As we see from Module 1, the science of climate change is undeniable and yet very little action seems to have taken place to tackle it. Global negotiations on climate change have been happening for more than 20 years and still world leaders and policy makers struggle to agree an international response to a global problem. You could believe this is because global warming has only been known about for the last few years but this is not the case. Our understanding of how certain atmospheric gases trap heat dates back nearly 200 years.
In 1824 Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, considered the following mystery – why doesn’t the planet keep heating up as it receives sunlight? What is regulating our atmospheric temperature? Joseph Fourier’s answer described what we now know as ‘the greenhouse effect’.
In 1896 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, was the first to measure how carbon dioxide (CO2) contributes to the greenhouse effect. He later made the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming.
Look at the table below for other key events in the history of climate change and the growing international response to the crisis.
Key Events in History of Climate Change
|1712||British ironmonger Thomas Newcomen invents the first widely used steam engine, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution and industrial scale use of coal.|
|1824||Joseph Fourier, a French scientist is the first to recognise the greenhouse effect.|
|1861||Irish physicist, John Tyndall, shows that water vapour and other gases create the greenhouse effect. More than a century later, he is honoured by having a prominent UK climate research organisation - the Tyndall Centre - named after him.|
|1886||Karl Benz unveils the Motorwagen, often regarded as the first true automobile.|
|1896||Svante Arrhenius measures how carbon dioxide from fossil fuels contributes to the greenhouse effect.|
|1927||Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning reach one billion tonnes per year.|
|1938||British engineer, Guy Callendar, shows that temperatures and CO2 had risen over the previous century. He suggests CO2 causes warming (dismissed by meteorologists).|
|1958||Using equipment he had developed himself, Charles Keeling begins systematic measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii and in Antarctica. His project provides the first unequivocal proof that CO2 concentrations are rising.|
|1965||A US President's Advisory Committee panel warns of the greenhouse effect.|
|1987||Montreal Protocol agreed, restricting chemicals that damage the ozone layer. Although not established with climate change in mind, it has had a greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions than the Kyoto Protocol.|
|1988||Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed by the United Nations to collate and assess evidence on climate change.|
|1990||IPCC produces First Assessment Report. It concludes that temperatures have risen by 0.3-0.6C over the last century; that humanity's emissions are adding to the atmosphere's natural greenhouse gases, and would result in warming.|
|1992||At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments agree the United Framework Convention on Climate Change to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions. Developed countries agree to return their emissions to 1990 levels.|
|1995||IPCC Second Assessment Report makes the first definitive statement that the balance of evidence suggests "a discernible human influence" on the Earth's climate.|
|1997||Kyoto Protocol agreed. Developed nations pledge to reduce emissions by an average of 5% by the period 2008-12, with wide variations on targets for individual countries. US Senate immediately declares it will not ratify the treaty.|
|1998||Publication of the controversial "hockey stick" graph showing rapid temperature rise. It would later be the subject of two enquiries instigated by the US Congress.|
|2001||President George W Bush removes the US from the Kyoto process.|
|2001||IPCC Third Assessment Report finds "new and stronger evidence" that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause of the global warming.|
|2006||Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning reach eight billion tonnes per year.|
|2007||The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report concludes more than 90% likely that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change.|
|2009||192 governments convene for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen but leave only with a controversial political declaration, the Copenhagen Accord, as no deal agreed.|
|2012||Arctic sea ice reaches a minimum extent of 3.41 million sq km (1.32 million sq mi), a record for the lowest summer cover since satellite measurements began in 1979.|
|2014||IPCC 5th report human-induced global warming is happening at unprecedented rate.|
|2015||UN Climate Summit in Paris, largest gathering of world leaders in history of the world.|
Adapted from the BBC ‘A brief history of climate change’.
In 1988, James Hanson, director of NASA, testified before a packed US congressional hearing that he was 99% sure that human-induced global warming was happening. That testimony marked the beginning of an international response to climate change. Hundreds of scientists and policymakers discussed emissions’ reduction at a world conference in Toronto later that month and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was set up. It held its first meeting in November that year.
Even Time magazine recognised the gravity of the situation in 1988 and put an endangered planet Earth on its front cover. It called for “… a universal crusade to save the planet.”
“Now, more than ever, the world needs leaders who can inspire their fellow citizens with a fiery sense of mission, not a nationalistic or military campaign but a universal crusade to save the planet,” stated Time magazine’s editorial.
This international recognition that climate change was real and caused by humans resulted in the largest environmental conference ever held, the Rio Earth Summit.
Rio Earth Summit 1992
In 1992, governments met for the first United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where they signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This document bound governments to take action to avoid dangerous climate change but did not specify what actions. However, it formed the basis for all future climate negotiations. One of the more memorable moments of the conference was the address given to world delegates by a 12 year old girl called Severn Cullis-Suzuki.
Severn Cullis-Suzuki aged 12 years speaking at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992
Ironically, in the same year that the first UN climate agreement was signed in Rio, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was also signed. The consequence of this free trade agreement would result in carbon emissions soaring as multinationals were given the freedom to comb the world in search of the cheapest and most exploitable workforce. The climate impacts of the free trade era have been disastrous. It has encouraged the massive consumption of disposable goods. These goods are produced cheaply in developing countries, and then transported thousands of miles to be consumed in the developed countries. All of this has vastly increased global emissions of CO2.
Between 2002 and 2008, 48% of China’s emissions were related to producing goods for export (2). ‘When China became the ‘workshop of the world’ it also became the coal-spewing ‘chimney of the world’(3). However it’s fair to say that although China is still the largest greenhouse gas emitter, it has recently become the primary producer of low carbon technologies. It has installed more wind-powered capacity than any other country and is second in the world for solar capacity.
Over the 5 years following the Rio Earth Summit, governments argued over what each should do and what should be the role of the developed countries in relation to poorer nations.
In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted containing the first binding emission reduction targets. It required worldwide cuts in emissions of 5%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2012.
However developing countries like China were given no targets and allowed to increase their emissions. The agreement was never ratified in the US by Congress or George W Bush. Russia also failed to endorse it until much later.
Although the Kyoto agreement was a legally binding treaty, it never really met its objectives. A study of the emissions of industrialised countries that had signed the treaty found that, while emissions had stopped growing, it was largely due to international free trade that had allowed them to move their dirty production overseas. In addition, none of the countries which failed to meet their commitments under the treaty have ever been sanctioned.
The next attempt to get an international agreement was the Copenhagen conference of 2009. Despite widely held beliefs that the summit would produce a legally binding treaty, negotiations came to a deadlock.
The resulting ‘Copenhagen Accord’ recognised the scientific case for keeping global warming to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures but remained unclear how the target would be met. Many vulnerable African countries and Pacific islands had been expecting deeper emission cuts of 80% to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 but these targets were dropped.
It was recognised that the deal at Copenhagen would not keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees but instead leave the world on a pathway for rises of 3 degrees or more. Several environment analysts thought the failure of the summit to live up to expectations was due to the financial crisis of 2008(4). Many governments were reluctant to commit to emissions reduction, seeing ever more economic growth as the solution to worldwide recession.
Since the Copenhagen deal collapsed, scientific studies have confirmed that the earliest impacts of climate change have started to sweep across the planet. While scientists once warned that climate change was a problem for future generations, recent scientific reports have concluded that it has started to wreak havoc now, from flooding to droughts to food and water shortages.
The Paris Agreement, reached in December 2015, unites all the world in a single agreement to tackle climate change for the first time in history.
The key elements of the agreement are:
- To keep global temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial times and endeavour to limit them further to no more than 1.5 degrees.
- Zero net emissions by 2050
- To balance the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by human activity against levels that trees, plants and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050-2100.
- To review each country’s contribution to emission cuts every 5 years and make an assessment of progress in 2018.
- For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing ‘climate finance’ to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.
Adapted from: BBC News (5)
Prof John Shepherd of the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, says the agreement includes some welcome aspirations but few people realise how difficult it will be to achieve the goals.
“Since the only mechanism remains voluntary national caps on emissions, without even any guidance on how stringent those caps would need to be, it is hard to be optimistic that these goals are likely to be achieved.”(6)
The Paris deal will not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who’ve analysed it think, it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half the amount necessary to stop a global temperature rise of 2 degrees. That is the point at which, scientific studies have concluded, the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences (7). Not only are nations’ individual pledges not legally binding, the total reductions pledged are predicted to put us on course for 3 degrees warming.
Watch the following video of Professor Kevin Anderson speaking from the 2015 Paris Summit about its significance and how he thinks scientists are now underplaying the climate crisis because they don’t want to challenge the economic system.
Kevin Anderson interviewed by Democracy Now
1. ‘A brief history of climate change’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15874560
2. ‘China as Chimney of the World’ Andreas Malm
3. ‘This Changes Everything’ Naomi Klein (P.79)
4. 2009 conference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_United_Nations_Climate_Change_Conference
5. BBC news Global Climate Deal in Summary http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35073297
6. BBC news Global Climate Deal in Summary http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35073297
Naomi Klein interviewed at the Paris Summit by Democracy Now https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPs-8n9efWQ
James Hansen Why I must speak out about climate change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWInyaMWBY8