If you have heard anything about the Paris climate conference—formally known as the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21—then you know that lots of people seem very excited about the recently adopted 2 degrees Celsius agreement. “I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world,” said U.S. President Barack Obama. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared, “What was once unthinkable has now become unstoppable.”1,2 But what does this number mean? Why is 2 degrees such a big deal, and should we be buying into the hype?
2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, is the limit to the increase in global average temperatures that was voted on by 196 nations on December 11.2 That’s right—they’re trying to stop global warming. The idea is that by the year 2100, warming will come to a halt, having only gone up by 2 degrees over pre-industrial temperatures.3 This 2 degree cap includes the 0.8 which the world has already warmed since the pre-industrial period.4 While it is true that setting a limit at all is a big step in the right direction, many experts believe that the 2 degree cap is still too high. Why? Climate change effects such as extreme heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and rises in sea level, can wreak havoc in low-elevation places such as the Caribbean.5,6 “For small island developing states like ours,” said Kenny Anthony, the prime minister of St. Lucia and climate change spokesperson of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), “the science has shown that any long-term global temperature increase above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be catastrophic.”7
An example of what “catastrophic” looks like in this context can be found in the case of the small Caribbean island state of Dominica which lost 90 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Tropical Storm Erika this past August.8 Following an unusually dry season, Erika’s torrential rainfall wiped out villages, triggered massive landslides, devastated infrastructure and agriculture, and killed more than 30 people.8,9 Strength and frequency of storms such as Erika have been increasing, and scientists say that global warming is the force to blame. A World Bank study showed that if warming increases by 2 degrees Celsius, the number of severe hurricanes will increase by 40 percent. Without the 2 degree cap, that projection doubles to 80 percent. Rising storm severity isn’t the only threat to Caribbean livelihoods. According to a study led by former NASA scientist James Hansen, 2 degrees of warming could cause “at least several meters” of sea level rise this century, which effectively would wash away whole cities, not only throughout the Caribbean but all over the world.8 These dangers, as well as heat waves and droughts, would do hefty damage to tourism industries which many Caribbean nations heavily depend upon. Ecosystems are also threatened, and potential damage to coral reefs and fish populations make Caribbean nations fear for their food security.6
All this is why CARICOM joined forces with developing island nations across the world to demand at COP21 that global warming be capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius. “1.5 to stay alive” was the High Ambition Coalition’s slogan, and some industrialized nations also took up the cry.10 The U.S., France, Australia, Brazil and Canada were among those that supported 1.5—but a group of powerful nations such as China and India opposed it, saying that a cap that low was unfeasible.10,11,12 Their reluctance is understandable: To stop warming at 1.5 degrees, many experts say that the world would need to reach zero net carbon emissions by about 2040.1 The conference’s resulting compromise was to “[hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”13
While this deal does not commit to 1.5 degrees, it still represents major accomplishment in the international fight against climate change. Just six years ago, the climate conference in Copenhagen failed after seemingly insurmountable disagreements caused the deal to collapse. The Paris conference, on the other hand, saw unprecedented unity. The United States and China, who in the past haven’t been able to agree on anything environment-related, both praised the agreement.14 Unlike previous agreements, all countries that ratify it—developed and developing alike—will be required to report amounts and sources of national emissions as well as mitigation efforts.2 Beginning in 2020, developed countries will contribute an annual $USD 100 billion to the climate change-fighting efforts of developing nations, including those in the Caribbean.12 Setting the absolute 2 degree limit, and “pursuing efforts” towards 1.5, shows that these 196 countries are finally taking climate change seriously. Without the agreement of this cap, mass extinctions, megafloods and superdroughts, and the complete disappearance of island nations and coastal cities were a near certainty.1
Now that an agreement has been reached, there are still plenty of important details to be worked out. The countries’ respective governments each need to ratify the deal individually.2 After that, nations have to take real-life measures to switch from fossil fuels to green energy sources. Hitting the 2 degree threshold requires the entire world to move off fossil fuels completely, and sooner rather than later—many scientists say that it needs to be done as early as 2050 to be worth doing at all.1 And the ideal 1.5 requires even greater efforts. But if the trend of cooperation and unity that we saw in Paris this December continues, the world will take the action necessary for the survival of all its inhabitants.
1 Sutter, John D, Joshua Berlinger and Ralph Ellis. “Obama: Climate agreement ‘best chance we have’ to save the planet.” CNN. 13 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
2 Chappell, Bill. “Nearly 200 Nations Adopt Climate Agreement at COP21 Talks in Paris.” NPR. 12 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
3 Sutter, John D. “Is 2 degrees the wrong climate goal?” CNN. 8 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
4 Karunungan, Ayeen. “COP21 | 1.5 to stay alive.” InterAksyon. 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
5 “The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre.” Caribbean Climate. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
6 Major, Brian. “Caribbean Officials Outline Climate Change’s Growing Threat to the Region.” Travel Pulse. 4 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
7 Alison, Kentish. “Caribbean Islands Peg Hopes on COP21 Agreement.” TeleSUR. 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
8 “Dominica lost almost all of its GDP due to climate change, says World Bank.” Caribbean 360. 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
9 Crask, Paul. “Dominica asks for aid after tropical storm Erika devastates island.” The Guardian. 4 Sep. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
10 Alison, Kentish. “Caribbean States Remain Confident as COP21 Nears Home Stretch.” TeleSUR. 9 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
11 Freedman, Andrew. “Despite optimism of an eventual Paris climate deal, countries squabble over early draft.” Mashable. 10 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
12 Worland, Justin. “What to Know About the Historic ‘Paris Agreement’ on Climate Change.” Time. 12 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
13 “Adoption of the Paris Agreement.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 11 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
14 Davenport, Coral. “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris.” The New York Times. 12 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.