Photo: As the climate change melts sea ice, the U.S. Geological Survey projects that two-thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050. CC BY-SA 4.0 - Photo: 2019

Global Heating Poses A Serious Systemic Challenge

Viewpoint by Franz Baumann

The following are excerpts from an article first published in the October 2018 issue of ‘International Politics Review’. Dr. Franz Baumann is a visiting professor at New York University and a former UN assistant secretary-general, special adviser on environment and peace operations. He can be reached at

NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – Climate change, used here synonymously and interchangeably with global heating and global warming, is happening. To wit: 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century. The past three years were the hottest since records began (World Meteorological Organization, 2018a). Distress signals are coming from all corners of the earth (Achenbach and Fritz, 2018; Samenow, 2018; Sengupta, 2018b).

Record temperatures and droughts afflict India, Iran, South Africa and many other countries, even England, Scotland and Sweden (Sengupta, 2018a; Yeginsu, 2018; World Weather Attribution, 2018). Wildfires are causing havoc in California, Greece, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere (World Meteorological Organization, 2018b). The damage attributable to natural disasters in 2017 in the USA alone exceeded $300 billion, up from $75 billion for Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), 2018a).

The opportunity to prevent global heating has been missed, and the task now is mitigation as well as adaptation – and limiting the political fallout. Global heating will harm, perhaps destroy, the basis of human life on earth. Unknown is the timing and extent of the damage to nature and, as a result, to societies, economies and polities. Global heating is beyond human experience and comprehension.

Its origins lie in the Industrial Revolution. Its impact is global, extending far into the future and affecting mostly future generations, the poor as well as other species – those who contribute little or nothing to the problem, and who have no say in today’s actions and inactions that impact them profoundly.

Politics, whether in autocracies or democracies, happens in the present. With the populist fallout from globalization, the contest over ideas, goals and resources has gradually become more parochial, transactional and short term. Choreographing multilateral cooperation is a difficult endeavor in the best of times; now it is embarked on by few and resisted by many.

Advocating immediate sacrifices for uncertain future benefits is politically treacherous, no matter that the future cost of today’s inaction will be steep. Because today’s decision makers will not have to live with the outcomes of their choices, the “tragedy of the horizon” results, namely the short-sightedness baked into contemporary economic and political systems (Carney, 2015).

Since mitigation costs are due now, yet benefits accrue in future, climate change is politically framed mainly in economic terms – how much is the current generation willing to pay – rather than as a matter of environmental preservation or risk management.

Politics, whether in autocracies or democracies, happens in the present. With the populist fallout from globalization, the contest over ideas, goals and resources has gradually become more parochial, transactional and short term.

The “urgent threat of climate change” was recognized by all 180 countries that have to date ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement, Preamble). It cannot get more universal than that. Nonetheless, agreeing on a problem and setting targets for remedial action are necessary but in themselves insufficient steps.

The solution to global heating is simple: decarbonization. That means reducing to zero current carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere, and removing from the atmosphere the carbon dioxide already stored there.

Organizing decarbonization at the proper scale and speed is the formidable global public policy challenge on which the survival of the human species depends. Scientific, technical and financial solutions are available or within reach.

The question is whether timely and effective policy action will be taken both individually and collectively by the largest carbon emitters, namely OECD countries plus China, India and Russia. Open, too, is if in the process the rules-based international order can be preserved; also decent, competent and democratic states where they now exist.

In normal disputes, time and compromise are the two main ingredients of successful conflict resolution. Whether in personal life or in politics, time does heal wounds and offers the space for solutions to emerge. Unfortunately, in dealing with global heating, time is not an effective tool, because we are running out of it. As one of the first scientific assessments of the relationship between carbon dioxide and global heating noted already in 1979: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (National Academy of Sciences, 1979).

Secondly, conventional conflicts can be resolved through dialogue and compromise. Not so global heating. Nature does not negotiate, nor does it compromise. Arguments within and between countries are of no concern for the Earth. It has been said that we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.

This paper surveys the gap between the scientific understanding of the climate challenge and the discernible policy action. It then reviews the scale of the task and concludes with questions regarding the consequences of an inadequate policy response.

Climate Change and the Genesis of a Global Public Policy Problem

Global heating is the result of too many greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) (Le Quéré et al, 2017) but also methane (CH4) (Bousquet et al, 2006) and other gases – in the atmosphere, about one-third of which historically contributed by deforestation, two-thirds by the burning of fossil fuels.

Global heating disrupts weather patterns (Herring et al, 2017), accelerates desertification, leads to sea-level rise (Clark et al, 2016; Nauels et al, 2017; Mengel et al, 2018) destroys biodiversity (Barnosky et al, 2011; Crowley and North, 1988), and threatens the production of staples, such as rice, corn and wheat (Tack et al, 2015; Zhu et al, 2018). Further, it acidifies oceans, which reduces not only marine biodiversity but also their ability to function as a sink for about 25% of current CO2 emissions.

In short, pressures engendered by humans are putting the Earth system at high risk of being pushed beyond its boundaries (Rockström et al, 2009). Humanity’s destabilization of the Earth’s fundamental life-support systems has made humans the dominant geophysical force.

The 11,500-year Holocene epoch, that allowed human civilization to develop and flourish, is ending (or has ended already), to be succeeded by an uncharted, unpredictable geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after its dominant force, humans (Crutzen, 2002). This, to be sure, is a concept larger than individuals, communities, regions, nation states or international organizations.

The Earth is now a single, total system undergoing world-shattering, human-induced change. Never have humans been more powerful or wealthier, and the question is if these assets can be deployed purposefully to change the way humans interact with nature and thus to safeguard humanity’s survival as a species.

For hundreds of thousands of years, atmospheric levels of CO2 were between 180 and 280 parts per million. They are now over 410 parts per million, and they keep rising. The aggregate emissions of the two centuries from 1751 to 1950 were less than those of the past 7 years. From 1945 to 2016, they increased ninefold.

Today’s concentrations have not been seen in at least 800,000 years and the average rate of increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “over the past century exceeds any observed rate of change over the previous 20,000 years” (Ciais et al, 2013). The Earth has warmed 1.2 °C (2.2 °F) since the Industrial Revolution, and even if all CO2 emissions were to stop tomorrow, warming of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) is a done deal. Mitigation (limiting further increases) and adaptation (managing the consequences) are the tasks at hand.

Unlike steam which evaporates, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. Global heating therefore is a stock as well as a flow issue, namely the result of historic and current emissions. Given the longevity of carbon dioxide, Earth will continue to heat up even if drastic remedial action is taken immediately. Conversely, the longer emissions continue unabated, the greater the effort and the higher the costs will be to deal with the consequences.

Also, the risk of passing irreversible thresholds – tipping points – increases (Nolan et al, 2018). Warming might not proceed incrementally and allow time for adjustment. Instead, nonlinear discontinuities might “push components of the Earth system past critical states into qualitatively different modes of operation, implying large-scale impacts on human and ecological systems” (Lenton et al, 2018).

It is presumed that when the Earth will have warmed, compared with pre-industrial levels, by between 3 °C (5.4 °F) and 5 °C (9 °F), the western Antarctic ice sheet will collapse; deep water circulation in the North Atlantic will shut down; Amazon rainforests as well as boreal forests will give out; the West African monsoon will stop, and the thawing of permafrost will release vast quantities of methane (CH4), thus triggering more warming in an unstoppable feedback loop (IPCC, 2014).

No industrialized country is on track to meet its Paris commitments.

To avert such calamities, the 2015 Paris Agreement was a major achievement. It defined problems and outlined what needs to be done. Most countries of the world solemnly committed to holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C (3.6 °F) or even 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels. Yet mapping the journey is not the same as actually moving forward.

As matters stand, what was offered and agreed in Paris has little chance to succeed. There is a probability of 99% that 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) will be exceeded this century, more than 95% that 2 °C (3.6 °F) will be exceeded, and only a small chance that the temperature rise remains below 3 °C (5.4 °F) (Raftery et al, 2017; UNEP, 2017).

No industrialized country is on track to meet its Paris commitments. The efforts of the EU, Australia and New Zealand are rated as “insufficient;” Argentina, Canada, Chile, China and Japan, as “highly insufficient;” and Russia (that has not even ratified the Paris Agreement), Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA as “critically insufficient” (The Carbon Tracker, 2018).

In other words, governments have committed to something they are unable or unwilling to honor. Today’s gap between ambition and action is disquieting, because it will make it even more difficult in future to enact the deeper emission cuts needed to keep global warming at 2 °C (3.6 °F). Having to operate under time pressure and in crisis conditions, possibly involving armed conflict, the current casual procrastination will strike future governments, and future generations, as reckless.

Climate Change – the Flipside of Economic Growth

While the origin of climate change goes back to the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago, developments since then have not been linear. A significant acceleration took place during the past 60 or so years. The extraordinary growth of productivity, production, consumption as well as carbon emissions, mainly in Western countries, but lately also in China, India and elsewhere, is unprecedented in human experience. No plateau has been reached yet, and further growth is projected. A few indicators:

  • The world’s population increased from 3 billion in 1960 to 7.5 in 2016 (The World Bank, 2018a).
  • Life expectancy rose from 52 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2016 (The World Bank, 2018b).
  • The world’s gross domestic product increased from $1.4 trillion in 1960 (or from $470 on average for each of the then living 3 billion people) to more than $76 trillion in 2016 (over $10,000 for each of 7.5 billion people, albeit very unevenly distributed) (The World Bank, 2018c).
  • The number of motor vehicles quintupled from 250 million in 1970 to 1.3 billion in 2015 (International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, 2018); it is expected to double again by 2050.
  • The number of airline passengers increased more than tenfold from 310 million in 1970 to nearly 4 billion in 2016 (The World Bank, 2018d). Its growth continues unrelentingly at a 10-year average annual rate of 5.5% (International Air Travel Association, 2017). International tourist arrivals more than doubled from 1996 (563 million) to 2016 (1235 million) (United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2018).
  • Since 1960, the number of domestic ruminants (mainly cattle, sheep and goats) has increased by over 50% to 3.9 billion to accommodate the demand for meat and dairy products (Ripple et al, 2013; Global Livestock Methane Counter, undated but live) (
  • A staggering 45 million metric tonnes of electronic waste were generated around the world in 2016, which corresponds to nearly 4500 Eiffel Towers. An increase of about 20% (to 52 million metric tonnes) is expected by 2021 (Balde et al, 2017).
  • Global plastic production grew from around 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 335 million tons in 2016 (Borrelle et al, 2017; PlasticsEurope, 2018). Between 4 and 12 million tons are discarded annually into oceans (Jambeck et al, 2015).
  • The global decline in vertebrate species between 1970 and 2012 is estimated at 58%. Freshwater populations have declined by 81%, terrestrial populations by 38%, and marine populations by 36% (McRae et al, 2017; Warren et al, 2018).

The past can be prolog only at our peril. Since both economic growth and population growth continue unabated, in the absence of remedial decarbonization and conservation action at the appropriate scale, the Earth’s carrying capacity is being exceeded (Ripple et al, 2017; Motesharrei et al, 2016).

Climate Change and the Politics of Business as Usual

With overheating a done deal, the issue is no longer the prevention of catastrophe, but its postponement and management. It is possible, yet unlikely, that technical solutions will emerge in the coming decades to decarbonize the world economy while, at the same time, permitting the poor to become wealthy and the Earth’s population to increase by another 40% or so without requiring the rich fundamentally to change their lifestyles.

Relentless expansion is the logic, in fact the fetish, of today’s global economy. Yet infinite growth collides with the physics of a finite world. It is not only the climate change deniers who are anti-science. So, too, are the technology enthusiasts and renewable-energy optimists who entertain the fantasy that it will be possible for ten billion people to live in the style of the American or European middle class (cf. Asafu-Adjaye et al, 2015).

Such delusions keep global heating on the political backburner, and intellectual honesty as well as ethical responsibility muted. The facts suggest that urgent action is essential to reposition rich economies; decency requires the unavoidably radical decarbonization in the North in order to create space for the global South to escape poverty (Shue, 2018).

The carbon budget – even with some uncertainty at the margins – signals a hard stop. If 2 °C (3.6 °F) is the maximum acceptable warming, the supportable amount of future CO2 emissions is set. The International Panel on Climate Change calculates the available budget from 2011 onward – assuming a 66% likelihood of success – at 1000 billion tonnes of CO2 (abbreviated GtCO2) (IPCC, 2014).

Having used about 250 GtCO2 in the seven years since 2011, around 750 GtCO2 remain. At current emission rates, a net-zero state must be achieved in less than 20 years to keep warming below 2 °C (3.6 °F) (The Guardian Carbon Countdown Clock, undated). It also means that of the world’s estimated 2500 GtCO2 coal, oil and gas resources, 68% must remain in the ground. To limit warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), 85% of reserves must remain underground (Muttitt et al, 2016; BP, 2018a).

It is not claimed that these are hard data, yet assumed that they are reasonably plausible. This means that the big picture does not change, even if there are inexactitudes of ± a few years or ± a few GtCO2. The big picture is that by 2050, annual per capita CO2 emissions must not exceed 2 tons – and this entails a reduction of nearly 90% for the USA, 80% for Russia, 70% for the EU as well as China, and the maintenance of current levels for India. Since the population growth of 2 billion has to be factored into the per capita allocations, even steeper reductions for some developing countries are indicated.

And then, there are historical carbon dioxide emissions. The USA (29%) and the EU (27%) together have contributed well over half of the carbon dioxide stock that accrued from 1850 to 2000; Russia and China are responsible for 8% each; Japan for 4% and India for 2%. Developed countries as a group caused 77% of emissions, developing countries 23% (Baumert et al, 2005).

Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, historical emissions, in fairness, must have a bearing on adjudicating remedial responsibilities, especially because the former high emitters are also today’s. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), unsurprisingly, is one of the battle lines in United Nations climate change negotiations. Developing countries contend that early industrialisers must carry a heavier load; developed countries stress that all need to do as much as possible. The double jeopardy is that the irreconcilability of national positions impedes global collective action, while the magnitude of the problem frustrates national initiatives.

No single country is large enough to make much of a difference in what is a global concern. Even though China accounts for nearly 30% of current emissions (the USA for 15, the EU for 10, India for 7, Russia for 5, and Japan for 3%), not even it, the USA, India, or the 28 EU countries alone, can solve the problem. Only together or not at all. It is as if the enormity of the task, instead of instilling a sense of urgency, leads to various forms of denial, foot-dragging and free-riding.

… the threat of climate change is still treated as too remote to trigger forceful remedial action.

China, fortunately, is somewhat different, perhaps intent on reducing pollution to deflect discontent in what is briskly becoming a middle-class society. Its authoritarian government, recognizing the environmental as well as economic potential of renewable energy, achieved its 2020 emissions reduction target 3 years ahead of schedule, in 2017, and, in the same year, also introduced an ambitious carbon emissions’ trading scheme for its electricity sector (UNFCCC, 2018; Xu and Mason, 2018; Liangyu, 2018).

But in other countries, the threat of climate change is still treated as too remote to trigger forceful remedial action. Domestic politics continue to respond to immediate concerns – those that excite the passions of the moment. Climate change is tackled incrementally at best, and the focus is on national parameters that are not contextualized globally, historically or prospectively.

In many countries, the Paris goals are referenced, yet rarely the fact that they are inadequate, even if attained, which is not the case. Most governments emphasize supply and efficiency issues (e.g., the shift to renewables, cheaper batteries, decentralized grid infrastructure, electrification of transport fleets, buildings and industries), but ignore the demand of energy and the resulting emissions.

Take the case of Germany, an enlightened country widely considered a leader in environmental policies. Even though Germany is comparatively diminutive in size – it only accounts for 2% of the World’s CO2 emissions – whatever it does, or does not do, is significant mainly to the extent that it catalyzes or leverages global solutions.

For instance, were Germany to invest now at scale in costly fossil-free technologies, their overall costs would drop, and investment and the fast-tracked adoption of clean technologies elsewhere would result (Frankfurt, 2018. Considering that the sun provides more energy every hour than humanity consumes in a year, the need and scope for innovation is immense (Sivaram, 2018).

It is a missed opportunity that the German government’s Climate Action Plan deals only with national policies and contains no reference to the opportunities entailed in global decarbonization (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit, 2018).

Neither it nor the G-7 Charlevoix Communiqué (G-7, 2018) contain a climate change vision. They do not even mention carbon pricing, which is the most efficacious way to reduce emissions. They are also silent on fossil fuel subsidies, the perverse economic incentives that increase CO2 emissions, which, in the G-7 countries alone, amount to over $100 billion annually (Whitley et al, 2018).

It is an egregious market failure that spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere costs nothing. Of course, there are serious costs, but they are not paid by the polluters. They are imposed on society and the planet as a whole.

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to poor – and dangerous – air quality (World Health Organization, 2018). To reduce carbon emissions, a price must be put on carbon, so that pollution costs real money, and that incentives are created to pollute less.

Allowing the atmosphere to be treated like a free sewer must stop. Ignoring environmental damage is fairy-tale accounting, like running a business and reporting only revenues, but not the cost of raw materials. Markets do not function well when important costs are externalized; they are effective only when significant costs are included in prices. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 January 2019]

Note: The complete article is available on

Photo: As the climate change melts sea ice, the U.S. Geological Survey projects that two-thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050. CC BY-SA 4.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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