This Could Be the Biggest Scandal of the Climate Change Era

The world is headed for up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 F) of global warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, which would lead to devastating consequences for billions of people. (Credit: Anton Petrus via Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.

Governments and businesses habitually set out emergency response plans to protect their economies, jobs, cities, and other crucial assets from potential disaster.  Yet when it comes to climate change ― the biggest, most urgent threat the world faces ― there is no emergency plan.

On the issue of our lifetime, countries can agree very little.  The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 published last Tuesday found that increasing divisions between the world’s major powers is the most urgent global risk we face because it stymies vital collective action on climate change.

Instead of action, we see delays, rejections and avoidance, as December’s United Nations climate summit in Katowice, Poland, so acutely reminded us. The event, which brought together world leaders, scientists, campaigners and the private sector, settled most of the rules needed to ensure countries follow the climate pledges they have made to date. What it failed to do is push countries to step up their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions ― currently the only viable way to prevent climate breakdown. The Middle East, the U.S. and Russia refused to even welcome landmark scientific predictions on climate change, signaling their intention to continue blocking progress.

Amid all this wrangling, climate change marches on. It now appears virtually impossible to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) ― the threshold beyond which scientists say risks irreversible climate change. The world is now headed for 3-5 C (5.4-9 F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, which would lead to devastating consequences for billions of people.

A huge barrier to solving this problem is the failure of conventional economics to acknowledge the severity of climate change. Take William Nordhaus, one of 2018’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winners. While Nordhaus agrees that climate change is a serious problem, he weighs up the costs of mitigation against the predicted damages that will be inflicted by a warming planet and concludes that our objective should be to limit temperature rises to 3.5 C (6.3 F) because to be more ambitious would be too expensive.

But a decision based on this kind of cost calculation is highly questionable.  How do you put a cost on the destruction of coral reefs?  Or on millions of people being pushed out of their homes, or killed by rising sea levels?  And how do you account for the consequences of possible “tipping points” ― such as the melting of the permafrost?

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