International attempts at climate regulation have failed on a number of levels. With CO2 emissions rising much more than predicted between 2009 and 2010, the goal of capping global warming at a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius now seems elusive. But political interest in changing course has waned.
When Germany’s top climate researcher meets with politicians and average citizens these days, he now starts from the very beginning. Then he delivers a lecture on why the scientific community is so sure that climate change even exists. He speaks of a “purely physical” effect caused by concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere that heat up the planet by a single degree Celsius. “What’s more,” says Jochem Marotzke, the head of the German Climate Consortium, “there is the affect of water vapor, which accounts for at least another degree.”
Next Friday, Marotzke will travel to Berlin once again for a preparatory meeting at the Environment Ministry ahead of the next World Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, at the end of November. He almost sounds as if his audience of politicians and ministers had never heard of climate change, as though thousands of them hadn’t thronged together at more than a dozen World Climate Conferences over the last two decades.
Marotzke, also the director of the Hamburg-based Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, has no illusions about the current importance of climate policy. “The interest in Berlin and elsewhere has cooled off palpably,” he says. The topic counts as one that doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed, he adds, “because citizens are also turning away (and) no great pressure to act is placed on the politicians.”
Still, the widespread indifference stands in disturbing contrast to the grim facts. According to the latest calculations of the US Department of Energy, CO2 emissions are rising sharply. Some 512 million more tons of greenhouse gases were emitted from smoke stacks, exhaust pipes and agricultural land.
“That means we’re beyond the scenarios with which we’re calculating the further warming of the earth,” Marotzke says. “In light of these new figures, I can only hope that the feeling of fatigue evaporates.”
The new numbers show the extent to which international climate policy has failed. At the first “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the concentration of the greenhouse gas CO2 was at 360 parts per million (ppm). In the 20 years since, it has risen to 390 ppm — and there is no end in sight to the upward trend. Year after year, representatives from almost 200 countries negotiate over how much they’ll have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These are mega-events, but the results remain meager. Expectations for the 17th World Climate Conference in Durban are among the lowest they’ve ever been.