Obama Administration Abandons Two-Degree Commitment Made In 2010

Todd Stern at COP16 in Cancun in 2010, where the U.S. committed to a 2°C target.

By Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts. [JR: I’ll add some thoughts at the end.]

As climate change accelerates, it appears the Obama administration is in retreat. In an address on Thursday, the top climate negotiator for the United States rejected the administration’s formal commitment to keeping global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.

This about-face from agreements endorsed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 indicates a rejection of the United Nations climate negotiations process, as well as an implicit assertion that catastrophic global warming is now politically impossible to prevent.

Speaking before an audience at his alma mater Dartmouth College, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern argued that treaty negotiations based around “old orthodoxies” of a temperature threshold “will only lead to deadlock“:

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible. . . .

These basic facts of life suggest that the likelihood of all relevant countries reaching consensus on a highly prescriptive climate agreement are low, and this reality in turn argues in favor of a more flexible approach that starts with nationally derived policies. . . .

The keys to making headway in this early conceptual phase of the new agreement is to be open to new ideas that can work in the real world and to keep our eyes on the prize of reducing emissions rather than insisting on old orthodoxies. . .

This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock. It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will.

Stern is absolutely right that the political challenge of achieving a 2°C goal is extremely high, but what is the “flexible, evolving” regime he proposes?

Stern argued in favor of a treaty structure without any overall emissions or temperature goal, but one that allows individual countries to pick their own targets without a requirement that they be internationally binding. (This structure resembles what the Bush administration favored, although the non-binding Obama administration goal for the United States of achieving 1990-level emissions by 2020 is much better than the non-binding Bush goal of having US emissions peak in 2025.) He recognized that “the risk of a system like this is that the policies and targets countries submit prove to be too modest,” and admitted that “[h]ow to encourage ambition in an agreement that is broadly inclusive will be one of the fundamental challenges in designing a new system.” In other words, he has no idea how a climate emissions treaty with no target or enforcement mechanism would do anything to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Scientific organizations first began recommending a 2°C target in the late 1980s, based on risk assessments of the adaptive capability of forests, long-term sea level rise, and the climate history of the human race. (Our species has never experienced an Earth more than 2.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times.) The Kyoto Protocol established pollution reduction targets consistent with the warming limit, but political opposition in the United States, the world’s greatest carbon polluter, eviscerated the effectiveness of the treaty.

On July 9, 2009, after a decade was lost under the climate denial of the Bush administration, the member nations of the G8 officially recognized the 2°C goal: “We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2C.” The Cancun agreements in 2010 codified the 2°C goal: “[W]ith a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above pre- industrial levels . . . Parties should take urgent action to meet this long-term goal.”

Last year in the Durban round of international climate talks, Stern hinted at this new stance when he described the 2°C target as just a “guidepost.” His comments last week make clear that the Obama administration has fully abandoned the president’s commitments made just two years ago.

Meanwhile, the impacts of global warming are coming faster than scientists predicted when the 2°C threshold was set. With only 0.8°C of warming, Arctic sea ice and polar ice caps are melting decades ahead of predictions, oceanic warming and acidification are degrading ecosystems in unforeseen ways, and extreme weather has increased in stunning fashion. Civilization itself is at risk from the exponentially accelerating decline of the planetary support system.

Politics may be the art of the possible, but climate change is an inflexible reality. With its new stance on international climate policy, the administration has abandoned slim hope for none.

— By Brad Johnson

JR:  Clearly we need to keep warming as close to 2°C (3.6°F) as is possible. We’re currently on an emissions path headed for 5°C (or higher) this century alone. Of course that is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level),” according to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain (see here).

Humanity would be “Slowly Boiling Brainless Frogs” if we let that happen. Stern is a solid, thoughtful guy in an impossible job — thanks to the self-destructive, polluter-funded Republican leadership (see Washington Post: “The GOPs climate-change denial may be its most harmful delusion”).

I agree with Stern that we need to “keep our eyes on the prize of reducing emissions rather than insisting on old orthodoxies” —  but only if he means absolute emissions reductions starting ASAP, not reduce the growth rate of emissions, which is merely put all of us brainless frogs on the medium burner.

A watched pot never boils, goes the saying. But that’s true only if you turn the friggin’ flame off.

89 Responses to Obama Administration Abandons Two-Degree Commitment Made In 2010

  1. Mark E says:

    Presidential silence is fatal to making things “maximally conducive to raising ambition”.

    Its a do-nothing dead on arrival statement.

  2. Robert says:

    Let’s reframe, shalle we?

    “Well, previously we crew here on the bridge of the Titanic agreed to the goal of not hitting icebergs. But of course, steering a ship this size is the art of the possible: We’re just not sure we can maneuver this ship so as to avoid icebergs and avoid disturbing the guests at dinner, what with wine glasses tipping over, and those prone to seasickness. Consequently, we’ve agreed to maneuver the ship if it doesn’t disturb the dinner guests, and we’ll just hope that’s good enough to avoid the icebergs.”

  3. Dan Ives says:

    “thanks to the self-destructive, polluter-funded Republican leadership” – Sigh. It’s getting harder and harder to stomach these excuses that place all or most of the blame on one political party. Obama and the Democrats are entirely complicit in this failure to act. That’s simply a fact. Placing all the blame on the GOP may be convenient, but it’s dishonest. Have you seen this awful pro-coal Obama ad?

    A more accurate sentence would have read, “Stern is a solid, thoughtful guy in an impossible job — because neither of the two major political parties ever intended to meet that commitment in the first place.

  4. Dan Ives says:

    Great analogy.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Todd Stern’s statement sounded so typically lawyer, for whom everything is negotiable and a longer negotiation is job security.

    “This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock. It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will.” – Todd Stern

    So, yes he IS a lawyer. I’m sorry to see that he formerly worked for Center for American Progress, without more urgency about climate change rubbing off on him. He needs to learn he can’t negotiate with the laws of thermodynamics.

    Bio source is the US State Department

  6. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “Stern is a solid, thoughtful guy in an impossible job — thanks to the self-destructive, polluter-funded Republican leadership”

    The Republican leadership is not responsible for the Obama administration’s massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction — from offshore oil drilling, to coal mining on public lands, to pipelines for Canadian bitumen, the “clean coal” and “safe fracking” hoaxes, and on and on.

    It looks to me like Stern is being hung out to twist in the wind for the simple reason that the 2C goal is incompatible with the Obama administration’s pro-fossil fuel energy policies.

    This is THE reason that I will be voting for the Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, in November. I voted for Obama in 2008. My vote in 2012 was Obama’s to lose. And he has lost it.

  7. Jason says:

    Nice Robert.

    This story nicely sums up why I’m neither voting for nor contributing to Obama this time around.

    Even if he’s more climate friendly than his mainstream alternative, if he’s not willing to do enough to make a difference, then it doesn’t really matter. It’s time for a protest vote (Obama won’t carry Missouri anyway).

  8. Dan Ives says:

    A very refreshing comment. I agree with it 100%, and Stein has my vote as well. Cheers.

  9. M Tucker says:

    The 2 degree “commitment” was not possible. It was ridiculous to make such a commitment. The best any nation can do is to try to reduce emissions. The world is nowhere near the ability to end GHG emissions and that is what it would take, right now, to have any chance of getting close to that promise and if we did end GHG emissions now we would probable reach equilibrium at about 3 degrees. It was just plain stupid to get into the business of promising what the global average temperature will be limited to. Try to just make a start at limiting emissions and see if we, the world, can stick to it. The US should lead the way and it will take years for China and India to go along. Reality is smacking everyone in the face and we need real serious efforts. One step at a time and stay away from fantasy.

  10. Chatham says:

    We aren’t going to be able to wait until our politicians miraculously change their minds. Nothing is going to happen as long as people are largely passive on this issue. Change is going to require us to get organized, get active, go into our communities, get involved in the political system and push – the way that change has always happened. There’s not much of an anti-“climate suicide” movement in this country, and nothing is going to get done until we get out there and make it happen.

  11. Anybody old enough to remember “duck and cover”. In the case of a nuclear attack we were taught to get under our desks.
    This is similar, right?

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    Hogwash and More

    First of all, it would be nice (and journalistically appropriate) if CP acknowledged the affiliation between Todd Stern and CAP in any post that involves him, comments about him, or assessments of him.

    [JR: Stern isn’t affiliated with CAP. He was years ago. It isn’t news. And CP has complete editorial freedom, so we don’t speak for CAP, in case you didn’t know.]

    Second, the idea that “politics is the art of the possible” … well, the people who cite that idea in any argument for the need to be satisfied with non-solutions, and in their excuses, have come nowhere near to testing “the possible”, or to trying in real ways to expand it, unless they have resigned their jobs in protest, taken to the media, chained themselves to the White House gate, stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, and so forth. When politicians, presidents, their advisers, pundits, CAPers, and apparently bloggers too say that they have done everything possible and that we now need to be satisfied with what’s politically possible, and lower our expectations, and forget the fact that nature is the ultimate judge, they are in essence saying that “I am not willing to do more, because I will lose my job, or some of my friends, or my perks, or my identity as a ‘reasonable’ person who can remain part of the game, or my chances to become part of the next administration, or my donors.” THAT is what they are, in essence, saying. Such discussions are not really about what’s possible — because a great deal is possible, much more than we are willing to admit — but what’s possible is intimately related to what we are willing to do to bring it about. And, apparently, the answer to that is “not much”.

    Here is Stern, talking about the art of the possible, and being limited by it, when Obama has barely mentioned climate change in the last two years. Here is CP, entertaining the idea of what’s possible, and seeming to be part of the evolution of the “inevitable” acceptance of reduced expectations, when nobody has put any REAL pressure on Obama to take climate change seriously OR ELSE LOSE OUR VOTES.

    [JR: You have lost me here entirely. CP has always been about “entertaining the idea of what’s possible.” Apparently you haven’t been paying attention. And who the heck is interested in what’s not possible?]

    IF we give in to this idea of the “politics of the possible” to the degree that we ARE presently giving in to it, and to the degree that Stern and Obama apparently want us to give in to it, and to the degree that even CP seems willing to accommodate itself to (?), severe blame should be heaped upon us by all future generations. Period. In fact, at some point we should be ashamed to be associated with anybody, or any institution, that essentially gives up on what is necessary, repeatedly citing the excuse of the “politics of the possible” as a justification for doing far too little, far too late, while keeping their jobs and perks and so forth and contracts and places in the administration.

    This move (on Stern’s part) to give up on the 2 deg C goal — and commitment — should be highly criticized, and loudly, and relentlessly, until he realizes that he and Obama will be out of office if they so much as change that goal by 0.1 degree in the wrong direction. Indeed, because climate change will cause harms to peoples around the world, and because Obama ran last time promising to address it, and for other reasons, the 2 deg C goal is not a goal that he can ignore or relax, ethically speaking. He does not have the right to do so! Indeed, we — American citizens — do not have the right to grant ourselves the right to knowingly destabilize the world’s climate! When are we going to realize that? (CAP and CP apparently don’t?)

    [JR: Nonsense. Unmitigated nonsense. Seriously.]

    Question to Donald Brown: Don, what is your view: do we (American citizens) have the genuine and legitimate right to knowingly destabilize the world’s climate? I’m not talking about the self-granted supposed legal (according to U.S. law) right to do so. Instead, I’m talking about a genuine human moral/ethical right to do so? I don’t think so. But few people seem to understand this.

    Be Well,


  13. John Atkeison says:

    The Republicans are responsible for what they do and the same is true of the Democrats. President Obama had the chance to lead, to teach and to rally the people, but he chose not to do so.
    Passivity in this case is suicide… for all of us.

  14. Byron Smith says:

    The problem is that the bridge is empty and there are about 192 captains running around with things on their mind other than icebergs.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    So the writing has finally fallen off the wall! The big question is how the international community will respond to this outbreak of honesty, ME

  16. Leif says:

    If your state does not have a chance of voting Democrat, it would appear to be a good strategy. State in play? I am still torn, but Obama is making it easier. It would be real nice to once, before I croak, vote for a preferred candidate, opposed to the lesser of two evils of my past 50 years of voting.

  17. G Ennis says:

    “old orthodoxies” of a temperature threshold “will only lead to deadlock“

    I agree with this statement. It would be much better if we instead linked treaty negotiations to the number of people we are prepared to see die from climate change. we could go up in increments of say 100 million. I wonder if that would satisfy the Obama administration?

  18. Paul Magnus says:

    Yeah, they have restarted the pipeline too….

  19. Paul Magnus says:

    I wish we would be more realistic about this 2c limit.
    We have blown by it. It’s time to start planning for the chaos…

  20. Paul Magnus says:

    keep calm and carry on…

  21. Paul Magnus says:

    2c came from an economist with a finger in the air estimate of what he thought was the bearable consequences due to the additional warming.

    As we can see, even 10yrs earlier, global civilization is not going to survive 2c. We have all been fooling ourselves to a certain extent.

  22. Mark E says:

    …..and the boat’s original investers rake in unbelievable amounts of money if the boat continues moving in the same direction

  23. Mark E says:

    The following alternatives always produce the same result:

    (A) The greater of two evils

    (B) The lesser of two evils

  24. Scott says:

    Cool, “early conceptual phase of the new agreement” That sounds so nice, doesn’t it? So much better than “back to square -5.”

  25. Joe Romm says:

    The GOP stopped a climate bill, pure and simple. And that means Stern has zilch to negotiate with.

  26. Brooks Bridges says:

    Each of saying you won’t vote for Obama:
    People said the same thing when it was: Gore/Nader/Bush. Yes I know the election was basically stolen but w/o votes for Nader, Gore would have won in spite of hung chad.

    Tell me under Gore we would have invaded Iraq.
    Tell me Gore would have promoted major tax cuts to the rich.
    Tell me Gore would have accomplished nothing relative to climate change – just like Bush.

    Tell me these differences would not qualify as substantial.

    Now give me the odds of your Green candidate winning.

  27. Harry Middlemas says:

    Here in CO I could not even muster the will to go get a ticket to see Obama this Weds. So angry at him. I am pondering a vote for Dr Stein. I continue to have a fantasy of social media organizing to get enough votes for Dr Stein to at least make a statement.


  28. Brooks Bridges says:

    Doesn’t the following quote from your post apply to you, me and the majority of readers and commenters on this blog? Or do you mean it to only apply to people in government? If the former, I’m with you. If the latter, time to look in the mirror.

    “I am not willing to do more, because I will lose my job, or some of my friends, or my perks, or my identity as a ‘reasonable’ person who can remain part of the game, or my chances to become part of the next administration, or my donors.” THAT is what they are, in essence, saying. Such discussions are not really about what’s possible — because a great deal is possible, much more than we are willing to admit — but what’s possible is intimately related to what we are willing to do to bring it about. And, apparently, the answer to that is “not much”.

  29. Mike Roddy says:

    Stern raised the white flag and then segued into bureaucratic gibberish. This is a joke, and the American people deserve better.

  30. Aussie John says:

    And the iceberg is growing larger – at an exponential rate!

  31. Dan Ives says:

    How, exactly, Joe? The House passed a climate bill and the Senate never even voted on it. The Democratic leadership never even brought it up for a vote. Do you blame the GOP for that, too? Look, no one here thinks the GOP is blameless, but your statement is flat out wrong.

  32. Dan Ives says:

    Over 200,000 Florida Democrats voted for Bush. Sorry, but this Nader myth needs to die. Gore didn’t get enough votes. That’s Gore’s fault, simple as that.

    Would Gore have gone to war? Unlike you, I don’t have transcendent mind powers, so I won’t speculate. But don’t forget that his VP, Lieberman, never met a war he didn’t like.

  33. malcreado says:

    oh well…civilization was fun while it lasted.

  34. Dan Ives says:

    “It would be real nice to once, before I croak, vote for a preferred candidate, opposed to the lesser of two evils of my past 50 years of voting.” – Nothing is stopping you. Vote your values. Instead of the supposed lesser evil, why not vote for good? How evil does the supposed lesser-evil have to get before you say “No more, too far.”?

  35. Not just the American people. The human race and all things living on Earth deserve better.

    2 degrees is 2 degrees too much.

    There really has to be a better way to skin this cat. We could use our trade muscle to ‘force’ alternative energy transitions if we wanted to. If need be, we could sanction the countries that didn’t meet emissions goals. Of course, that would require that we take a lead on reducing emissions ourselves…

    We do need real leadership. And the first act would be facing down the oil, gas and coal companies.


    1) Move to an interior wall of a building, away from windows and doors.

    2) Sit on the floor with your back against the wall.

    3) Tuck your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

  37. Solar Jim says:

    Or their minds are full of brainless dead frogs.

  38. Andy Heninger says:

    Just why does the US need a treaty before starting do the right thing? Treaty or no, we should proceed as quickly as possible with deployment of carbon reduction. Discussions of treaties just seems like a distraction.

    If we were deploying, negotiating a treaty to speed along progress in other countries would be a hell of a lot easier.

    As for leadership, unfortunately Obama hasn’t provided much. We have the choice between a zero and a large negative number, while what we need is a large positive number. I’ll choose not speeding up the disaster. Pretending that there is no difference between the climate policies of the two parties is completely inane. Just think Inhofe or the Koch brothers

  39. Solar Jim says:

    So we are to become a nation of mass destroyers (other than those other “issues”). This is a terrible initiative by the administration for population stabilization. Perhaps the world should power up, instead, on one thousandth of available clean energy flow and promote universal family planning education instead. An admittedly difficult choice (between planning or planning for destruction).

  40. Tom Bennion says:

    The aspirational target has important practical consequences now as it is part of international law.

    For example, I was in a court in New Zealand last month quoting the Copenhagen Accord as an agreed international bottom line which can be implied into environmental legislation.

    This change by the US administration potentially weakens arguments of that sort in many jurisdictions.

    Do not be surprised if there is considerable international bitterness when the US finally decides it that it needs international action to save its domestic population from climate change. I wonder has the US government factored that into its thinking?

  41. BBHY says:

    If only 1000 of the Democrats who voted for Bush had voted for Nader instead, then Gore would have won.

  42. Mark E says:

    His speech includes at least one factual fallacy:

    “Scientists will tell you correctly that they cannot attribute any particular event to global warming because Nature doesn’t leave that kind of signal for us.”

    Scientists are telling us this is precisely the wrong way to think about weather events.

  43. Paul Magnus says:

    The focus in the ‘debate’ should be on ghg concentration. To talk about 2c distracts people for many reasons.

    We need to start talking about ghg rationing. The future depends on it. Can a market base system allow for each individual to be ration to 1.5 to 2 tons of ghg? No.

    Do we need it to drive the innovation need to provided the implementation of solutions? I don’t think so…

    Seems to me we need to just get on with what’s required whether it fits the American Dream or not….

  44. jyyh says:

    Defeatist attitude always produces marvellous results.

  45. Gore didn’t get enough votes for a variety of reasons; any one of which would have given him the election if it had been absent. One of those reasons was the presence of Nader in the race.

    This year, we have people wanting to vote for the Green Party or wanting to stay home, or something, because they are not satisfied with Obama. Such an action will throw the election to Romney, if enough people take it. So anyone considering it should think very carefully about whether it is really true that Obama is equivalent to Romney. Do you really believe that Romney would push for auto efficiency or windmills? Or do you really believe that those things don’t matter as long as you get someone who will push for a treaty for 2 degrees C, even though people like Hansen are now calling 2 degrees a prescription for disaster? I think you need to face questions like that before any decision about major party candidate equivalence.

  46. Joe Romm says:

    The senate never voted because you “need” 60 votes (because the GOP insists on it for every major vote now) and you needed GOP votes. Ive always said Obama and senate dems deserve some blame, but the GOP (and the disinformation campaign) deserves most of the blame.

  47. perceptiventity says:

    The Fed is a cartel and USanian government is a willing partner

  48. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    My strategy, re-explained: I stated a few weeks ago that I was going to vote Green to send a message (albeit, a small one) to Obama and the Dems. I can do this without risking an “accidental” Romney victory because I live in a state that Obama will carry – rated a 99.9% probability by electoral guru Nate Silver. If enough of us in Illinois – say 50K to 100K – cast a presidential vote for the Greens, it will likely be noticed by those who matter. That is my hope… That seems to be all I can do.
    Everyone knows the next president will be chosen by the voters in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. I wouldn’t cast a Green vote were I a citizen of a swing state. My strategy may be more derived from frustration than from logic, but we the frustrated vote too.

  49. Mark E says:

    Actually, I do think that in the end, one fast and the other a bit faster, Obama and Romney lead to the exact same result because:

    (A) They are both champions of nonstop economic growth, forever.

    (B) Whether thru global warming or ecological imbalance, attempting nonstop economic growth forever will destroy civilization as we know it.

    (C) And so Obama’s and Romney’s blind faith in nonstop economic growth forever are equally irrational.

  50. John McCormick says:

    Good point Mark.

    Scientists are repeatedly warning about increasing heat energy in the atmosphere and heat uptake in the oceans and how that is driving intensity in ‘weather events’. (Guns don’t kill people…bullets do)

    Soon, they will be attributing methane/CO2 positive feed backs from the Arctic as directly attributed to increased heat in the atmosphere. Some scientists might use weasel words like ‘probable cause’ or ‘likely cause’. Try teaching an old dog a new trick.

    Drs Holdren and Chu should resign in protest….no, that aint going to happen.

  51. Artful Dodger says:

    No Mark, it Kübler-Ross Stage 4, “Depression”. Look for the Administration to move into Stage 5, “Acceptance” in 2013 when the new President authorizes Keystone XL.

  52. We need to have a goal that is based on our best understanding of the science. If we fail to meet it, so be it, but it is silly to dial back our expectations because of your (or anyone else’s) assessment of feasibility. Humans are notoriously bad at predicting what is possible, and they general underestimate possibilities for change.

  53. Aleph Null says:

    There is a sense in which the 2°C target leads discussions astray: it tends to reinforce the fallacy that merely slowing down carbon emissions can avert climate catastrophe, when it would be more constructive to contemplate stopping, since that’s what is necessary.

    McKibben’s Terrifying New Math should be front and center in climate negotiations:

    “At today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets.”

    Realistic discussions would focus on this limitation: only a fraction of known reserves can possibly be burned. What’s possible from an ecological perspective is impossible from a financial perspective. The fossil fuel predators don’t want to lose their $20 trillion.

  54. Nope, it comes from the fact that the earth hasn’t been warmer than 2 degrees C compared to preindustrial times in the past 2 million years, and moving outside of that range risks releasing positive feedbacks in the form of carbon sinks in the tundra, peat bogs, and methane hydrates. More importantly, choosing a warming limit and working toward it is a powerful way to think about the problem:

  55. The 2 degree target is exactly what allows us to calculate how much carbon we can emit to stay within that limit, so in no way does it lead us astray. McKibben’s excellent article is the embodiment of the thinking that arises from using a warming limit to analyze the problem. The warming limit makes it clear that in a system in which cumulative emissions are what counts, stopping emissions is the only way to fix the problem.

  56. Ken Barrows says:

    Vote for Stein for me, too. Let’s take a poll!

  57. Artful Dodger says:

    no, going against the PTB is… just ask JFK. President Obama had no more free choice in this than the Supremes did…

  58. Artful Dodger says:

    True Lief however, “Do you not know that in the Service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” (h/t Russel Crow ;^)

  59. Dan Ives says:

    “One of those reasons was the presence of Nader in the race.” – You need to read the link I provided.

    As for the rest of your comment, both Obama and Romney are setting a course for disaster. Obama is going 80 mph and Romney is going 90 mph. Obama’s auto efficiency is a good step, but it’s woefully inadequate. If you add up his similar “accomplishments,” that accounts for the 10 mph difference between him and Romney.

    So are the candidates equivalent? No, not exactly. Are the results equivalent? Yes, undoubtedly. Those are the realities you need to face.

  60. As sad and bad are the remarks of Todd Stern (who has been defended in this blog before, as a Center for American Progress alumnus), the headline seems to be overstating the case by casting his remarks as a definitive overall administration position.

    Whatever Stern says, or even Obama himself, the U.S. is effectively, pathetically, deadlocked on climate change. Not because of our people, but because of our political system, which gives advantages to right wing conservative and establishment forces, supporting business as usual, at every level.

    Political striving remains essential to eventually overcome conservative advantages and break the political deadlock.

    But for the next year or two, at the very least – more likely five or more – political striving will not change our course on GHG emissions. Not enough to save our collective butts. Which still need to be saved, even while Washington fiddles.

    Instead, that can be achieved in the short term, for the short term, by a grand coalition of the willing, as quantified and outlined in the Nature Climate Change article that’s discussed here:

    A Practical Roadmap to Turn the Tide on Climate Change by 2020

  61. In order to set a target concentration you need to specify a warming limit. So it is incorrect to say that setting a warming limit is a distraction. In fact, it is an essential step in understanding what actions we need to take.

  62. Artful Dodger says:

    Uh, yeah. Canada withdrew from Kyoto in December 2011, just 2 weeks after Durban. Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said the goal of keeping climate change to “2 per cent” wasn’t that important. The media whores never even blinked. Now its BAU, and damn the First Nations, Pipelines ahead.

  63. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote in comments above: “The senate never voted because you ‘need’ 60 votes (because the GOP insists on it for every major vote now) and you needed GOP votes.”

    And when did the Senate Democrats force the GOP to actually filibuster the climate bill, compelling Senate Republicans to make speeches live on C-Span, debating the grave threat of climate change in public for hour after hour? I missed that part.

  64. Joan Savage says:

    Excerpts from an original Civil Defense instruction card (GPO 825110):

    “When the warning sounds a steady blast of 3 to 5 minutes…

    Tune your AM radio to a CONELRAD frequency..

    If there is no prepared shelter, go to a basement or to an interior first floor room. Stay in shelter until you get word you can leave.”

    That notice is rich in nonsense for comparison to our present circumstances. Thanks for bringing up the analogy.

    Who’s waiting to “get word you can leave?”

  65. Leif says:

    Even when one has shown a drift toward rational thinking and the other full blown extraction of profits from the exploitation and pollution of the commons? Is there no room for public persuasion left? Rational thinking? Divine intervention if you are so inclined?

  66. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for the link. In the chart there is significant dependence on reducing deforestation, with voluntary offsets additional.
    It’s hugely worthy to do, but let’s note that the options of appropriate action can erode as climate change amplifies its effects.
    Keeping trees alive under pressures of drought, insects and fire is proving at best a challenge, sometimes a losing battle.

  67. Joan Savage says:


    However, 2C is only an atmospheric temperature threshold, and that does not clue where all the joules of energy are accumulating, or how fast.

  68. Solar Jim says:

    The “US government” does not think. It responds primarily to the political power of tradable symbols of perceived wealth, which it prints/mints/creates and distributes according to agenda.

  69. AvileeG says:

    As to the “polluter-funded Republican leadership” — who exactly does JR think is funding the Democrats? Lots of regular folks with $5 checks? Hardly…

  70. M Tucker says:

    The 2000 election hung on Florida. Bush got just 537 more votes than Gore while Nader took 97,488 Florida votes. So YES, I would say that Nader doomed Gore in Florida. The only third party candidate in the entire history of the US to ever get close was TR in the 1912 campaign. He actually came in second to Wilson beating the Republican Taft. No third party candidate has ever achieved anything like it since. By splitting the Republican vote he ensured Wilson’s victory. No other third party candidate since has come to an election with anything like TR’s command of domestic and foreign policy and with his popular public appeal. No other third party candidate has campaigned with anything like TR’s energy and not one could compare with TR’s dynamic speaking ability. If TR couldn’t win no third party candidate has a chance but they can spoil an election. TR ensured Wilson’s (Democrat) victory; Nader ensured Bush’s (Republican) victory.

  71. Jeff Huggins says:

    Joe, I may not have been clear, so here goes again: I’m not saying, of course, that we shouldn’t consider what’s possible in a genuine sense. We should! And I’m not saying that we should try to do what is genuinely impossible. What I’m saying is that we draw that line much too narrowly, too conservatively, and we thus handcuff ourselves. Most of the time people use the excuse (to lower expectations) “let’s be realistic”, or “that’s not possible”, it’s not really the case that the thing being considered is not realistic, or that it’s genuinely impossible. Instead, people simply don’t want to do the things that WOULD make the goal possible. They are making excuses, and lowering expectations. If I have to list the many, many examples of that from the White House, or in Todd Stern’s stance, or also in the movement, for you to see … well do I? There are too many to list, and I’d imagine that you’re aware of most of them.

    On the other matter — the one you call utter nonsense — we (American citizens) do not have the genuine, legitimate moral/ethical right to grant ourselves the right to despoil/destabilize the climate (something that will cause harms to untold numbers of other people, as you know) any more than I have the right to grant myself the right to poison my neighbor’s hard. Read Locke, Mill, and many others; not to mention that it’s a matter of common sense, if you think about it. That was my point. Sorry if I didn’t state it clearly in the earlier message.


  72. Jeff Huggins says:

    Brooks: the former, to be sure.

  73. Jeff Huggins says:

    Correction: I meant “yard” rather than “hard”, of course. Sorry for the typo. Thanks.

  74. Aleph Null says:

    This snippet of McKibben’s “Math” illustrates that you are absolutely right that the 2°C target is its basis:

    “humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees”

    My thought goes straight to that 565 Gt as a more concrete basis for negotiations. If equality is inseparable from justice, a just agreement would divide that 565 by 7 (billion) to compute a per-capita allocation: every human would only be allowed another 80 tonnes.

  75. Joe Romm says:

    Big Oil, Big Coal, and the Kochs ain’t backing the Dems.

  76. Joe Romm says:

    They didn’t. It wouldn’t have affected the outcome. Again, the Dems certainly deserve blame for the outcome but an order of magnitude less than the blame from the people who actually spread disinformation and block action.

  77. Solar Jim says:

    Despite your good words Dr. Koomey perhaps it is your academic frame of reference, in contrast to brutal status realities of raw political power of globalized militant finance, which allows you to discuss the topic in a somewhat delusional manner. Over the past decade numerous analyses indicate we are already in overshoot (for 2C), especially at the coming 400 ppm,co2 (450+ ppm,e).

    Therefore, re: “The 2 degree target is exactly what allows us to calculate how much carbon we can emit to stay within that limit” is an upside down statement. The word “emit” would need to be changed to “extract” to avoid automatic outgassing of GHG from the ecosphere, it seems.

    P.S. Bill M. is off by five trillion dollars, based on his own numbers (terrible math).

  78. Spike says:

    I remembered this abstract from a paper last year:

    “Given current international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit human-induced global-mean near-surface temperature increases to 2°C, relative to the pre-industrial era, we seek to determine the impact such a temperature increase might have upon the frequency of seasonal-mean temperature extremes; further we seek to determine what global-mean temperature increase would prevent extreme temperature values from becoming the norm. Results indicate that given a 2°C global mean temperature increase it is expected that for 70–80% of the land surface maximum seasonal-mean temperatures will exceed historical extremes (as determined from the 95th percentile threshold value over the second half of the 20th Century) in at least half of all years, i.e. the current historical extreme values will effectively become the norm. Many regions of the globe—including much of Africa, the southeastern and central portions of Asia, Indonesia, and the Amazon—will reach this point given the “committed” future global-mean temperature increase of 0.6°C (1.4°C relative to the pre-industrial era) and 50% of the land surface will reach it given a future global-mean temperature increase of between 0.8 and 0.95°C (1.6–1.75°C relative to the pre-industrial era). These results suggest substantial fractions of the globe could experience seasonal-mean temperature extremes with high regularity, even if the global-mean temperature increase remains below the 2°C target.”

    So two degrees implies 70-80% of the world with recent extremes as the norm – presumably like Texas last year, the Mid West this year, Europe in 2003. And these guys think its unrealistic to strive to avoid that!! hell it’s unrealistic to accept it.

  79. Ric Merritt says:

    I’m sorry, Mark, but that doesn’t even begin to make sense.

  80. M Tucker says:

    You might like to use absolute temperatures for energy policy or public policy or economic policy but it is different for climate scientists. What has been the accepted warming figure for CO2 doubling? What has the USGS PRISM project shown regarding CO2 concentrations and warming? Given that it takes decades to reach equilibrium with a fixed concentration of CO2, given that we are not allowing earth to reach equilibrium because we are relentlessly pumping ever more GHG into the atmosphere every day, given the effects of aerosols, what level of CO2 equivalents do you say will lead to an average 2 degree warming? I wonder what Dr Gavin’s opinion is? I wonder what Dr Hansen’s opinion is?

  81. David Lewis says:

    Consider Obama’s nuclear weapons policy.

    The NY Times described Obama’s nuclear weapons policy in this article by quoting the man himself: “Mr. Obama described his policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward making nuclear weapons obsolete, and to create incentives for countries to give up any nuclear ambitions”.

    Obviously, a stated goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth is something the Obama Administration sees is “politically possible”.

    Why is it unrealistic to think Mr. Obama could describe his climate policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward stabilizing climate at 2 degrees warmer than the preindustrial, and to create incentives for countries to give up their plans to just kill the planet off?

    Oh well. That 2 degree goal only had a 75% chance of keeping the planet livable for our descendants anyway.

    Schellnhuber, chief climate advisor to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, often asks his audiences during his talks, “is Russian Roulette dangerous?”. He then points out to them that no one among them is admitting to playing regularly at home. He then describes the 2 degree target as having worse odds for civilization and all life on Earth than the 1 in 6 odds of Russian Roulette to avoid “something terrible”, such as passing a tipping point that would commit the planet to an unstable civilization threatening scenario.

    Coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, he pointed out to an Australian audience, will be gone even if the 2 degrees limit is achieved. “But who needs coral reefs anyway?” he sadly joked.

    Schellnhuber says he has presented his views directly to Administration movers and shakers but was told that the action he says is necessary “is not grounded in political reality”. Schellnhuber then says “political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it is completely useless“.

    The choice between Obama and Romney comes down to vote Romney and kill the planet as quickly as possible while denying there is a problem vrs vote Obama and kill the planet as quickly as possible while pretending it is impossible to do anything else.

    We’re told that it is extremely important that we make the right choice between these two alternatives.

    Obviously, we’ll all know who to vote for when the time comes.

  82. No one, to my knowledge, has ever called me delusional, in public or private, and I suggest you choose your words more carefully in the future. You help no one with over-the-top rhetoric and you hurt your cause.

    I suggest you read the first few chapters of Cold Cash, Cool Climate ( for a summary of the latest science. We have not yet overshot 2 degrees C, but we will soon if we don’t take action quickly.

  83. That is exactly why, in our 1989 book, we used the carbon budget we derived and addressed various ways to split it up. It’s a basis for negotiations that is very concrete, and if the international community had acted then instead of pissing away the next two decades it could have worked very well. Even then there were tradeoffs, because the developed countries by some measures of equity had already used up their allocations even in 1989. I commend to your attention the work of Paul Baer at Ecoequity–he’s done more recent work than we have on the equity piece.

    Krause, Florentin, Wilfred Bach, and Jon Koomey. 1989. From Warming Fate to Warming Limit: Benchmarks to a Global Climate Convention. El Cerrito, CA: International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths.

  84. AvileeG says:

    “Big Oil, Big Coal… ain’t backing the Dems” — I’ll take your point that the percentage of oil and gas money going to the Republicans is higher… But as a fan of precise language, I would have to say that if one takes your statement literally it means there is zero oil and gas money going to Democrats (I’ll give you the Kochs, in that case you probably are literally correct) — which is of course flat-out wrong. For instance , that $500,000-plus from the mining interests to Joe Manchin (WestVA) in his short career isn’t exactly chickenfeed — and if you don’t think all that cash has any influence…

    All I am saying is that the Democrats, with a few exceptions, are just as driven by (and beholden to) big-money interests as anyone else in our political system — whether it happens to be Wall Street financiers or actual oil and gas interests (and none of those big-money folks want anything done about the climate emergency, with the possible exception of the insurance industry). I’ll stand by my statement — Democrats aren’t getting elected on checks from the little folks, whatever the hype.

  85. Aleph Null says:

    I’m honored and humbled by your responses. Thanks much for the website and book recommendations, and for your work.