U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern: Staying Below The 2°C Threshold Is Just A ‘Guidepost’

At a press conference on Wednesday, top U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern explained to reporters in Durban that he sees the goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — more than double the amount of existing warming — as a “guidepost,” instead of “some kind of mandatory obligation”:

I think that we look at two degrees as an important and serious goal which ought to guide what we do, which ought to guide the action that we take in order to try and attain it. That is — so it’s important, it’s serious, and it’s a guidepost I would say. That is still different from looking at it as an operational cap that you must meet, and that if you, you know, see yourself off of it based on science, then you have some kind of mandatory obligation to change what you’re doing, whether you’re in the United States, or Europe, or China, wherever you might be. I think you have — I mean, I think as we look at science, and we see the trajectories, it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. It might well cause us or anybody else to say, jeez, we need to do more. But we don’t see it as akin to a national target.

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At the beginning of the Durban climate talks, U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing brushed aside concerns that commitments made under the Cancun agreements in 2010 put the world on a pathway much higher than 2°C, arguing there are “essentially an infinite number of pathways” that allow stronger cuts starting in 2020 to “stay below 2 degrees.” Pershing later conceded that it is “desirable to do a great deal earlier” but argued the negotiators have to be “politically pragmatic.”


With less than 1°C warming, we are already experiencing dangerous climate change, as evidenced by the rapid increase in catastrophic extreme weather, rapid changes in ecosystems, rapid sea level rise, rapid ocean acidification, agricultural productivity decline, rapid polar and glacial ice loss, and other guideposts for the viability of modern human civilization and global biodiversity. Although 2°C warming — which would involve much greater local warming in the Northern hemisphere — is “not safe,” going higher would make “large-scale discontinuities” likely that create conditions “incompatible with an organized global community.”

The pollution limits determined by the 2°C “guidepost” are quite inflexible, and the budget of carbon pollution remaining that gives humanity a reasonable expectation of avoiding catastrophic warming is being burned up at a rate of ten billion tons a year. Despite Pershing’s “infinite” confidence, the number of scenarios that allow humanity to stay within our carbon budget without broad economic collapse dwindle by 2020, if concerted action is not taken now.

“My gut response is that if we delay serious action until 2020, we will blow past 2°C,” climate scientist John Abraham tells ThinkProgress. “It isn’t theoretically impossible that we could begin emissions reductions at 2020 and still stay below 2°C but it is virtually certain we would not be able to reduce emissions fast enough.”

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.”


Unfortunately, the U.S. climate team represents a nation whose political system is so bludgeoned by carbon polluters and Wall Street profiteers that their intransigence accurately reflects the disdain our corrupted democracy holds for the cold facts of climate change. The negotiators are crippled by the knowledge that anything resembling a plan to sufficiently address this fundamental threat to civilization would not just be rejected by our body politic, it would spur even greater fury by the Koch brothers and their kin to dismantle what little progress has been made.

Given the stance of the climate negotiators in Durban — with both the US and China seeming to believe the science leaves wiggle room for politics — it is very likely that the world will zoom past the 2°C “guidepost,” even if human civilization is no longer in any condition to say “jeez” at that juncture.