You didn't have to go far to find extreme weather this year. North America experienced both brutal drought and a record-setting storm. Extreme weather in Africa, southeast Asia and Europe also caused widespread damage and cost many lives. In fact, as New York state governor Andrew Cuomo noted, extreme weather seems to be the "new normal".
With delegates from around the world converging on Doha, Qatar, this week for the 18th UN conference on climate change (COP18), the need for real progress on global warming has never been more urgent. And while there are many obstacles to progress on this crucial problem, there are hopeful signs as well.
First, the bad news
2012 is on track to be the hottest year on record. In fact, as of last year, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. If 2012 holds on to become the hottest ever, that count will go to 10 out of 10. Not coincidentally, the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is up 20% since 2000, according to a new report from the UN Environment Programme. And if we don't take action, by 2020 the chance of meeting the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2C – the signature achievement of the climate conference in Copenhagen three years ago – will be zero.
In fact, a new report from the World Bank warns we're on track to see temperatures go up 3C, or even 4C by the end of the century. That will mean a very different planet from the one we live on now, with coastal cities inundated, cropland devastated and many species and ecosystems irretrievably lost.
'You go first' – 'No, you go first'
So far, we simply aren't taking the urgent action such a dire crisis demands. Previous rounds of UN climate conferences have failed to yield a treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol after its "commitment period" expires at the end of December.
Much of the debate has come down to "You go first – no, you go first" squabbles. Kyoto, signed in 1997, let developing countries off the hook as far as mandatory greenhouse gas reductions were concerned. Since it was the rich industrialised countries that mostly caused global warming in the first place, the reasoning went, they should bear the burden of cleaning it up. But while most of the signatory countries did meet their Kyoto goals – even the US, which never actually ratified the treaty – the economic balance has shifted since the mid-1990s. Now, the emerging economies of China and India have become, respectively, the largest and fourth-largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
And those countries are resisting the call to make binding emission-reduction commitments. They argue, with some justice, that despite their growing prosperity, they still have huge populations in poverty. China notes that, while it now emits more carbon dioxide than the US, it also has more than four times as many people. And going into the negotiations in Doha, the emerging economies are saying it's up to the rich countries to make deeper cuts to their own emissions.
The US, Japan and other industrialised countries respond that, with China and India expected to open more than 200 coal-burning power plants by 2016, those emerging economies have to make their share of reductions too – or nothing the rich countries can do will stop a global climate disaster.
Or in other words, the impasse is a bit like this (with thanks to the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research):
Here's what needs to happen
Everyone's partly right – but it's also up to everyone to act: that's the only way to keep temperature rise to that critical 2C. This means all parties have to stop protecting their narrow, short-term economic interests and look at the big picture. We're on the verge of disrupting the basic life-support systems of this planet – the only one we've got, by the way – for centuries to come. Nothing else is as important as this. So let's start acting like it.
1) Rich countries (that means you too, USA) must commit to deeper cuts. That means more investment in clean energy and real action to decouple economic growth from fossil fuels – action such as smart planning for compact, energy-efficient communities, and abandoning absurd and outdated fossil fuel subsidies.
2) Rich countries must also make good on the commitments they've already made to help emerging economies bypass the dirty energy path that the industrialised world took to prosperity. Telling the world's poor that they've got to stay poor so they don't screw up the climate just isn't going to work.
3) India, China, Brazil and the other emerging economies must learn from the dirty development mistakes of the past and lead the way to the low carbon, clean super-economies of the future. Carbon dioxide molecules don't know if they came from a poor country or a rich one; they wreck the climate regardless.
4) Petro-states such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (not to mention conference host Qatar) need to get with the programme. Yes, their wealth comes from petroleum. And it was a great ride while it lasted. But the rest of the world can't allow vested interests in a dying power source to hold back the desperately needed shift to renewable, non-carbon fuels. Burning dead dinosaurs is so 20th century. Oil-producing countries can't be allowed to hijack the climate agenda.
Bottom line: The job at Doha is to breathe life into the negotiations, to turn them into a driver for a safe future for our children and grandchildren. We need an agreement that's fair and acceptable to all countries – one that will deliver the promised finance needed to fund climate action, and will build on last year's agreements in Durban, South Africa, to speed up short-term emission cuts before a new treaty kicks in around the year 2020.
Looking at the consequences of further inaction, there's simply no excuse for failure.
Learn more: The World Resources Institute has a good cheat sheet of issues to watch in the lead up to Doha – and a great explainer of what's at stake.
Sources: Huffington Post, Avaaz, BBC, CNN, Guardian, COP18, Environmental News Service, USA Today, UNFCCC, CBC, European Commission, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Washington Post, World Resources Institute