What if we could see what we’re doing? One of the challenges of climate change as a global problem is that the underlying cause—greenhouse gas emissions—is largely invisible. We associate “emissions” with “pollution”, which is correct in this case, but we’ve done a much better job of cleaning up the visible emissions (like the smog that blanketed Los Angeles starting in the 1950s) than we have with greenhouse gas emissions. And part of that may be the fact that it’s not in our faces like other emissions are. Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Penn State and an IPCC member, notes in this Marketplace story that in the 19th century we had much more visible “emissions” from our horse-based transportation system. If our roads were being covered in waste at the pace of about an inch per year, perhaps we’d feel a greater sense of urgency about cleaning it up.
And not only can we not see it, but it doesn’t stay in one place. Arguably Los Angeles was motivated to clean up its act because they could see the problem and it was clear that the source was local, so that local actions could help address a local problem. Greenhouse gases, on the other hand, don’t stay local; while particulate emissions like soot are heavy enough to fall out of the atmosphere within a few hundred miles of where they are emitted, CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. That means that it circles the globe in just a few weeks, and eventually mixes entirely into the global atmosphere within a year or so, which makes anyone’s local greenhouse gas emissions a global problem.
I was struck by this today when I saw the image above (in a display from the Korea Green Foundation, one of many organizations that are displaying their work here in the hall devoted to observer / NGO organizations) right after hearing President Obama call for “a strong system of transparency that gives all of us confidence that all of us are meeting our commitments.” Transparency, in this case, would be good, since in the context of these talks it means that countries would commit to some sort of accountability about the extent to which they are meeting their commitments to reduce their emissions. Exactly what form that takes, and how strong an obligation it will be, remains to be seen. That will be one of the negotiating points over the next two weeks. Let’s hope that it will indeed be strong, so that, counterintuitively, the increased transparency will help us see what we’re doing and work hard to fix it.