If that limit is surpassed, we risk melting all of the planet’s ice and creating a world so different that it’s hard to imagine what it would look like or if it would even be habitable.
Right now, we’re on track to warm our planet by approximately four degrees Celsius.
A United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Lima, Peru, this week, according to the UNFCCC website.
The more than 100 nations attending the conference are discussing the possibility of an international agreement to lower carbon emissions in an effort to combat climate change.
“These are things that we basically should have gotten a handle on 20 to 25 years ago,” said James Barnes, professor of law and public and environmental affairs.
Barnes served as deputy administrator in the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1980s.
Past attempts to reach international agreements on carbon emissions have been unsuccessful.
“I think there is a perceived conflict between what people perceive to be as their short-term economic interests and what are, I think, the realities and risks in the long run if we don’t take action to address this uncontrolled experiment we’re running with the atmosphere,” he said.
In recent years, both the United States and China — two of the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions — have committed to lowering their emissions, which Barnes said is a step in the right direction and somewhat of a reason to feel better about these talks.
He also said the U.S. and China’s plans are not nearly enough, as they don’t leave room for any other countries to produce carbon emissions.
“I’d say on a scale of one to 100, it’s about a two,” he said.
Philip Stevens, professor and faculty department chair in environmental science in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the agreements by China and the U.S. are vital steps.
“It’s a symbolic and important start because it’s the first time that both the U.S. and China have committed to emission reductions,” he said.
A challenge facing the negotiators is deciding when to begin regulating developing nations, since most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is from already developed nations, Stevens said.
Both Barnes and Stevens cited the U.N.’s Montreal Protocol as an example of how to deal with the problem.
Under the protocol, developed nations were required to stop the emission of ozone-depleting chemicals immediately, and developing nations followed on their own time scale, Stevens said.
Barnes said the expected agreement that might be reached in the talks is soft and wouldn’t have much ?effect for 20 to 30 years, which he feels is too far off.
“I’ve got three daughters and a grandson, and I really do worry,” he said.
Stevens said he firmly believes it is never too late, but the sooner emissions begin to lower, the better.
He said the temperature is going to rise, but it is a question of how much we limit the effects of this change, such as extreme weather and rising sea levels.
Other challenges facing the movement away from fossil fuels are the uncontrollable market forces driving prices, he said. The price of oil is falling.
“Now that it’s dropping, there is some concern that people will not be buying hybrids or using public transportation as much,” he said.
The largest source of emissions is the burning of coal for electricity.
He said that, ideally, people would move from coal to natural gas and from natural gas to renewable energy.
“I don’t see any silver bullets,” he said. “I think the people that have pushed for there to be increased use of alternative renewable fuels are taking steps in the right direction.”
Both Stevens and Barnes acknowledged that it can be challenging to pass legislation on the issue of climate change because many people still doubt the science.
Stevens said the discussion has become too much about politics when it should be about science.
Stevens said it is important that students and young people educate themselves on climate change.
He said change takes time and an educated public is the best way to spur a government into action.
“I was always hopeful that my generation would be the one to do something about it, but it looks less and less likely that my generation is going to be able to do something about it, and that means most of the impacts are going to be felt by your generation and your children’s generation,” he said.