Neil deGrasse Tyson exposes how inequality plays into the U.N. Climate Summit


People visit the “Solutions COP21” exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris on December 4, 2015 on the sidelines of the COP21 United Nations Climate Summit.
At the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris, the negotiating positions of various countries can be difficult to follow, particularly when it comes to the interests that lurk behind those positions. The talks are full of acronyms, and concepts like “loss and damage,” “climate finance” and “deep decarbonization” are opaque for most people.

Fortunately, astrophysicist and ace science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson summarized in one tweet the difference between what is at stake at these talks for poor nations, such as the Marshall Islands, Bangladesh and the Philippines, compared to industrialized nations like the United States and European Union.

So far, India and Saudi Arabia have blocked attempts to include findings of a U.N. report regarding a 1.5-degree target that was commissioned at a previous round of climate talks, which was released earlier this year. The report shows the lower risk of dangerous amounts of global warming if the temperature increase were limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius would come with several advantages in terms of coming closer to a safer ‘guardrail,'” the report said. “It would avoid or reduce risks, for example, to food production or unique and threatened systems such as coral reefs or many parts of the cryosphere, including the risk of sea level rise.”

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development who is working with countries to push for a 1.5-degree goal, said a temperature target of below 2 degrees Celsius is needed to protect everyone around the world, including the poorest people living in mid-continental drought-prone regions and low-lying states.


Lyndon Pishagua Chinchuga, a representative of the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon and an un-named co-representative walk past a stand at the United Nations Climate Summit, at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris on December 3, 2015.

“If we were to accept the 2 degrees as a global goal, then we will have to accept at the same time that we are writing these people off,” said Saleemul Huq in a video briefing from France. “We are telling them that we will not protect you. We will protect us, but we will not protect you.”

“It’s very difficult, we understand that and we accept that. On the other hand, difficult is not impossible,” Huq said. “We believe there is enough money, there is enough technology to do it, there simply isn’t enough political will to do it. And Paris is about generating political will.”

Temperature targets are about survival through long-term decarbonization

The temperature targets can be thought of in a different way, too. Each target would require a particular pace of reducing emissions of global warming pollutants such as carbon dioxide. So far, the world is on track to exceed the 2-degree target despite the emissions pledges made for the Paris talks. This makes the 1.5-degree target appear to be unachievable, barring the creation of technology that can efficiently and effectively suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Christiana Figueres, who chairs the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that is overseeing COP21, said the entire Paris agreement will lead to a whole-scale shift away from fossil fuel-powered economies.

“Everyone here agrees that we do need to head for the deepest decarbonization pathways and in an urgent fashion,” Figueres said at a press conference on Friday.

“I do think that there is a lot of space to be able to find, not just a language, but also a very important conceptual agreement of the fact that decarbonization needs to happen, that it needs to happen quickly and that it needs to happen across the economy. That is what we’re talking about when we talk about 1.5 to 2 [degrees], it is not a discussion about the temperatures, it’s just a proxy. The discussion is about the decarbonization of the economy.”

Carbon Inequality

Carbon dioxide emissions of wealthy people versus the poor.


Precisely how to decarbonize, though, and what allowances developing countries will have to burn more fossil fuels as they develop compared to industrialized country obligations, remains to be worked out. One proposal in Paris, for example, would allocate the remaining portion of the global carbon budget based on which countries caused most of modern-day global warming in the first place, and which countries are trying first and foremost to address poverty concerns.

Global warming is an issue of inequality

Climate change is often seen as a pollution problem, yet to many, evidently including Tyson, inequality plays a central role.

The advocacy organization Oxfam International released a report this week that found that the poorest 50% of the global population, which amounts to about 3.5 billion people, are responsible for just 10% of total global emissions. Yet the richest 10% of people contribute about 50% of global emissions, the organization found. The richest 10% of people have carbon footprints 11 times as high as the poorest half of the population, the report found.

“The average footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10%,”

“The average footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10%,” the report, which was endorsed by economist and best-selling author Thomas Picketty, found.“At its heart, climate change is an issue of global justice,” Oxfam’s Tim Gore told Mashable in an interview. “When countries are negotiating here you should keep that in mind.”

“What should be expected of India, bearing in mind the poverty challenges its population is facing?”

His tweet speaks to why developing countries have been so adamant about including a reference to a lower temperature target — 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — rather than the 2-degree target countries agreed to a few years ago. The 0.5-degree difference is a matter of life or death for some low-lying nations that are already losing ground to the sea.

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