Climate change has tumbled down the political agenda in recent years, as weak economies focus minds on poverty and the climate sceptics wage an effective – if disingenuous – lobbying campaign. But two events have coincided with this year’s annual UN climate change conference, in Warsaw, that must focus minds.
The first is typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm to make landfall ever recorded, which wreaked havoc in the Philippines last week, just before the conference began. Although the storm cannot be directly linked to climate change, it underlines the scientific consensus that we can expect a rise in frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
The second, reported in this newspaper yesterday, is that climate sceptics’ key argument has just been debunked. Global warming has not slowed down over the past 15 years; temperatures have continued to rise at largely the same rate since 1998 – when the so-called “pause” began, but scientists were not adequately recording rapid warming in the Arctic.
Coming after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest finding, in September, that the world is incontestably warming and that humans are almost certainly the main cause, one might hope that governments would be spurred into action in Warsaw. But, one week in, events suggest the reverse. Japan says it will replace its target to cut emissions by 2020 with one that will, effectively, increase them by about 3 per cent over the period – blaming the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, Australia, a vast consumer of coal, is also signalling a possible weakening of its emissions targets range and has begun the repeal of its carbon tax.
Cue shock and outrage? Sadly not. The truth is that nobody is expecting much from this year’s climate change summit. Paris 2015 is the big one – that is when nearly 200 governments around the world have pledged to agree the legally-binding carbon-reduction targets that they hope will be sufficient to limit global warming to 2C. Next year’s summit, in Lima, is therefore far more important than this one, because it could pave the way for the big deal in Paris the following year.
The events of this fortnight may nonetheless be key to any success or failure in 2015. Signals of commitment, or a lack of it, have a domino effect. It is, therefore, encouraging that China and the US are felt to be becoming more committed to tackling climate change. Even that cannot entirely drown out the warning sounds from Canada, Australia and Japan, though.
The Warsaw meeting could never deliver a detailed, long-term, global agreement to tackle climate change. But some shorter-term targets might still be set, providing a much-needed boost ahead of Paris. Concrete steps to reduce emissions before any agreement in Paris is implemented would be a good start, as would an outline on the schemes – such as airline taxes or a worldwide carbon price – that will be needed to pay for the costs of climate change.
And yet, despite the mounting evidence that our environment is changing around us in dangerous ways, the political will seems not to have caught up. So far, we can expect only the usual woolly platitudes from Warsaw.