changes expected under various scenarios, let’s talk Fahrenheit. Tell people we need to keep the temperature rise to 3.6°F (not 2°C). Sounds bigger, right? And if we keep doing what we’re doing now, by 2100 the average global temperature will be 8.1°F higher (not 4.5°C). Wow! Click on “view in °F” in the scoreboard above, and you’ll see what I mean.

But here’s the really shocking part. If every nation fulfills its INDC commitment—working hard to overcome the many political and economic barriers sure to arise—the average global temperature will still rise 6.3°F above pre-industrial levels. I have to admit: to me too, that sounds like a lot more than 3.5°C.

However you measure it, it’s too much. And the Paris INDCs are not enough.

Thanks to Climate Interactive for that vivid scoreboard.