Most people value accountability in their own lives as well as in politics and business. With respect to climate change, however, accountability is largely missing from the conversation.
Global emissions of industrial (fossil fuel and cement) carbon dioxide have totaled 1,336 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) since the industrial revolution, of which half has been emitted since 1984 — a decade after scientists first built computer models demonstrating that greenhouse gases would cause global warming. Industrial CO2 emissions continued to accelerate even after the UNFCCC was established and have risen 50.3 percent since 1992. Emissions declined slightly in 2009 but have since increased sharply, rising 5.9 percent in 2010 and 3.2 percent in 2011 to 34 GtCO2.
The scientific community has known since the late 1970s that the world was on the path to dangerous anthropogenic interference (DAI) with the climate system. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1992, was intended to take us off that path, and towards a stable future climate, one that did not threaten global health, well-being, and prosperity. Despite overwhelming, well-established scientific evidence of the risks we are taking the world remains on the path to DAI. Most scientists consider that the threshold for “danger” lies at or below 2 °C, and the chances for keeping temperature response below that level are rapidly diminishing. Already we are seeing increases in extreme weather, rapid melting of arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice-sheet, collapsing ice shelves in the Antarctic, disappearing mid-latitude glaciers, ravaging floods, extreme heat waves and droughts, and, of course, rising costs to human welfare and ecosystems.
It is often remarked that we are running out of oil or other carbon fuels, and that this resource constraint will help prevent DAI. But in fact, both fossil fuel production and energy-related emissions are not only increasing but are projected to continue rising for
decades. Proven recoverable reserves of fossil fuels, partly as assets held by investor-owned carbon producers with a stake in their production, range from 0.76 to 1.55 trillion tonnes of carbon. Additional recoverable resources—including reserve additions from new technology, extreme environments, oil sands, and shale gas—range from 3.4 to 13.6 TtC. In contrast, the scientific consensus on the maximum safe level of cumulative emissions from 1750 to 2500 AD is ~1 trillion tonnes of carbon (TtC). The world has already emitted over 0.5 TtC since 1750, if emissions from deforestation and land use change are included, and the likely production of proven reserves threatens to overshoot the cumulative 1 TtC carbon budget.
Since climate change is driven primarily by historic emissions, not current emissions, the cumulative emissions of the United States (26.6 percent) are far more important than China’s (8.7 percent), even though China’s annual emissions now surpass those of the U.S.
The IPCC negotiations are based on the responsibility of developed nations to lead the way in preventing DAI. National governments have focused on reducing the consumption of carbon fuels, by various means and with varying success. Yet national governments have largely encouraged the producers of carbon fuels to discover new reserves and increase production. This disconnect, coupled with proven reserves in excess of preventing DAI, motivates the Climate Accountability Institute to seek new strategies to keep carbon in the ground.
THE TOBACCO ANALOGY
Various groups, organizations, corporations, and individuals have worked to mislead the public and deny climate science in order to prevent climate mitigation legislation and thus hampering the transition to a low-carbon energy future. These efforts have been shockingly successful. We have been manipulated into taking the blame, as consumers of tobacco and carbon alike.
The science of global warming is unequivocal, we are seeing the early consequences of historic emissions, international negotiations and national policies are unlikely to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, there is a surfeit of carbon reserves owned by companies with a profit motive to produce and market fuels, and a carbon production industry that has neither external nor internal restraint to curb or eliminate their core business. It is, after all, their business, and like the tobacco industry before them, the carbon industry knows full well that their product is dangerous to human health, global welfare, and the planet’s ecosystems and species.
The tobacco industry worked for some time to create a safe cigarette, but in the end realized that was an oxymoron. Are there safe fossil fuels? Perhaps, if we can make carbon sequestration work, but there are serious questions about that, both whether it can work at all, and whether we can make it work on the scale, time frame, and cost level required. A broad range of fuel and electric efficiency and renewable energy solutions are available, all of which are being rapidly deployed. Yet none of the solutions, in our view, are being adopted at a pace or scale sufficient to replace or out-compete carbon fuels.
One might hope that fossil fuel producers would “do the right thing” and begin converting their business models toward non-carbon based fuels, and a few years ago it seemed that some were at least considering that option. However, in recent years it has become clear that many fossil fuel producers are determined to re-invest in new carbon and disinvest from low-carbon alternatives. Carbon fuels are relatively cheap, zero-carbon alternatives generally require mandates and subsidies, and there is neither penalty nor restriction on dumping carbon waste in the atmosphere. The financial incentives explain why several of these companies participated in disinformation campaigns denying that climate change is a real problem and discrediting political action.
We need a new strategy. It is the objective of the Climate Accountability Institute to use accountability for climate change as the fulcrum for climate stewardship.
THE CAI ACTION PLAN
As a first step towards promoting the concept of Climate Accountability, CAI, in conjunction with other interested organizations, is completing a quantification of historic production of fossil fuels and cement. Historic carbon emissions now drive climate change, and therefore should be a primary focus for any attempt to address accountability.
Second, CAI aims to build on the research of major fossil fuel producers’ efforts to obfuscate the science of climate change in order to forestall climate legislation. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway documented many of these efforts in their award-winning 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Link to www.merchantsofdoubt.org/ here.