Have We Hit the Climate Tipping Point?

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As reported Wednesday in A Pivotal Moment in Environmental Politics, world leaders will gather tomorrow in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Key discussion topics include:

  • What will developed nations do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  • What will developing nations do to curb emissions growth?
  • Who will pay for these measures?

The Copenhagen summit may be the last chance to head off disastrous effects from climate change—and our efforts may already be too late, according to Rafael Reuveny, PhD, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington.

“The climate change train has left,” says Dr. Reuveny, coeditor of North and South in the World Political Economy. “What we are trying to do now is limit the rise in temperatures to an acceptable level, and this may not be possible.”

Devastating Socioeconomic Upheaval

Some models suggest we may be close to a “climate tipping point,” where the effects of global warming generate positive feedbacks that make the trend almost impossible to stop, Dr. Reuveny says.

His research shows changes in climate produce devastating socioeconomic upheaval, including forced migration and increased conflict, especially in the developing world.

But Dr. Reuveny is also concerned that the sacrifice required to prevent a climate disaster could bring about a “social tipping point”—a dangerous social disruption. A sufficient reduction in greenhouse gases could upset the social order—at first in countries with less robust governance systems, followed by developed nations.

Two Possible Scenarios for Copenhagen

Dr. Reuveny anticipates two possible outcomes in Copenhagen:

  1. It’s possible, though unlikely, that there could be a broad-based agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions by enough to avert serious climate effects.
  2. We will essentially continue with business as usual. Sooner or later, this would lead to economic decline and social chaos, at first in the developing world and then in the rich nations.

The latter is a “gloomy scenario,” he says, “but unfortunately the most likely.”

A Marshall Plan for Climate Change?

Dr. Reuveny believes there’s a better way to approach global warming: Developed nations could agree to relatively modest emissions reductions, while developing nations could agree to slow their rate of emissions growth for a while and then accept modest emissions reductions.

Most importantly, the rich nations could create a massive “Global Warming Marshall Plan” to help vulnerable developing nations begin adapting now to problems brought on by climate change—problems, it should be noted, that developed nations caused.

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