04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Chess: Two Degrees of Separation

President Obama made a bold assertion at last month's State of the Union address.

We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change.

No doubt, it was a smart way to communicate to an American audience that is largely ambivalent about global warming, for it tells a story that we are moving forward, with or without consensus, senate legislation or a legally binding international treaty. Certainly, there has been progress. Last summer, Congress passed HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act. This bill calls for reductions in emissions achieved predominantly through efficiency and cap-and-trade. In December, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency upheld a ruling that greenhouse gases pose a public health threat and can therefore be regulated as a pollutant. This endangerment finding paves the way for the EPA to utilize the clean air act to control emissions (although Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has already challenged the finding in court). And finally at Copenhagen, like a knight in shining armor, Obama saved the day by brokering in the 11th hour the Copenhagen Accord.

But is the United States a leader? That depends on whom one is asking and what numbers one is using.

There are a great many numbers flying around, and with them comes a host of disagreements on the international and national stage. Perhaps the single most contentious number is the 2-degree Celsius limit. It is widely considered that holding global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) provides us with a 50% change of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. The high edge of the temperature range in which humanity evolved is a signpost of survival. For some time, science has been overwhelmingly in agreement with this limit. We are on a trajectory to shoot far beyond it by 2050, and possibly much sooner. Thus, national policies are put in place across the globe that hope to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. So where is the conflict?

First, nations have proposed reductions that are far below what is necessary for 2 degrees. Just this month, 102 of the 178 countries of the UNFCCC have associated with the Copenhagen Accord, many of them submitting reduction pledges. The remaining 76 countries have not and likely won't. But what do these targets really mean? Climate Interactive, a data analysis group from MIT System Dynamics Group and other science and modeling centers have developed a "climate scoreboard" SIM that takes in reduction commitments and predicts temperature rise through a hybrid of powerful models. According to their SIM, current targets committed to the Copenhagen Accord land us in a world that is most probably 3.9 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels.

It's odd to imagine the pomp and circumstance of world leaders saving the world, when a hard look at their plan falls short. I have this image of 102 heads of state on an all-expense-paid cruise, partying on deck with a peppy purser leading activities. They're doing the 2-degree limbo dance, spilling rum punch on their bahama shirts as they line up to pass under a pole that represents 2 degrees. Steel drums coax them along as each leader bends backwards to avoid the bar. According to Climate Interactive, they are not even close to slipping under. So while nations sign the accord and presidents claim to lead on climate change, the stated temperature targets are not even met by the collective and the 2-degree limbo stick keeps falling to the ground.

Secondly, many of the major targets promised by the accord signatories have an important caveat - they are pending the passing of a comprehensive emissions reduction plan by the United States' domestic policy makers. That means the S. 1733 senate bill. As mentioned in my earlier blog, Massachusetts Fires a New Shot Heard Round the World, there are major obstacles to passing such a bill. Without it, the largest pledges of international action are meaningless. While the white house may lead in platitudes of action, it is up to the legislative branch to define the numbers and pass laws that will enable the world to commit to 2 degrees.

That brings us to the third problem with the numbers - the 2-degree target itself. It is important to note that this number represents a global average. Some areas of the globe are projected to be cooler, and some even warmer. At 2 degrees, much of Africa will unfortunately be subject to 3.5 degrees Celsius - a change that many predict will bring widespread devastation to the continent. At Copenhagen, Africa and the small island states called for 1.5 degrees Celsius, a figure that would provide those parts of the world with some cushion for hope. While the Copenhagen Accord addresses 1.5 degrees as something to be assessed by 2015, the overwhelming language relates to the 2-degree target. This is fundamentally why many of the African nations and small island states have not associated with the accord. It is a number that they consider as vital to survival and is the basis of a growing movement to make 350ppm the target CO2-equivalent concentration in the atmosphere. With an accord based on 2 degrees, there now exists a gulf not only between nations but also between environmental groups who actively support different temperature targets.

In Climate Chess, Lumumba Di-Aping from Sudan addresses civil society from America, Europe and Australia at the Copenhagen conference. He solemnly reiterates,

Two degrees Celsius is certain death for Africa, is certain devastation of island states.

He goes on to place blame on Northern environmental NGO's for continuing to legitimize the 2-degree target.

You have become an instrument of your governments.

It was a chess move that shook the entire conference, highlighting a rift between target-based and justice-based environmentalism. The ramifications of his statements are reflected today in the absence of many developing-world signatures from the Copenhagen Accord and an ongoing debate among the climate change community over targets, political pragmatism, and justice.

Is the United States a leader in the fight against climate change? One's outlook may depend on which side of the 2-degree divide one calls home.