In Search of a Global Climate Pollution Agreement

By August 25, 2020 No Comments

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

The late Mama Cass Elliot sang prophetic verses, “There’s a New World Coming, and it’s just around the bend. There’s a new world coming. This one’s coming to an end,” The new world she sang about was a hopeful one. Unfortunately, the world we are passing on to our children will not be so. As astounding and far-fetched as this may sound, the Holocene world that humans have known for more than 11,000 years is coming to an end. It is becoming clear to many that the Earth is not what it once was, nor will it ever be what we will fondly remember. 

Rising global temperatures, sea levels, depleting ozone layer, ubiquitous micro-plastics, persistent pollutants, misplaced nutrients, and acidifying oceans result from human activity that has distinctively altered the world on a geological scale. A team of scientists serving on the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group voted to declare “Anthropocene” as a new chapter in the Earth’s geological history. This historic vote marks an essential step towards formally defining a new chapter in the world’s geologic record. The panel will submit a formal proposal for the new epoch by 2021 to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which oversees the official geologic time chart.

Anthropocene was first coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present geological time interval. Anthropocene has been used to describe humanity’s massive impact on the environment. Jan Zalasiewicz, a professor of geography at the University of Leicester chaired the Anthropocene Working Group, declared that we are entering a new geologic epoch “Anthropocene.” Zalasiewicz believes it started in 1950. “If you look at the main parameters of the Earth-system… things only began to change sharply, and dramatically with industrialization.” He believes that “the most significant event in humanity’s life on the planet is the great acceleration, the period of rapid global industrialization that followed the Second World War. As factories and cars spread across the planet, as the United States, and U.S.S.R. prepared for the Cold War, carbon pollution soared. So too did methane pollution, the number of extinctions, and invasive species, the degree of surface-level radiation, the quantity of plastic in the ocean, and the amount of rock, and soil moved around the planet.” 

My only disagreement with the proposal is the name “Anthropocene.” I think it should be the “Idiocene” since idiots heading fossil-fuel corporations, plastic producers, and other polluters and subservient politicians knowingly fail to confront climate crisis and address other dangerous environmental threats. Their failures create profound risks to our children’s future and the new world they will inherit. 

Pittsburgh’s summers are hotter and drier. The region has experienced intense rain bombs and severe storms triggering mudslides and slope failures. Our winters are certainly not what I remember as a boy. Pittsburgh, like the rest of the world, is getting hotter, and the weather is getting weirder. Extreme weather is one of the first indicators of this “new world.” It will increasingly threaten coastal cities, flood-prone riverside cities, and dry regions of the world. It will squeeze food supplies as drought, and fierce storms like the recent derecho that disrupt crop production. 

The West has been getting hotter and dryer for more than a decade. Bark beetles have overwintered in record numbers killing tens of millions of trees. In recent years, forest fires have exploded across the West on scorched landscapes. At this moment, two major storms are traveling parallel tracks heading towards the hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico at hurricane strength. Two weeks ago, Iowa experienced an extraordinary derecho with enormous damage and crop loss. Yet, Trump persists in dismantling policies and programs that were cutting carbon dioxide and methane pollution. At the same time, he is advancing drilling in the fragile and pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sensitive Federal habitats. 

Flooding in March of 2019 caused by a “bomb cyclone” storm broke records across the farm-state of Nebraska and Iowa flooding seventy-four cities. Sixty-five counties and four tribal areas declared states of emergency covering vast acres of farmlands and impacting communities in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Successful Agriculture requires a stable climate, yet Trump’s attorneys appallingly argued before a circuit court that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee a stable climate or, therefore, protection against climate catastrophes. 

We are witnessing mass climate-driven migrations triggered by sustained droughts in Syria, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The three Central American Countries lost seven hundred thousand acres of bean and maize crops in 2018. Two million Central Americans are at risk of starvation. That is an underlying reason that the U.S. has experienced an unprecedented flood of climate refugees fleeing famine, chaos, and crime. Mass migration is a last-ditch effort to avoid starvation, desperate crime, and profound poverty.

Trump’s nationalism is a failed and dangerous policy in a world that must embrace global solutions through collaboration and enforceable global treaties. Instead of dismantling global climate agreements and gutting policies designed to protect the planet, America must lead the world in formulating sound climate treaties and agreements that achieve the scientifically based pollution reduction targets. This cannot end well. America cannot simply wall off the inhumane impacts of climate change because we are losing cities to intense fires, inhumane heat, and extreme flooding. Our farmers, too, are facing uncertain futures. 

The planet is gasping for relief. Rapid emission reductions and other interventions are called for and every nation must do its part as a part of an enforceable treaty and that includes the United States.

Provisions in our Constitution make treaties extremely difficult. Our founders framed the Constitution to slow and even prevent the passage of laws and to avoid international entanglements, which made sense then. 

James Madison created two houses of Congress to “inhibit the formulation of passionate factions” to ensure reasonable majorities would prevail. That’s why, for example, we have bicameral legislative bodies instead of a parliament in Washington. Getting bills passed through two assemblies. Their committees are twice as hard as a single legislative body, and lobbyists know how to kill good legislation. With two houses full of lawmakers and their various committees, it is easy for lobbyists to prevent the passage of bills, and far more challenging to enact needed changes. Lawmakers have been able to slow-walk or prevent issues like the climate crisis with almost no accountability for decades. 

The Constitution’s framers led by Charles Pinckney from the slave state of South Carolina feared an anti-slavery treaty would undermine the sovereignty of the states and end slavery. In their attempt to check presidential power to enter treaties, they set the Senate’s threshold impossibly high. Even when we had good times, it was nearly impossible to act on an international environmental issue. In these days of division and corporate interference, the ratification of a climate treaty is off the table.

We have repeatedly failed to ratify various relevant global environmental treaties because of Article II, section 2. That is why President Clinton never submitted the Kyoto Agreement to the Senate and also why President Obama and Todd Stern, serving as the United States Special Envoy, pushed global talks in the direction of an unenforceable Accord at the United Nations climate change conferences in Copenhagen, at Durban, South Africa, and during other sessions, created a non-binding agreement in Paris instead of seeking a binding treaty in Paris since we failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement. 

We now know Paris is not working as it should since the “nationally determined contributions” submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under the Paris Agreement lack sufficient ambition to achieve the scientists’ goals. Nor does it have an effective compliance mechanism for wayward governments. 

While I am generally not a fan of tariffs, I believe future global climate agreements should require carbon-leveling border adjustments. Carbon tariffs may be an effective compliance mechanism that the Paris accord lacks. 

Nine organizations worldwide and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore announced a cutting-edge initiative on July 15th to track human-caused emissions to specific sources in real-time. This unprecedented collaboration will monitor worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The project will combine artificial intelligence, satellite image processing, machine learning, and other remote sensing technologies to track pollution sources. 

It will be independent of governments and will provide publicly available tracking data. The effort will be known as Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions). If successful, having real-time information available to all will make it possible to develop a universally accepted enforcement mechanism to curtail carbon pollution through a system of border adjustments that creates enforceable pollution penalties and generate the revenue to foster a more just clean energy transition. 

The time for ineffective half measures is over folks. We must elect leaders at every government level who are committed to confronting the climate crisis and willing to work on a global scale to avoid climate calamity.

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