Why the Paris Climate Agreement Will Fail

Those are words I hate to write.  As is clear in earlier blogs, I think climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century.  The courage of nations trying to find common ground on this issue is heartening, but I fear the effort will be insufficient.

For me, climate change is a symptom of deeper underlying problems in society.  By treating global climate change as the problem, we will inevitably fail.  In fact, we may well do things that make other symptoms of the real problem even worse.

One of the American delegates to the Paris conference celebrated its successes and declared (and I paraphrase) that now was the time to do the difficult work of transforming the American economy from high carbon energy to low carbon energy.  He and other U.S. participants laid out the political motivation for the U.S. to embrace the Paris agreement.  If we do not, they argued, we will fail to capitalize on the commercial opportunities presented by these new, low carbon energy technologies.  The U.S. delegation continues to talk about climate change as an opportunity for American innovation.  This approach has the same unseemly feel as Governor LePage’s excitement over the commercial shipping opportunities for Maine ports provided by melting of the Artic sea ice.

The truth is that climate change is just one symptom of a much larger issue that I think we should call anthropogenic global change.  The idea of global change is that the industrialization begun in the 18th Century has reached a point where it is doing more harm than good.  It will not be enough for us to continue with business as usual, just a little smarter.  A few more and better wind mills, solar panels, and electric cars will make us feel good, but will fall far short of addressing the underlying problem.  A growing human population coupled with growing per capita consumption, no matter how “smart” the technology is that provides those consumption opportunities, are ingredients in a recipe for disaster.

Ecologists sometimes say the first law of ecology can be simply stated: everything is connected to everything else.  A variant on this is: you can never do just one thing.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of global change.  With all the talk of producing a low carbon energy system, we ignore completely other parts of the global system that humans may have changed even more than the flows of carbon from fossil fuels to the atmosphere.  Here I want to mention just two – the global nitrogen cycle and peak phosphorous.

Canadian geographer Vaclav Smil suggests that human change in the nitrogen cycle may be even greater than the change we have caused in the carbon cycle.  The need to produce food for over 7 billion people, an increasing number eating more animal products in their diets, has required production of vast amounts of nitrogen fertilizer.  We make the fertilizer using a fossil-fuel intensive process called Haber-Bosch.  The effect is to move large quantities of nitrogen from a non-reactive form to a reactive form that causes a host of environmental problems, like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the nitrogen run off in the Mississippi River.  Cornell University scientists argue that weaning ourselves off this nitrogen source would require significantly lower human populations.

Not only do we mobilize millions of pounds of nitrogen every year to grow food, we mine similar amounts of phosphorous to add to fertilizers for crop production.   Phosphorous can be a limiting nutrient in the production of a number of important food crops.  While the question of peak oil is contentious, there is wider acceptance of the phenomenon of peak phosphorous.  The idea is that easily available sources of phosphorous to mine are getting increasingly rare and that phosphorous which has been mobilized since industrialization is not going to be captured back.

Ironically, both the nitrogen and phosphorous issues are related back to proposed innovative solutions to address climate change.  Biofuels are supposed to be a central part of the U.S. innovation economy for replacing fossil fuels.  But of course growing crops to produce ethanol or biodiesel in any meaningful quantities requires big inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous.  Trying to solve one problem with technology just causes other problems.

So the Paris climate summit may be a triumph of diplomatic compromise to address a difficult global environmental issue among countries.  It just addresses the wrong problem.  As difficult as the climate change issue is with divergent national interests, the real problem is much more taxing.

The market-based, growth oriented global economic system built after World War II and consolidated with the fall of the Soviet Union cannot continue.  It has produced increasing  inequality among people, both within countries like in the U.S. and between the richest and poorest countries in the world.  It is the root of the growing problems of global change, including climate change.  Despite this, we continue to be told that growth will solve our environmental problems and that the rising tide will lift all boats.  The promise is that business as usual, just a little smarter, will fix these things.  The real solutions will lie in a growing area of economic inquiry called sustainable degrowth, which will be the subject of a future blog.

The Paris climate talks were just one more chapter in the false promises of technological innovation and economic growth.  Why do we continue to think that the fundamental paradigm that created the problems will provide the solutions?

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.