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Global Climate Pacts:
Self Destructive or Successful?
John Cairns, Jr.
University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus
Department of Biological Sciences
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A.
December 2009
Greenhouse gas emissions
must not exceed the
biosphere’s ability to
assimilate them.
Climate pacts that fail to
address this crucial issue will
not be effective.
Political negotiations will fail
if they ignore the biosphere’s
role in regulating Earth’s
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
maintains an extensive list of anthropogenic greenhouse
 Aggregated anthropogenic greenhouse gases are generally
identified as CO2 equivalents.
 The major greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, water vapor,
methane, and nitrous oxide.
As the biosphere changes due both to climate change
and loss of biodiversity, assimilative capacity for
greenhouse gases will probably diminish.
 Biospheric assimilative capacity for greenhouse gases alters during seasonal
climate change, as well as during long-term climate trends.
 Preliminary evidence indicates that Earth’s oceans are becoming less
efficient at assimilating carbon dioxide.
 Emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases must be altered to match
biospheric assimilative capacity.
 Monitoring assimilative capacity will provide feedback of information that
enables adjustment to both short- and long-term changes in biospheric
assimilation of greenhouse gases.
 Climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions is irreversible.1
Climate is only one of many factors whose interactions
affect the biosphere. These factors follow.
•ecological overshoot (using resources more rapidly than Earth can replenish them)
•habitat loss
•acidification of oceans
•ecotoxics (e.g., endocrine disrupters)
•irreversible climate change
The strong desire to compartmentalize problems is the road to failure when addressing
highly interactive global systems.
Free and open discussion of overpopulation is resisted for many reasons in many cultures.
Decisions on ecological overshoot and climate change are blocked because remedial
measures might adversely affect economic growth.
Ocean acidification is caused by a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and reduction of
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions has been strongly resisted.
Ecotoxicology is a complex subject, poorly understood by politicians, the news media, and
the general public. Gathering evidence on toxics such as endocrine disrupters is costly and
time consuming.
Inadequately researched “Hail Mary” geo-engineering
schemes to fight climate change are becoming
increasingly popular.2,3
“Hail Mary” technologies are increasingly popular because negotiations to reduce
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have been strikingly unsuccessful.
Carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere. Carbon stored in frozen, hydrated
methane (oceans) and permafrost is already being released into the atmosphere.
Stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 550 ppm CO2
equivalents would provide only a 25% chance of limiting temperature rise to 2°C
between 1990 and 2090.4
Both the American Meteorological Society and the UK Royal Society have called for
more research and have warned that geo-engineering approaches should not
supplant efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Time is short – the options are few and the risks high.
The 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen may not result in a major reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions.
In the early part of the 21st century, lack of remedial
action on global warming was justified by the
uncertainties in science. As a consequence, political
uncertainties have markedly increased and humankind is
much closer to ecological tipping points.
All of life is uncertain. Even when the science is uncertain, if the consequences
of inaction are severe, precautionary action is justified.
“Business as usual” is no longer an option.
Since runaway climate change has moved from possible to probable, adaptation
to markedly altered conditions should be given significant attention.
In the efforts to keep Earth habitable for humans, we must not forget posterity
and the other species with which we share the planet.
Risks of drastic runaway climate change increase
markedly each year if reduction of
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is
postponed. The German Advisory Council on
Global Change (WBGU)5 states, “However, even
warming of 2 degrees C cannot be regarded as
Even if geo-engineering technologies are used to
arrest global warming trends, both the US
National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal
Society warned that geo-engineering approaches
should not supplant efforts to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions.
Humankind has caused present climate
change problems by emitting more
greenhouse gases than the biosphere could
Humankind should be willing to make
major sacrifices to eliminate the
problems it has caused.
The WBGU5 states: “From an ethical point of view, the
best solution is to equally allocate emissions on a per
capita basis, so that national emissions budgets can be
calculated according to the size of the population. Thus,
each country has a precisely defined ‘atmospheric capital’
which it can flexibly manage and trade on international
markets between now and the year 2050.”
 This approach appears to be the best option for involving third world countries
in the major global effort necessary to avoid runaway climate change.
 Inevitably, strong objections will be voiced from representatives of some
countries with high per capita emissions, but one hopes the consequences of
failure, when understood, will overcome these objections.
 The WBGU5 gives a detailed description of how the budget will be managed
and compliance verified.
Coping with the multiple interactive global crises (i.e.,
climate change, overpopulation, ecological overshoot, loss
of biodiversity, toxic chemicals) requires a new social
contract to nurture the biosphere, which is both
humankind’s life support system and the basis of the
human economic system.
A new social contract will be a “hard sell” because the percentage of Americans who
believe warming is happening has dipped from 80% to 72% during the past year. The
United States is a major greenhouse gas emitter, so a strong, immediate action would
almost certainly influence other major greenhouse gas emitters.
The disagreement, according to David Winston, who has polled the House and Senate
Republican leadership on the issue, is “Where there’s disagreement is how immediate
and huge is the threat.”
The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that anthropogenic greenhouse gas
emissions are a significant component of the climate change crisis.
The risks of “business as usual” are that a major
ecological tipping point will be passed, resulting in
irreversible climate change.
 Among the factors likely to be affected adversely are agricultural productivity,
water resources, biodiversity, human health,6 national and personal security,
natural resources, infrastructure (e.g., rising sea levels), and tourism.
 The present biosphere, in which humans evolved and flourished, will probably
be replaced by a significantly different biosphere whose ecosystem services
are less favorable to humans.
 Invasive species will probably dominate indigenous species.
 The biggest obstacle to reducing emissions is lack of trust in other people, in
government, and in science.
Humankind has risen to overcome huge risks, but
establishing a social contract to avoid the destruction of
civilization as presently known is an unprecedented
Evolution more often fails than succeeds. Realizing the consequences of failing to achieve
a robust social contract should be a strong motivation to reduce the risk of driving Homo
sapiens to extinction.
Humankind has severely damaged its life support system – the biosphere. It has the ability
to stop the damage but not to repair it.
Species survival requires fitness (suitability for habitat) and adaptability. Even in hot Death
Valley, USA, species can be pushed to extinction by a few degrees increase in temperature.
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse7 documents how human societies choose to succeed or fail
at regional levels. How can humankind even consider choosing to fail at a global level?
Discussions of the multiple, interactive crises that humankind
must resolve lack ecoethics, which includes the biosphere, of
which humans are a component, and the other species that are
also in the biosphere.
Ecoethics includes intergenerational ethics. For example, causing irreversible climate change by
continuing “business as usual” will adversely affect the quality of life of many future generations.
Lack of ecoethics permits flooding habitable land (e.g., The Maldives and estuaries), creating
millions of environmental refugees.
Lack of ecoethics permits habitat destruction and extinction of other species.
Lack of ecoethics encourages the dissemination of inaccurate information on a variety of
environmental problems.
Although clearly legal, is it ethical for people who openly admit they fail to understand scientific
issues8 to pronounce upon them or for an editor to give such people a soapbox?9
Is overconsumption of finite resources unethical?
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”10
Surely if humankind places any value on
intergenerational ethics, they can be used as a key
part of a global climate pact.
Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Karen Cairns for transcribing the handwritten first draft and for comments on various issues, to
Darla Donald for editorial assistance, and to Valerie Sutherland for converting it to Power Point.
S., G. K. Plattner, and P. F. Friedlingsteind. 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:1704-1709.
2Morello, L. 2009. Scientists seek “Plan B” for fighting climate change. New York Times 2Nov
3Environmental Research Letters. 2009. Volume 4, Number 4 Oct-Dec
4Prinn, R. 2009. As quoted in Morello, L. 2009. Scientists seek “Plan B” for fighting climate change. New York Times 2Nov
5WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change) 2004. Solving the Climate Dilemma: The Budget Approach. Special
Report, Berlin, Germany, p.14.
6Myers, S. S. 2009. Global Environmental Change: The Threat to Human Health, Report 181. WorldWatch, Washington, DC.
7Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Group, New York.
8Tierney, J. 2009. As quoted in Ehrlich, P. R. 2009. Ecoethics: now central to all ethics. Bioethical Inquiry 6:417–436.
9Tierney, J. 2008. Science adviser’s unsustainable bet (and mine). New York Times 23Dec
10Bonhoeffer, D. 2003. As quoted in Cone, J. H. 2003. Theology’s great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy. Pages 1-15 in
Soul Work; Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. M. Bowers-Wheatley and N. Palmer Jones, ed. Skinner House Books, Boston.