They made some progress at the annual December round of the
international negotiations on controlling climate change,
held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that
cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the
most from it.
The principle, known as the Loss and Damage mechanism, has no
numbers attached to it, but it is a step forward. The only
step forward, unfortunately.
In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the
Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on ''mitigation'';
that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions
of carbon dioxide and other ''greenhouse gases''.
That made good sense, but they did not get anywhere. Fifteen
years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.
So, gradually, the emphasis shifted to ''adaptation''.
If we cannot agree on measures to stop the average global
temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What
is the plan for developing new crops to withstand the
droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What's the
plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys
and inundate coastlines?
Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis
has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will
happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle,
says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries
that are responsible for the warming pay. But the
''mechanism'' has no method for assessing the damage or
allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers' playground
of little use to anybody else.
So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will
never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going
bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never
come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer?
Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide? There will be a
fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to
wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and
catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present
lethargy. That probably will not happen until quite late in
the decade - and by then, at the current rate of emissions,
we will be well past the point at which we could hold the
rise in average global temperature down to 2degC.
We will, in fact, be on course for 3, 4 or even 5degC of
warming, because beyond plus 2deg, the warming that we have
already created will trigger ''feedbacks'': natural sources
of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost which we
cannot shut off.
So then, when it is too late, everybody will really want a
deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions will not be
enough any more. We will need some way to hold the
temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or
else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets
in. The rule of thumb is that we lose 10% of global food
production for every rise in average global temperature of
There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus
2degC and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it
will take to get our emissions back down. It's called
''geo-engineering'': direct human intervention in the climate
system. Our greenhouse gas emissions are an inadvertent
example of geo-engineering that is pushing the climate in the
wrong direction. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering
may be needed to stop it.
Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible,
though the undesirable side effects could be very large. The
biggest problem is that it is relatively cheap: dozens of
governments could afford to do it - and just one government,
acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.
So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting
late this decade, will be about when it is time to start
geo-engineering, and what techniques should be used, and who
controls the process. They will not agree on that either, so
things will drag on further until some government, desperate
to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone,
without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of
So we had better hope that neutral observers like the fossil
fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is
a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making it up
just to get more money in research grants. That would be a
happy ending, so fingers crossed.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London