Opinion: Only The Gambia is on track

Of the 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change that took force five years ago, only one — the tiny African country of The Gambia — is on track to cut emissions and keep its promise to meet the goal of limiting global warming. When the signers of the pact met in 2015, they set an objective of not exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the earth’s average temperature before the Industrial Revolution.

That plan went into effect on Nov. 4, 2016, and the report was issued last week (Sept. 15, 2021) by Climate Action Tracker. Seth Borenstein, science writer for the Associated Press, said that only one other nation — the United Kingdom — “is even close to doing what it should to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases and to finance clean energy for poorer nations.”

To understand the significance of the Paris Agreement, let’s consider the world before the Industrial Revolution. Human activity caused little change to global conditions, and cataclysmic events in one part of the world remained local.

Pre-industrial world

During the tenth century, an entire empire collapsed. For its time, it was huge, a society of about 2 million people clustered around a central city of about 200,000 inhabitants. Other cities held populations between 5,000 and 50,000. Its location was in Mesoamerica, principally throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, and its people were known as Maya.

However, the disintegration of this society had no effect on the domains of Charlemagne in Europe or the lands governed by the Emperor of China. In fact, neither of these rulers had ever heard of the existence of the cities of Chitzn Itz or Tikl, or even the continents that would eventually be known as the Americas. But today, events in one part of the world have repercussions nearly everywhere.

Industrial methods of production can be found worldwide. Nike shoes are made in Vietnam. I have a “designer” shirt that was made in Tanzania. Even a label that states, “Made in U.S.A.,” doesn’t mean much when products mass-produced in our possessions, like Saipan (off the coast of China), are allowed to use that point of origin designation.

Global problems

Today we are all part of a “superculture” that includes a broad spectrum of local cultures that have languages, customs, religions, occupations, and practices that are independent of the whole. Still, what happens in one country is likely to affect other lands. When there is deforestation in tropical areas, it influences the climate of the entire world. Poisons have become so toxic that chemical spills in upstream countries have disastrous effects on downstream people. Nuclear meltdowns in the former Soviet Union or in modern Japan have serious consequences far outside the borders of the site of the accidents.

Today’s world is much smaller than it was in the days of Columbus and Magellan. Past and continuing advances in transportation and communication amaze us. Yet, we need to remind ourselves that we exist in a limited world with limited resources. The pace of change has accelerated in recent decades to the point that we may be replicating a fable that was created by humorist James Thurber 65 years ago.

The Thurber fable

In 1956, James Thurber wrote “Oliver and the Other Ostriches.” In this little story, an elderly ostrich is lecturing his fellow ostriches about the superiority of their species. After all, there was no creature anywhere in the world who even approached the magnificence of the long-necked birds. They were, indeed, destined to dominate all other animals.

One of the younger ostriches, Oliver, does not agree. He feels a certain sense of inferiority because Man (sic) can walk, ride on motorized vehicles, and even fly. And, when Man flies, he is able to sit down while enjoying a libation. But, Oliver says, ostriches have no cars or trains, and they are birds who can’t fly at all.

The old ostrich becomes greatly annoyed at Oliver and lets him know, in no uncertain terms, that Man has no future. The preacher glares at Oliver severely, first with one eye and then the other. “Man,” he instructs, “is flying too fast for a world that is small and round. Soon he will catch up with himself in a great rear-end collision, and Man will never know that what hit Man from behind was Man.”

The real world, now

Through a series of goals, resolutions, and declarations adopted by the member states that signed the Paris Agreements of 2015, the world has developed a set of commitments, actions, and goals to try to prevent such a “rear-end collision.” But the accords do not exist to impede the pace of change; rather they were designed to monitor occurrences in the world and to give advice that may lead to improving the quality of life for all human beings.

Currently, the three most populous countries in the world are China, India, and the United States. China has a population of 1.5 billion and is the highest carbon emitter. India’s population, now at 1.4 billion, will overtake China before the end on this decade, and is the third highest carbon emitter. With only 332 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country, but the second highest carbon emitter.

These three countries constitute about 40 percent of the earth’s entire population. The world was shocked when the U.S. dropped out of the Paris Agreement in 2020, and sighed with a modicum of relief when we rejoined earlier this year.

According to Borenstein, last week’s Climate Action Tracker report “called efforts by the United States, the European Union, Germany, and Japan ‘insufficient’ and more in line with a global warming of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 19th century.”

This year, we’ve seen the result. It’s time to reassess our goals and commitment.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.