12/08/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

Locked-in Syndrome

With the latest climate change conference winding down to another uneventful close, it appears that the fight to cap greenhouse gas emissions is suffering from "locked-in syndrome."

Doctors use that term to describe a patient's neurological state when they are fully conscious and capable of hearing, but unable to move or communicate, even in response to a life-threatening emergency.

Last month, the International Energy Agency, in releasing its annual World Energy Outlook, warned that "without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system." Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the IEA's "450 Scenario" are already locked-in by the existing capital stock of power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action by 2017, "the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035."

With Canada bailing out of the Kyoto agreement, and China and the U.S. proposing that any binding limits not go into effect until 2020, it is all but inevitable that the international community will fail to act in time to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. We are, for all practical purposes, locked-in. And not just to catastrophic climate change.

The demands that we are placing upon the Earth's renewable resources already exceed the Earth's ability to replenish those resources. Astronomers have recently discovered more "earths" out there, but, unfortunately for us, we only have one, and the Global Footprint Network says that we will need two by 2050 to meet the projected growth in population and consumption.

A few years ago, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization warned that food production would have to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to keep up with projected population growth and changing diets. Last month, a University of Minnesota study upped the agricultural ante; it warned that the world's demand for food will likely double by 2050. Population and consumption, according to their calculations, are rising faster than previously projected.

The report noted that absent a major shift in agriculture production methods, the increased agricultural output needed to satisfy that demand will lead to increased deforestation and use of fertilizers with correspondingly "major environmental impacts" on "species extinctions, loss of ecosystem services, elevated atmospheric GHG levels, and water pollution." If current levels of land clearing continue, "more than 2.5 billion acres of land would be cleared by 2050, an area the size of the United States."

Last month, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, a high-level international taskforce established by Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) issued a similar warning, declaring:

"Business as usual in our globally interconnected food system will not bring us food security and environmental sustainability. Several converging threats -- from climate change, population growth and unsustainable use of resources -- are steadily intensifying pressure on humanity and world governments to transform the way food is produced, distributed and consumed."

Similarly dire forecasts are being issued with respect to our water and energy needs, the state of the oceans, and the loss of biodiversity. Despite all the international agreements, conventions, and pronouncements on these, and other global challenges, our inaction speaks much louder than our words.

We are, for the moment, locked-in to a course that is almost certainly unsustainable. When we hit the proverbial wall is anyone's guess. It could be in a decade, maybe three or four decades, but the wall is there.

Our best hope, and it's an increasingly slim one, is that the "global body politic," if such an entity really exists, can be spurred to action on climate change and other challenges before it's too late.

In the meantime, the U.S. and other donor nations should be doing more to help developing countries build the resilience that they need to adapt to climate change. But even on that front, very little action is occurring. With only hours left to go at the climate conference in Durban, the delegates are still scrambling to agree upon a basic framework for the $100 billion Green Climate Fund that is to be set up to help developing nations adapt to climate change. Little or no progress is expected on the actual pledges needed to finance the fund.

There is no cure or effective treatment for the neurological version of "locked-in syndrome." Whether there is a cure for the political equivalent remains to be seen, but if the Durban climate change conference is any indication, the prognosis is not good.