Will a climate change goal change anything?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 11, 2015

Stories on the proposed cap on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius are typically vague about what this means. This is true of our own story on the Holy See’s support for this cap, and even of the more detailed story from a climate organization to which our story links. In fact, you can search the internet for quite a while without gaining enlightenment on this question.

1.5 degrees Celsius over how long a period? Annual temperature increases, even during the years when they were actually measured as going up, have been only tiny fractions of degrees. I believe we’ve had a rise of one degree Celsius over the past two hundred years or so. Few people seem to know the envisioned time frame for stopping that trend. Are we looking for results in 2016, or after 50 years?

1.5 degrees Celsius compared with what? Well, OK, I do know the answer to this one. The comparison is to pre-industrial times (when, of course, global temperature measurement was even far less accurate than it is now). Still, the earth has (demonstrably) had significant variances in average temperature over the centuries. The current problem is closely related to low-lying countries, particularly island nations, because of rising sea levels and rising tides. I really do not know whether we can stick our collective finger in the dike, but I do know that oceanic islands come and go for a variety of reasons. (And as for the continental United States, as the thermal instability of Yellowstone goes, so goes much of the rest of the country.)

1.5 degrees Celsius controlled how? Since we do not know all the causes of warming, and cannot control even some of those we do know, how can anyone guarantee that a particular target can be reached? I’m sure the 1.5 degree limit currently attracting widespread support in Paris is clearly defined somewhere, and presumably the various countries know what they are voting on (despite the general incapacity of journalists to explain it). But, really, there is a huge problem with hanging climate control on a target.

If the world wants to get serious about this, it will have to become serious about implementing best practices to manage heat pollution. The problem with global targets is that they don’t mean much when it comes to monitoring what people are really doing to meet the goal. It is not like country A can meet the target while country B may not. Thus a target may be popular for one simple reason: It cannot hold anyone’s feet to the fire.

Anthropogenic global warming may be real or it may be illusory. It may not be naturally self-correcting over time or then again it may be (as theories involving both sun spots and oceanic production of carbon dioxide both strongly suggest). It may or may not be the case that mankind can expect climate conditions to remain within such a narrow range of variability that the same land will be able to be used in the same way during every period of its history. This has not, in fact, been the case in the past, and both migrations and crop changes have occurred as a result.

Though proper ventilation is important to cooling, I am not merely venting here. It makes much more sense to emphasize principles of good stewardship than to pick a target. Good stewardship would be maximized voluntarily if the whole world were converted to Christianity in such a way that the vast majority of people would actually take Our Lord seriously in terms of simplicity of life and reverence for God’s handiwork. I am very much in favor of efforts along those lines!

But if the only workable solution is through government and law, then at least best practices of heat pollution management can be mandated according to the current state of the art, and infractions can (in theory) be punished sufficiently to maximize compliance. But the 1.5 degree cap, like the 2 degree cap before it, sounds more like a slogan than a clear method of control.

As NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt put it, “If you are driving in completely the wrong direction, arguing about where you’ll park if you arrive isn’t your highest priority.” Or as I would say: This is human nature 101. You can endorse a slogan without making any commitment at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Dec. 13, 2015 9:55 PM ET USA

    My thoughts exactly! So, what about it? So what? What's to be done about it? Much ado about nothing it seems to be and much expense and lots of show. Hmmm, Harumph, ah ha! T'would make a good Restoration comedy.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Dec. 12, 2015 3:43 AM ET USA

    "Stories on the proposed cap on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius are typically vague about what this means." If it's "achieved" by 2020, it means that Clinton's Democratic Socialist Party won the 2016 election for the presidency and Congress. That phony claim of climate success could be produced only by the continued prostitution of science (in return for continued grants) and "proof" that a trillion dollar carbon tax in 2017 was the catalyst.