As a performing magician, I naturally take a keen interest in deception. So it was also with a professional, not merely personal, interest that I watched the spectacular fraud perpetrated on the world’s public in Paris last month, as political leaders from nearly 200 nations signed the first universal treaty to limit the carbon gases causing global warming.
Politicians described the agreement in triumphal terms, as a “turning point” in history. Humanity had dodged a bullet, they said. Now, we could all breathe easier. “Climate justice has won & we are all working towards a greener future,” as President Modi of India put it in a Tweet.
In reality, the happy talk by elites in Paris resembled a skilled magician’s use of patter to misdirect his audience, only on a global scale. A top stage illusionist like David Copperfield can make a Lamborghini vanish right under the noses of his audience. But that is nothing compared to what played in Paris, where the world’s political elites made the global warming crisis itself disappear — by creating the illusion of decisive action, where in fact there was nothing.
Ostensibly, the Paris agreement commits its signatories to hold warming of the earth’s atmosphere to 1.5% degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But as Bill McKibben recently pointed out, even if the signatories stay true to their promises — and the agreement has no enforcement mechanism to ensure that they do — the earth’s atmosphere is still expected to warm to at least 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels.
How bad would that be? Consider that today we are at just one degree Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. That one degree has already melted many of the world’s glaciers, turned the North Pole into a temperate zone, and produced droughts, floods, and wildfires of Biblical proportions across the globe. One degree has radically increased the acidity of the world’s oceans — by 30% — and imperiled the planet’s fresh water resources.
Here in Boston, I spent a surreal Christmas Eve bicycling around my neighborhood clad in jeans and a T-shirt. It was the same story throughout much of the US, where nearly 6,000 temperature records were shattered over the holidays. Tornadoes ravaged parts of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, rivers flooded their banks throughout the Midwest. Meanwhile, portions of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay lay submerged under floodwaters.
The most frightening news, though, came out of the Arctic, where temperatures on New Year’s Day were projected to be more than 60 F. degrees above normal. That made the North Pole, as one reporter observed, “hotter than Chicago, Vienna or Istanbul.”
Such radical gyrations in the climate are already causing unseen suffering and hardship for countless of the earth’s inhabitants. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes or lost their livelihoods as a result of one degree of warming. Farmers in Bangladesh have watched helplessly as ocean water inundates their rice fields. Whole Inuit communities had to be relocated after melting permafrost caused their homes to sink into the ground. In Iraq this summer, the temperature soared to 120 degrees Fahrenheit — 159 degrees with humidity factored in — and remained there for days. Scientists believe that large portions of the Middle East, currently home to 200 million people, will be inhospitable to human life by the end of the century.
But it is the other beings we share the earth with who are losing the most. Everywhere, animals are struggling in vain to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. In Europe and Asia, bears have stopped hibernating. In Alaska, walruses are crowding on shore, and trampling each other, because the sea ice they depend upon to survive has vanished. Whales and dolphins are dying in droves. Sea lions in California are starving. Penguins, lost and disoriented, have washed up on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Tens of millions of bats have perished from white nose fungus. Hundreds of monkeys in Costa Rica starved to death, or succumbed to illness, when ceaseless winter rains kept them from coming down from their trees to forage.
And on and on, across the phylogenetic spectrum. Homo sapiens is causing the greatest mass species extinction event in over 60 million years. And global warming is radically accelerating the process.
All of this, and much more, from atmospheric warming of less than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, imagine ratcheting that up by an additional five, or six, degrees. Or, in all likelihood, more than that. Because there is no reason to believe that the countries that signed the Paris agreement will fulfill even their existing inadequate promises.
What will so hot a world look like? Which of the many thousands of species clinging today to the knife’s edge of survival will survive?
In the absence of decisive international action, clearly, we are going to turn the planet into a living Hell. Meanwhile, the closer one looks at the details of the Paris accord, the more the latter resembles a stage illusion — a hollow shell carefully constructed to resemble something solid.
Much has been made of the pledge of the wealthy nations to help poorer ones offset the cost of shifting to renewable energy sources. But the same promises have been made by the wealthy countries before, and they have not been kept. Though vague about how they are going to help the peoples of the global South, wealthy nations were nonetheless careful to include language in the treaty allowing them to offset future C02 emissions through so-called “carbon sinks” — planting trees to recapture CO2. However, since it takes decades for forests to mature, such “sinks” are viewed by most experts as the equivalent of the magician’s legerdemain, a clever manipulation to create the appearance of something out of nothing.
The agreement also says nothing about animal agriculture — the second leading cause of global warming, responsible for more emissions than all cars and trucks combined. The absence of any recommendation to reduce or eliminate animal agriculture is a clear concession to the factory farming and cattle ranching lobbies, which doubtlessly worked hard to keep animal agriculture off the table in climate negotiations.
And so on. Such omissions led James Hansen, the former NASA scientist and a leading authority on climate change, rightly to denounce the Paris agreement as a “fraud” and a “fake.” As Hansen and others suggest, the illusion of action in Paris may in fact prove worse than no action at all. For it has left the public with the mistaken impression that the climate crisis is now going to be dealt with, perhaps even solved, on the cheap, in half-measures, and without disturbing the powerful economic and social forces that profit from ecological destruction. And that is the greatest deception of all.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify the language used to describe the role of animal agriculture in reference to climate change.