Nero probably didn’t really fiddle while Rome burned; for one thing, fiddles as we know them today didn’t exist yet, and for another, historians at the time dismissed the story as a rumor. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that even a tyrant as petty and murderous as Nero would be foolish enough to watch the burning of his city-state and do nothing about it. But we Americans are.
Climate change is no longer a theoretical concept to be debated at symposiums by science nerds. It is happening right here, right now. Thirteen of the warmest years on record worldwide have happened in the past 15 years. In the U.S., 12 weather-related disasters this year have caused in excess of $1 billion in damage each, a record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although many expected the global economic downturn to slow the output of greenhouse gases, emissions actually have been accelerating at an alarming rate, growing 5.9% in 2010 — the biggest jump since 2003. The American response? Fiddling around.
The 17th annual United Nations climate conference, which aims at coming up with a successor to the Kyoto Protocol or a new international agreement, wraps up Friday in Durban, South Africa. You can be forgiven for not knowing about this, because U.S. media have largely ignored it. And not just the media. In 2009, when Democrats controlled the House and there was still some hope of passing a climate bill, more than 20 members of Congress attended the conference in Copenhagen. This year, not a single one showed up.
The U.S. position at the talks can be described as, well, nuanced. Chief climate negotiator Todd Stern says that he favors a legally binding treaty to replace Kyoto (which the U.S. Senate never ratified), but only if it holds developing nations such as China and India to the same mandatory standards as industrialized countries such as the U.S. Yet he acknowledges that those nations will never go along with such a deal, so countries should just make voluntary pledges to cut emissions and hold themselves accountable. In other words: “I will now perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Does anybody else smell smoke?”
The voluntary approach isn’t getting us far. At last year’s climate conference in Cancun, the world agreed to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial norm. Yet that goal can’t be met under the current global pledges of voluntary reductions, leading to predictions of up to 4 degrees of warming by the end of the century. That would mean catastrophic sea-level rise, drought, famine and weather-related carnage. Fortunately, we’ll all be dead by then. But our progeny will not thank us.