But for Schmidt and some other experts, the question of the warming target is simply not as important as the attention it receives might suggest.
They’re worth listening to, because the forces driving these talks—the governments that either will or won’t take action to address global warming—feel much the same way.
Of course the amount the temperature rises (and all the changes that warming entails) matters. But the goal for that warming has less of an influence on steps nations will actually wind up taking in the years to come to combat global warming. Instead, governments respond to what’s politically, economically, and technologically feasible to do in their own countries to cut climate change.
And as world leaders do that calculus, the global temperature goal, whatever it may be, “typically doesn’t rank in the top 5 things that influence policy,” says Michael Levi, a climate and energy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “As a substantive policy matter, this distinction between 1.5 and 2 degrees in the Paris text is overblown,” Levi said.
Take sweeping new EPA regulations to slash carbon emissions from power plants. The EPA officials and bureaucrats crafting those and other rules must weigh a suite of factors, from the possible time frames for adopting replacement to coal, how state-based emissions trading systems might work, and more.
While the Obama administration plays up its domestic regulations in Paris, it’s nonetheless hard to imagine the rule finalized last summer would look any different if there were a 2-degree goal, a 1.5-degree goal, or no explicit goal at all in the U.N. climate talks.
It’s much the same abroad. Levi offers the example of China, where terrible air quality is putting domestic political pressure on the ruling communists to curb pollution from coal plants and factories and cars. “When China cuts emissions because it is trying to eliminate horrible pollution in Beijing, it doesn’t look to see whether the climate target is 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees,” Levi notes.
The dynamic boils down to a tautology worthy of the classic TV show The Wire: Countries are going to do what countries are going to do.
While many conservatives are wary of the U.N. and even cast climate initiatives as a stalking horse for global governance, the reality is quite different. No U.N. climate accord—not even the supposedly binding Kyoto Protocol that covered only developed nations—can force governments to slash carbon pollution beyond what they feel is economically, technologically, and politically viable.
That’s one reason why there’s so much emphasis in climate talks on how much wealthy nations will help speed up use of green energy sources.
So if the global temperature target isn’t binding, do these climate summits matter at all?
Of course they do. A lot. But a number of other aspects of the hoped-for U.N. accord will be far more influential in prodding nations to cut emissions.