Reminder: The Climate Deal Will Kill Us

An agreement to fight climate change is wonderful–but all this one does is keep the world from exploding quite so spectacularly.

Reminder: The Climate Deal Will Kill Us
[Top Photo: barinovalena via Shutterstock]

What does the hottest year in the world’s recorded history look like? This year, it looks like a heat wave in India killed 2,500 people, or a record rainfall that drenched Scotland in 13 inches of rain in a day. It looks like a state of emergency in California, as America’s largest state endured its fourth year of historic drought. Last year, previously the hottest year on record, saw extreme heat waves in Asia, Argentina, Europe, and Australia, severe drought in East Africa, and flooding in Canada.


These events are nothing compared to what the future has in store. Since the dawn of the fossil fuel era, the world has only warmed 1.8 degree Fahrenheit. Yet even if every nation keeps the pledges they made as part of the Paris Agreement this weekend, global temperatures are projected to rise a startling 4.9 to 6.6 degrees F. This is well past the point of warming where things start to get very dangerous on Earth. The agreement, as it stands, consigns the planet to a world no one wants to live in.

Severe via Shutterstock]

China says its CO2 emissions will peak by 2030. India, now the world’s fourth largest emitter, will also reduce its “carbon intensity”–the ratio of emissions to GDP–but isn’t willing to reduce its overall emissions. Brazil had a relatively strong pledge to reduce net 2025 greenhouse gas emissions, including from land use and forests, by 37% below 2005 levels. The countries that submitted the most ambitious pledges relative to their size, economy, and past responsibility for climate change are smaller and poorer countries that stand to bear stronger impacts: Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and Morocco included.

“In the hot, sodden mess that is our planet as 2015 drags to a close, the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995,” climate activist Bill McKibben wrote in an editorial in the New York Times.

McKibben, who founded the grassroots climate group, knocks the United States’ pledge to reduce 2025 emissions by about 26% below 2005 levels as weak sauce. But the U.S., currently the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, is not alone:

Other countries, like gas station owners on opposite corners looking at each other’s prices, have calibrated their targets about the same: enough to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much. They have managed to provide enough financing to keep poor countries from walking out of the talks, but not enough to really push the renewables revolution into high gear.

To be clear, the climate deal does something. “Business as usual” emissions, if the world continues on the same course as recent decades, bring the global thermostat up beyond 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit. But the world will have to do much more than what’s currently on the table in order to avoid a disaster scenario.

Let’s say that the world warms 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 3 degrees Celsius), the lower-middle range of what current climate pledges lock in. The most recent time that occurred in the Earth’s history was 3 million years ago, Al Jazeera reports–an era when sea level was 65 feet higher and there was almost no ice on the planet. The world’s ice sheets wouldn’t fully melt within our lifetimes, but it’s not impossible that they’d be totally gone within a few hundred. Other impacts would be felt much sooner: food production could drop significantly, urban heat waves would kill many more people, and disastrously, the Arctic permafrost could start to melt.


In other words, the climate deal won’t kill everyone but it’s still a deal with a significant death toll attached to it. “I have no doubt that humanity will survive,” the University of Oxford’s Ray Pierrehumbert told Al Jazeera. “But it’s still a world where there are likely to be massive disruptions.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.