COP21 and 2 Degrees

As you may know, government officials around the world are currently deliberating in Paris in an attempt to create a legally binding agreement to combat climate change at COP21. Beginning on November 30th, and lasting until December 11th, the UN Paris Climate Talks are aiming to build a “Paris Climate Alliance” capable of keeping the average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius that is universal, flexible, balanced, and dynamic. Policymakers have been working away at a draft text that went from a lengthy 34,678 words and 1,609 unresolved brackets, to a current 19,733 words and 361 unresolved brackets. Although there is clear progress, there are still many disagreements such as finances and equity between developed and developing nations. This is a large issue that could potentially stunt effectiveness because, as the COP21 president Laurent Fabius explicitly stated in the beginning of the conference, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. After the failed Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, he stakes have never been higher to reach an agreement. No matter what the language of the agreement ends up being, the overarching goal is clear: regulations must be established to keep global temperatures from going above two degrees.

I’ve always been curious about how global environmental politics reached a quorum of two degrees Celsius. Many countries, especially those that are developing Island nations, have been pushing for a 1.5 degree limit on global temperature rise, citing that 2 degrees will still lead to devastatingly adverse effects that pose existential threats. It turns out, this two degrees bench mark was somewhat created by Yale economist William Nordhaus. In the 1977, he published a paper called “Economic Growth and Climate Change: The Carbon Dioxide Problem” that concluded that a rise in global temperature of more than 2 degrees would lead to temperatures unseen in the past several hundred thousand years. An article by the FiveThirtyEight sheds insightful light on the fact that although climate data confirms Nordhaus’ conclusion, the number was preliminary based on intuition. In fact, one article in Nature Geoscience cites that no scientific assessment exists that has defended the 2 degrees target as a safe level of warming. Nevertheless, this paper also mentions that finding an appropriate target is an issue that science alone cannot address.

So, what gives? Why is 2 degrees perceived as a universally accepted goal? Due to the fact that global climate change mitigation policy can’t be one size fits all for every country, does it make sense to have a single umbrella target? In my opinion, the answer is still yes. Where science can’t make a final conclusion on a certain worldwide goal, economics can help step in by accounting for the costs, benefits, and risks associated with each target. Although many argue that a 2 degree target isn’t even attainable, perhaps if the warming limit was set too high, it would fail to inspire the urgency needed to reduce emissions. On the other hand, if the limit was too low, country leaders may perceive any policy to reach that goal to be too strict, so they might not even sign onto the agreement in the first place. Although 2 degrees may not be verified scientifically, given economic, social, and political conditions, it seems like a happy medium that signals both urgency and feasibility.

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