Some 25 years ago, I heard a talk about climate change in the genteel wood-paneled library of Smith College, the nation’s largest college for women. Distinguished biologist Lynn Margulis described how bacteria dominated life on Earth for billions of years and assured the audience that the microbes will survive humankind’s environmental crisis. She ended, however, with the warming that, “Mother Nature bats last and she can be a mean b****!”
The powerful baseball metaphor of a decisive end does not exactly fit the ever-evolving climate crisis. Mother Nature has responded to human-generated greenhouse gases with increasingly frequent and destructive extreme weather events, but she does not take turns with humankind. And no definitive “game over” moment will occur–unless mounting environmental damage leads to the extinction of humanity. However, we humans do work episodically. Consider the annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—or the four-year terms of American presidents.
The UNFCCC story began at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The first President Bush attended and signed the document for the United States. The treaty asserted “common but differentiated responsibilities,” diplomatic language for, “we’re all in this together, but you rich countries got us here, so you go first.” The framework treaty included no firm and potentially controversial commitments; the U.S. Senate ratified it with a simple voice vote.
Importantly, the UNFCCC specified annual COP meetings to review scientific and diplomatic progress toward its goal, to “prevent dangerous [human-caused] interference in the climate system.” COP 3 in 1997 produced the Kyoto Protocol. It committed developed countries to cut their emissions in the following 15 years. Vice President Al Gore signed the treaty for the U.S., but opposition by a Republican-controlled Senate precluded ratification. The second President Bush subsequently withdrew the U.S. signature. Without participation from the U.S., the largest greenhouse gas emitter at the time, and rapidly developing China, which became the largest emitter before the treaty expired, the Kyoto Protocol did little to slow global warming. Nevertheless, the active participants achieved significant emissions reductions, e.g., 25% by the EU.
The Paris Agreement
Election of President Obama in 2008 renewed U.S. engagement, but COP 15 in Copenhagen the following year produced no emission reduction commitments. Notably, wealthy countries did pledge to contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 in climate aid to low- and middle-income countries. Another six years passed before COP 21 yielded the 2015 Paris Agreement. (Notably, it is not a treaty that would require a ⅔-majority in the Senate for ratification). It aims to limit global warming from pre-industrial levels “well below” 2◦C (3.6◦F), with aspiration to limit warming to 1.5◦C (2.7◦F). After the 2016 election, President Trump withdrew U.S. participation from the agreement, but President Biden restored it in 2021.
The Paris Agreement calls for every nation to submit voluntary but increasingly ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for collection and review every five years. As the world approaches the third five-year cycle, technical evaluation of current NDCs has shown that the emission reductions pledged to date will not achieve even the 2◦C goal. Political and diplomatic response to that fact therefore provides an urgent agenda item for COP 28, upcoming November 30-December 12 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow. And 2023 promises to rank as the warmest in instrumental records available since 1850. Mother Nature’s response to roughly 1.2◦C warming to date has included record droughts, floods, and heat waves, and more intense tropical storms. According to the National Center for Environmental Information (https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions/state-summary/US), extreme weather events since 2010 in the United States alone have cost more than $100 billion per year above the 1980-1999 average. Even limiting warming to the 1.5◦ C Paris target would not prevent escalating impacts. Moreover, scientists project damage will become still worse as temperatures rise above that level.
COP 28 Issues
In highlighting the need for greater national contributions to emissions reduction, COP 28 will debate a contentious commitment to “phase out” fossil fuel burning, not just “phase down” their use. The conference also will address critical climate finance issues. These include increasing funding by high-income nations to low- and middle-income countries for adaptation, in addition to emissions reductions. They also include the structure and funding commitments to a new Loss and Damage Fund. At COP 27 last year, parties agreed in principle to establish this fund for reconstruction from past and future disaster losses in poorer countries. However, the context for these discussions is the ongoing failure up to 2023 of rich countries, especially the U.S., to meet their 2009 $100 billion per year pledges.
President Biden and the 2024 U.S. Election
Active leadership by the U.S.—still the leading historical greenhouse gas emitter—is essential. The Biden Administration submitted the ambitious NDC of 50% emissions reduction (from 2005 levels) by 2030. To meet the goal, he secured Congressional authorization of more than $500 billion in climate-related domestic spending and ramped up regulatory action. Even so, the U.S. will miss its target without additional policy initiatives. Moreover, the Republican opposition still denies the reality, much less the urgency of human-caused climate change.
What happens if another Republican Administration takes office and federal action to curb climate change falters? Perhaps, given the importance of the U.S. on the world stage, identifying the 2024 election as the top of the 9th inning may prove apt after all. Except that Mother Nature will not wait for her next “turn at bat.”