Photo by Mike Aguilera/ SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images

Final preparations are underway for COP21 in Paris, the biggest international climate-change negotiation since 2009’s epic failure in Copenhagen. This time, the fix is in: negotiators have established a process guaranteed to produce an agreement, albeit a meaningless one. Rather than set firm restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions, each nation is invited to submit its own proposed “contribution” to that goal. The sum total of these contributions—though they may not represent significant emissions reductions and will not be enforceable in any case—will constitute the “agreement.”

The idea, according to a preliminary negotiating text, is to “enable an upward spiral of ambition over time,” but as a commentary in Nature noted on Monday: “History and the science of cooperation predict that quite the opposite will happen.” Indeed, China and India have offered contributions weaker than their existing policies, and some of the largest developing nations have declined even to submit proposals. The most recent draft agreement text, meanwhile, reads like a bad Mad-Lib, bracketed to show those areas where agreement remains pending: “Each Party [shall][should][other] regularly communicate a nationally determined mitigation [contribution][commitment][other] that it [shall][should][other] implement.”

The farcical proceedings make clear the irreconcilable gap between the rhetorical excesses and practical realities of the climate-change debate. With apologies to Alex Trebek, if the answer is the Paris process of collating non-binding commitments to do nothing, then the question cannot be, “How do we save the world?” And yet, to hear the climate activists tell it, the survival of the world is precisely what’s at stake.

At issue here is not the broad scientific consensus that climate-change exists but rather the severity of the threat. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established a range for predicted warming whose high end is three times its low end; that range widened (to the low side) between its 2007 and 2014 reports. Even were the exact temperature increase known, the tangible effects would remain difficult to predict. The Obama administration has relied on models estimating that a 3°C increase in global temperatures would reduce global GDP by 0 to 2.5 percent in 2100—costly but hardly apocalyptic. Still, these models represent untestable guesses, and their average and most-likely cases say little about possible worst-case scenarios.

It’s those worst-case views that a range of prominent scientists, activists, and politicians seem most interested in. Esquire filled its striking summer feature, “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job,” with stories of climate scientists suffering “pretraumatic stress” and struggling to manage their emotions in anticipation of civilizational collapse. “No challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations,” declared President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union. Mayor Bill de Blasio told a Vatican audience that current consumer habits would “hasten the destruction of the earth.” Climate scientists Michael Mann and Daniel Kammen have compared the specter of a warming world with the “gathering storm” of World War II, while Yale professor Timothy Snyder demonstrated Godwin’s Law in a New York Times op-ed, comparing climate change with the Holocaust and likening climate “deniers” to Hitler. James Hanson, the godfather of climate science, famously declared: “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”

One cannot equate carbon-dioxide emissions to the Holocaust and then accept the current structure of negotiations as the appropriate response. The standard #ActOnClimate policy package has always consisted of aggressive unilateral emissions reductions in the developed world coupled with an international agreement to be hammered out later. But the developing world will account for four-fifths of carbon-dioxide emissions this century. Take away the prospect of a serious (and enforceable) agreement that grapples with those realities and the package makes no sense.

If civilization hangs in the balance, then the developing world must somehow be coerced into emissions reductions. For instance, if coal plants are truly “factories of death,” shouldn’t a Coalition of the Willing bomb any plant that a country dares try to build? Archbishop Desmond Tutu has equated the “immoral system[s]” of Apartheid and fossil-fuel consumption. If he’s right, shouldn’t an embargo, at least, be in the offing?

The goal of threatening coercive action, of course, is not to carry out the threat but rather to force uncooperative nations to cooperate. The damage to their economies that would follow is no different than what proponents of a negotiated agreement support already. Indeed, under the prevailing theory among activists that all nations will benefit from a robust agreement, forcing some into it will surely be for their own good.

That such ideas are plainly unserious only underscores how unserious the climate debate has become. Some prominent economists have suggested imposing a global carbon tax by placing tariffs on any nations that fail to comply. But even that comparatively mild prescription has so far proved beyond the pale. In Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders said: “We have got to be extremely aggressive in working with China, India, and Russia.” But, as on so many topics, it was unclear what he meant or whether he meant to be taken seriously. Someone should ask.

“This year, in Paris, has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can,” said President Obama on his recent trip to Alaska. Perhaps that warmed the hearts of some nearby polar bears (though hopefully not their icebergs). It undoubtedly looked good in fundraising emails. But we can all take comfort that, if the president is backing the Paris negotiations, he must not actually think that the planet is on the line.


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