5 Reasons the Fight Against Climate Change Has Stalled

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Has the ship already sailed on climate change? Data clearly shows our globe continuing to warm. Temperature and other records continue to be broken, and at a record pace. Yet as the warm-up appears to gain momentum, any momentum on the policy front to stem it has slowed to a crawl, if not a halt. The reasons for this are varied, not a little complex, and as rapidly evolving as the weather itself.

5. The Kyoto Protocol has Proven Ineffective

Many nations were exempt from the Kyoto Treaty, leading to a collapse of the agreement.

A smoggy day in Delhi, India; Ville Miettinen

Ratified by 191 nations and adopted in 1997, the treaty remains the only real global attempt to date to stabilize the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s proven a failure. This is partially because one of the world’s largest emitters, the United States, signed but decided not to ratify the agreement. Congress, in the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, saw a fairness issue in the treaty since it required emission reductions from developed countries while calling for only voluntary compliance from developing ones like China and India. The resolution also questioned how effective a treaty with such parameters could be, a valid point, although there were also economic and political motivations behind Byrd-Hagel. At any rate, the Kyoto Protocol was forced to proceed without the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, on board, while the globe’s biggest and fourth-biggest emitters — China and India, respectively, weren’t required to do anything. In the years since the protocol was drawn up, Canada has withdrawn from it, deciding it couldn’t achieve the emission reductions it had agreed to, and Russia and Japan have shown a similar reluctance to meet guidelines. Annual talks continue in hopes of drawing up a new treaty that will begin where Kyoto left off, but starting over is really the only option negotiators have.


4. The U.S. Doesn’t Have the Political Will to Combat Climate Change

The world has looked to the U.S. to lead on combatting global climate change, to no effect.

Glacier calving in Argentina; Luca Galuzzi

European Union nations, which combined amount to the globe’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, enthusiastically embraced the Kyoto Protocol and have remained on board. But much of the rest of the world has chosen to let the United States lead on the issue, and its inaction has proven contagious. Like most everything else in Washington these days, global warming is a highly partisan issue, particularly in the halls of Congress. Former Vice President Al Gore made quite a splash with his 2006 film documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, about the dangers of global warming, but his political opponents were quick to call him a partisan scold, and the label has stuck. Rather than being an ambassador on the issue, Gore has been relegated to speaking to audiences that already agree with him. Recent efforts among some lawmakers to shift the stalemated climate change debate to one over energy, with which it is closely tied, has only attracted the attention of entrenched interests like Big Oil, and the partisanship has remained. Finally, with climate change ranking low among the public’s concerns — it became a non-issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — there’s little reason for Congress to move it to the front of an agenda that’s already deadlocked over other, more short-term matters.


3. Global Warming Deniers Have Been Effective at Sowing Doubts

Global warming skeptics have sown doubts about the reality of climate change.

Extent of Arctic Sea ice in 2007, versus average from 1979 through 2000; NASA

In the past 100 years the Earth’s average temperature has climbed 1.4 degrees, the bulk of that since 1980. During the same time frame, greenhouse gas emissions have also climbed, just as steeply. That parallel, while highly suggestive, is technically circumstantial, but scientists almost universally agree that temperatures have risen around the globe. Global warming deniers fiercely debate that point. It’s not the science that concerns them, and the politicization of the issue has allowed them to get away with saying anything, but like any opportunistic politician, they have seized on gray areas in climate science to make their point, and there are plenty of unknowns in the discipline. The globe isn’t warming evenly, some areas have actually cooled, and all it takes is one unusually cold winter in the U.S. for the deniers to gather more skeptics into their fold. Yet many scientists believe that climate change has manifested itself in recent years in all manner of weather extremes — droughts, floods, even heavier snows — which could be difficult for the layman to grasp. An email controversy in 2009 at the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia gave rise to speculation that climatologists were cooking the numbers to make it appear global warming is greater than it is. An investigation found the allegations to be baseless, but the damage was done.


2. Many Experts Believe Emissions Reductions Would Cripple Most Economies

Many experts believe that cutting greenhouse emissions could cripple economies.

Protesters march at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009 in Copenhagen; Kris Krüg

When Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, the greenhouse gas emissions it had agreed in 1997 to reduce by 6 percent had in fact increased by 24 percent. Canada, an advanced, developed country like the United States, wasn’t just acknowledging non-compliance. It stated that to rebound from a severe recession it would need to use more energy, not less. Sounding the note of economic unfairness initiated by the U.S., which opted not to participate in Kyoto, Russia recently announced it would not be on board for the protocol’s next round of commitments unless it forced similar cuts on developing nations like China and India. Ironically, emissions have plummeted in Russia as its smokestack industries have collapsed. China and India, meanwhile, claim they should not be required to make cutbacks when poverty is so pervasive in their economies. And around and around they go. Although nations like Canada may be sinking the Kyoto Protocol, it’s hard to argue with that country’s environment minister, Peter Kent, who said in 2011 that adhering to the treaty would mean taking cars off the roads and shutting off the heat in every building in the country while booming Beijing continued to spew whatever it wanted into the air.


1. It May Already be too Late to Make a Difference

Some scientists believe we've already passed the point of no return regarding climate change.

Iranian desert; A. RB

When global warming first became a concern nearly 20 years ago, scientists predicted a number of climatic phenomena would occur unless the world took action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Those phenomena — melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and the polar ice caps, emergence of record-setting hurricanes like Katrina and 100-year droughts — have already started occurring, much sooner than was originally predicted. The global climate is a vast engine larger than we may fully understand, and reversing its course can’t be achieved by flipping a switch. Once a certain tipping point is reached, warming of the planet will be irreversible, and a growing number of scientists feel we’re already there, or will be very soon. Even if all the nations of the world agreed to cut their emissions tomorrow — which isn’t likely to happen — would it matter? Certain politicians and global warming deniers are now using this as an argument against emissions reduction. Some prominent deniers have even changed their tune and are now stating publicly that global warming is real and largely human-induced, since there’s no longer much risk in saying so. Our new challenge, in fact, could be addressing the ramifications of global warming, not preventing it; judging from the recent past, that battle may not go any more smoothly.

Written by

Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.