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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

“U.N. Climate Talks End With Few Commitments and a ‘Lost’ Opportunity”

“U.N. Climate Talks End With Few Commitments and a ‘Lost’ Opportunity” is the heading in the New York Times, December 15, 2019, reporting on the largely failed conclusion to the annual UN climate conference held in Madrid, Spain.  Recent annual meetings are follow-ups to the conference in Paris four years earlier, which produced the 2015 Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  It was agreed to by the almost 200 member nations of the UN, and has the goal of keeping the increase in the long-term global average temperature below 2°C (3.6°F) above the pre-industrial temperature.  It also included the hope that the limit could be more stringent, keeping the increase below 1.5°C.

The Agreement is intended to minimize further global warming and the resulting harms to the world’s climate.  Warming arises because the growth in the world’s economies in the last 1½-2 centuries has relied largely on energy derived by burning carbon-containing fuels (fossil fuels: coal, petroleum and natural gas) that release carbon dioxide (CO2; a GHG) when burned.  The added CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and remains there for centuries, producing increased temperatures by an atmospheric greenhouse effect.  China’s dramatic economic growth over the past 3 decades, for example, closely parallels its growth in use of fossil fuels and other energy sources.
The nations of the UN signed on to the Paris Agreement because, in contrast to the earlier Kyoto Protocol, each nation’s contribution to reducing emissions is voluntary.  Analysis of those contributions at the time (Fawcett and coworkers, 2015) already showed, however, that they were inadequate to produce the GHG reductions needed to stay within the 2°C limit.
One objective at the Madrid 2019 gathering was for the nations to generate more ambitious goals to reduce GHG emission rates that would lead to compliance with the Paris Agreement limit.  Recently the U. S. under President Trump has stated its intention to withdraw entirely from the Agreement, to take effect just before the next meeting in 2020.  As the New York Times reports, for this reason “…it was the last chance, at least for some time, for [America to negotiate] — and perhaps a turning point in global climate negotiations, given the influence that Washington has long wielded…in the discussions.” 
But the U. S. was not alone in hindering progress. Helen Mountford, a vice president at World Resources Institute, said “[m]ost of the large emitters were missing in action or obstructive.”  Nations with significant rates of GHG emissions, including China and India, “balked at suggestions of more ambitious climate targets next year.”
Ms. Mountford further lamented that the failure to act in Madrid “reflects how disconnected many national leaders are from the urgency of the science and the demands of their citizens.”
“The urgency of the science” is apparent in reviews of the worsening warming and climate appearing in rapid succession in the past year.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its report , “Global warming of 1.5°C - - An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty” in October 2018.  The IPCC reports that in the three years since the Paris Agreement, atmospheric GHG content and temperatures were rising faster than foreseen earlier.  Therefore it feels we must bring worldwide GHG emissions to near zero by about 2040, earlier than recommended in previous reviews.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as elsewhere on Earth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in December 2019. This finding has significance throughout the world, because the warmer temperatures are now melting the Greenland Ice Sheet very rapidly.  In the 1990’s melting ice was roughly balanced by new precipitation.  But by the 2010’s net loss of ice occurred due both to excessive surface melting and faster glacier calving.  Overall, ice loss from Greenland alone contributed 10 mm (0.4 in) to global sea level rise in this period.
Oceans absorb about 90% of the excess heat retained by the earth, by transfer of the heat from the atmosphere to the water.  This heating has accelerated in recent years.  Water expands as it warms, contributing an additional amount to sea level rise.  Changing temperatures in the oceans have led to coral die-offs (some of which is not recovered), and to changes in the species distribution of sea animals because they are exquisitely sensitive to the ocean temperature.  This impacts human fishing productivity.  Warm water also evaporates more moisture into the air, making hurricanes more violent and releasing more rainfall, as has been observed in recent years.
“The demands of [nations’] citizens” have grown more insistent in the past year.  The teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, recently named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, has stimulated a worldwide climate movement among youth, and adults.  Our children understand that they will experience the climate extremes resulting from adults’ climate inaction.  The Madrid meeting shows that the world’s resolve meaningfully to combat global warming and climate change appears compromised by the absence of international political will, presumably abetted by economic factors and fossil fuel commercial interests. 
But optimism persists nevertheless.  As Ms. Thunberg concluded in her speech to Madrid attendees, “[T]here is hope….It does not come from the government or corporations.  It comes from the people….People are ready for change….Every great change …come[s] from the people.”

© 2019 Henry Auer