Copenhagen: Nice Show, But We're Doomed No Matter What

Maui Time | December 7, 2009
The Empty Gesture of Copenhagen

Our parents and grandparents fell down on the job.

"The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it." A concise summary of how the world sees this week's U.N. climate change conference, courtesy of the editorial board of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

The paper continued: "In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage," wrote the Guardian's editors. The implication is that time is short. And that there's still time.

Only two sides of the climate debate get covered by the media: corporate-backed pseudo-scientists who deny the greenhouse effect or claim that it's inconsequential, and liberal environmentalists pushing for the United States and other major air polluters to act to reduce carbon emissions.

Both sides of the "debate" are liars.

The energy company-financed stooges are barely worthy of contempt, much less serious rebuttal. Their claims have been addressed and thoroughly debunked, over and over, for decades. Cut from the same toxic cloth as those who collected paychecks from tobacco companies to testify that smoking was safe, they are to be pitied, reviled and, with a little luck, imprisoned after the revolution.

More problematic -- and embodied by the Guardian quote above -- is the Big Lie of climate change: the implication that there's still time to stave off environmental disaster.

"The clock has ticked down to zero," said Yvo de Boer, the United Nations climate chief. No. That happened years ago.

One interested party has been left out of the news from Copenhagen: scientists. "Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it's over," reported George Monblot in the Guardian from Copenhagen. "The years in which more than 2°C [above average temperatures at the start of the Industrial Revolution] of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we'll be lucky to get away with 4°C. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can."

Leading scientists like James Hansen say the maximum safe upper level for the concentration of CO2 particles in air is 350 parts per million. We're currently at 387. According to a study recently cited in Time magazine, we could ban automobiles and the internal combustion engine and abolish all industrial production, worldwide, and it would still take at least 900 years for CO2 levels to drop back below the 350 ppm tipping point.

Ocean levels will rise an average of at least six to 16 feet by 2100. Goodbye, lower Manhattan. Ciao, south Florida. The northern half of Antarctica's giant Wilkins ice shelf has begun breaking off; it will be gone within a few years. In the highest mountains in and around the Himalayas, millennia-old glaciers have vanished in the last decade, causing water shortages for hundreds of millions of people in the cities of China, Central and South Asia.

The greenhouse effect is a simple model. The math is straightforward and devastating: so much particulate has been pumped into the air since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, so much energy has built up in the closed system that is our atmosphere, that the damage is irreversible. Human-built technology has billowed more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon waste into the atmosphere; we continue to add another six or seven billion annually.

"People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide that the climate would go back to normal in 100 years or 200 years," said Susan Solomon, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "What we're showing here is that's not right. It's essentially an irreversible change that will last for more than a thousand years."

The idyllic global climate that has prevailed for the last 10,000 years is going to change, is changing, and we won't be around long enough to know whether it will ever come back. "Human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state," wrote Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Environmental Institute in an article in the magazine Nature.

Catastrophe no longer looms. Catastrophe is upon us. For example, the polar ice cap is doomed. Summer ice will vanish entirely within 20 years; winter ice will be gone by 2085. Nothing can be done to stop it. It doesn't matter whether the U.S. and other countries reduce CO2 gas production by 30, 50 or 80 percent. The Amazon rainforest feeds the Amazon River, which by some accounts produces 20 percent of the world's fresh water; it has begin its death spiral. South Asian monsoons are shorter and arriving later. The American southwest will become a Dust Bowl.

The Greenland and northern Antarctic ice sheets are going, going, gone. Seas will rise between four and six meters above the levels cited above. It's been nice knowing you, Boston and San Francisco. Thousands of animal species, including polar bears, will live in zoos or not at all. After a certain point, plants themselves will become a net source of CO2 -- all part of the feedback loop that occurs when you mess things up as badly as we have. Giant storms will rage, famine will spread, drought will be ubiquitous. Or maybe we'll just choke to death. Whatever, at 6°C plus, the human race is outta here.

It is almost certainly too late to save ourselves. Like recycling and not littering, reducing CO2 output amounts to mere politeness. It's a nice gesture. But it won't make any difference.

Of course, the only sane action is to pretend otherwise and enact radical change that might/might have saved the earth. The human race is probably destined for extinction. But we might as well be courteous on the way out ... and stop BSing about our chances.

Ted Rall is the author, with Pablo G. Callejo, of the new graphic memoir "The Year of Loving Dangerously." He is also the author of the Gen X manifesto "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids." His website is

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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