By the time this letter lands, COP28 will long be over, but its implications will be felt, well, probably forever. And since I'm covering it, you know I don't mean this in a good way.
COP28 is the 28th Conference of the Parties, the parties being nations gathered to discuss, plan, and policy-make about climate change. Beginning with the Kyoto Protocol in the 90s, the goal of these conferences was to establish binding guidelines for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Much like any multinational endeavor, it has been hobbled by compromise, riddled with hypocrisy, and watered down to the point of almost total inefficacy. But, importantly, it has resulted in headlines and baselines, providing the world a place to start when talking about climate change. Diluted though it be, without the Paris Agreement we might not have 1.5C as a target at all. We might just have been lurching full speed toward the apocalypse.
Held in Dubai, an extremely heat-vulnerable but petro-rich nation, a lot of people had their doubts about COP28. Those doubts have been borne out. Whereas any COP can get very little done, this COP managed to bring to the forefront the idea of a "phase-down," rather than a "phase-out" of fossil fuels. This was spoken loudest by Sultan Al Jaber, president of COP28 and, perhaps-n0t-weirdly, an oil executive. The idea that we could possibly phase-down rather than immediately end the use of fossil fuels and still live on this planet is laughable. Unfortunately, Al Jaber was right about one thing: it is next to impossible for the world to continue developing without the use of fossil fuels, at least on any kind of immediate timeframe.
The Deal As It Is Played
The final pact of COP28 was reached on the 13th of December, rather unexpectedly. After what appeared to be a complete gridlock, several of the major players of the conference met and gaveled through a deal that actually includes some sterner language than was expected–first and foremost explicit language toward leaving fossil fuels in the ground. But like any victory in this world, as potent as it may seem it is not nearly enough, as evinced by the imperiled nation of Samoa at the conference. The pact agreed upon has numerous loopholes for continued extraction of fossil fuels, and of course even if it didn't you could bet that the biggest emitters of carbon would continue their expansion of fossil fuel projects. Thanks, Biden.
The broad strokes of the deal call for similarly rosy-green-tinted projections as you are used to, mainly global carbon neutrality by 2050. I say rosy because not only is this way too slow to prevent the worst of climate change, but it is also not realistic given the language of the pact. So-called bridge fuels, like natural gas, are loopholed in, and the phase-down is defined as occurring in "energy systems." They also call for more carbon sequestration, which, if you're new to the doom, is just a smoky-mirrored dog and pony show. It is a nigh-on impossible technology that has not been demonstrated to work on a reasonable scale, costs about as much energy to run as it will account for, and has no effective means of storage as yet. It's bullshit.
Which means that while COP28 had a last minute gain, it is not a game-changer. But like all things climate, it's not nothing. If some nations look at this agreement and move to follow it–that is, unequivocally, something. Every tenth of a degree is important, as every tenth is another year we hang on, by our nails, to the edge of a tipping point. Every tenth of a degree is another thousand species still living in key roles in our ecosystems. When you're talking about a whole planet, small numbers are big. And yet, it is not enough.
Two Ways of Thinking
In 1988, James Hansen went before Congress and warned them about climate change. I was just a wee boy back then. Imagine knowing what is coming for nearly forty years, knowing and speaking truth to power and watching while so little is done. This year, Hansen published a paper that is yet again paradigm-shifting, if it is properly recognized. Hansen says what we already believe–that 1.5C as a goal is all but impossible, and that if we're to avoid catastrophe, something drastic has to be done.
A more recent scholar, Michael Mann, feels differently. Michael Mann, who is responsible in part for the infamous "hockey stick graph," which shows our sudden departure from not only normal but gradual temperature change, thinks differently. Similarly steeped in what is effectively ancient climate history, Mann believes that the current models peddled about by governments and the IPCC are accurate, and that catastrophic warming isn't around the corner but nevertheless on its way without some solid action.
Mann has way more cred than I do. He has degrees. He's a scientist. I think Mann is full of shit. You should be hesitant to follow my lead and I urge you to be. But he's full of shit. He's toeing the line of world powers that want things to continue on as they are as long as possible, and a mild prediction of climate horror is the best way to continue on that path. We need to ween off oil and let the big energy companies switch over to renewables if things are to continue as they are and "hey we're in trouble in a hundred years" is the way to get there. It provides a sense of danger but not "don't spend half your income on gewgaws" danger.
Hansen feels differently, and his work bears that out. According to Hansen, our planet is doomed to a disastrous amount of warming if drastic action is not taken now–indeed, beyond simply ending emissions, Hansen thinks that our only hope is geoengineering, with which not even I agree. Hansen looks at the historical record for a guide to global warming, and rather than recent math, (which shows the death of baked-in heat in the atmosphere after a decade or two) Hansen sees a lot more warming in the pipeline, in no small part because of our recent decrease in reflective sulfuric emissions, which we've talked about before. And this point is critical to us, now, let alone in twenty years or fifty.
In the Months to Come
Hansen's models see, truly terrifyingly, a whopping half a degree Celsius increase in world temperature in months. Months. This puts us over 2°C of warming for the year(ish), which are numbers the world is not supposed to see until, according to the IPCC, the end of the century. We will likely spend some time below that number after El Niño subsides, but we will have crossed a line which we weren't supposed to see for actual decades. If Hansen is right, we'll see his predictions come true soon, and we'll know just what shape of boat we're in.
Which, of course, like every time I write about climate change, is just meant to underscore my previous message: it will not be stopped, it will hardly be mitigated, we are doomed without personal action. So we must act. This means, as always, that in the short term we should be worried about acute incidents–storms, floods, droughts. Prepare for those by stocking up on water, on food, on medicine. Know how to evacuate your immediate area and have an idea of where to go after.
But these problems aren't the end. Eventually climate change means that we can't just go out and get big bags of flour, sides of bacon. We'll need to know how to fend for ourselves instead of relying on extant supply chains. We'll have to learn to farm, to raise livestock, to find and secure sources of water. This is coming. We need to learn these things–not all of them, as I hope we face these problems as communities–but some, by banding together. It's not something likely to trickle down from our governments, who are still pouring money into making their own money. But we surely can't rely on them. We can't rely on jet-setters who fly around the world to make decisions for all of us after glad-handing with fossil fuel executives. We've got to do this on our own.