Dissolving Threshold

We finally did it, we are through the atmospheric door.

After years of dire prognostications that we were reaching an historic tipping point, El Niño nudged us through the gate and we achieved what most scientists and environmentalists have been warning against: In 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were at 400 parts per million (ppm) on average across the year as a whole. This according to the annual greenhouse gas bulletin of the the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO).

Artist: Cornelia Konrads

Artist: Cornelia Konrads

The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer it gets. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the CO2 levels averaged at 278 ppm. The planet was a cooler place.

Furthermore, it’s not considered likely that the carbon dioxide level will dip below the new level for many (human) generations.

There are likely those who will point to the lack of immediate disaster as a sign that the crossing of this threshold isn’t a big deal, or that carbon dioxide levels aren’t the only factor in determining global climate. And those are good points. But considering the general trend in rising temperature, now is the time to take the matter seriously. In human terms, if someone is seriously ill, you don’t wait for the fever to spike dangerously before taking action on the off chance the problem will just go away.

WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas is quoted in The Guardian as saying that “the year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations. The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.”

What is our next threshold for action?

International Law of the Anthropocene

I found an interesting paper recently, International Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott, Professor in Law at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. In it, she discusses the role of international environmental law in dealing with the impact humans have on the planet.

She focuses her attention on one aspect, geoengineering, defined in her paper as defined as “the intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment”. She describes geoengineering both as a part of the “climate change mitigation tool box” as well as a serious challenge to environmental protection.

She says, “The traditional distinction between humankind and nature and the characterization of the latter as something outside of, or other than, the human sphere no longer accurately reflects the relationship between humankind and the environment in the Anthropocene.”

And even if there is still some dispute over whether to call our current epoch the Anthropocene, Scott’s paper makes some intriguing arguments.

Environmental Projections Projections being what they are, this might not actually be the picture in 90 years – but that doesn’t mean we can’t act as if it might be. Source: EarthandEconomy.com via Visual.ly

In relation to using geoengineering as a tool to steer climate change, Scott says, “Geoengineering is qualitatively different from other mechanisms intended to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Geoengineering technologies and techniques are designed to lower surface temperatures or deliberately alter the carbon cycle on a global scale; all states and all peoples are likely to be affected. Image credit: andreykuzmin / 123RF Banque d'images
However, unlike emissions reductions and adaptation, which inherently require collective action in order to succeed, geoengineering technologies can potentially be deployed by a small number of states or even unilaterally by one powerful state acting in what it perceives to be the best interests of all states.”

“Without an appropriate forum to consider these options collectively, in the context of mitigation and adaptation more generally, the international community risks unleashing a twenty-first century version of the Legend of Phaethon.”

Scott proposes new measures for dealing with geoengineering within international environmental law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If the issues we face are global in nature (both literally and figuratively), then a global approach of this kind offers a promising framework, both for positive action and transparent regulation.


Michigan Journal of International Law articleInternational Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott