In future, when the history of negotiations to limit climate change is written, one point will certainly stand out. Historians will wonder how during the entire process there was no link between the rising peril and its utter disregard by negotiators of different countries. Each warning sign was ignored—the secular rise in temperature, the receding winter ice sheet in the Arctic, the slow decline of the Himalayan glaciers.
The world has crossed another infamous milestone. A study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Climate Change shows that emissions of carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas—are set reach a record high of 36.6 billion in 2012. This is an ominous marker. If global temperature rise has to be limited to less than 2 degrees by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions have to reduce by an annual rate of 3% every year. From the perspective of that statistic, the world is fast approaching a dangerous tipping point.
So, what explains this global bout of irrationality? It is not as if leaders of different countries are unaware of the problem or are not doing enough to counter it. The problem lies elsewhere—in the nature of problems confronted by mankind. So far, problems as extensive as world wars, pestilence running across borders and, even financial contagion, have finally been resolved at the level of nations. Each country has accepted its share of responsibility to tackle these issues and the world has moved on. Climate change is an altogether different phenomenon. Unlike other problems—where eliminating them yield returns that are in excess of efforts by individual countries—climate change mitigation has the makings of a zero-sum game: I halt emissions, my growth slows, you win. There are, of course, ways and means to change this defeatist strategy. Rich countries can either subsidize clean technologies (that way their companies continue to earn something) and emissions from emerging economy powerhouses slowly abate. So far, there is no sign of that.
It is hard not to conclude on a pessimistic note. Perhaps, in the face of doom, countries will finally agree to some sort of solution. But unlike other man-made problems that permit the wiping clean of a slate (and then making the same mistakes again), climate change is not a purely human problem—it involves the natural system that is not amenable to human whim and control.
Can climate change ever be controlled before it is too late?