Two cannot be the only number to fight climate change

The world’s largest carbon emitters, meeting at the tail end of the, er, rather tumultuous G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, look like they’re going to take an unfortunate step backward (or at best sideways) in the rapidly dwindling months before global climate negotiations in Copenhagen begin in December. The promises of these countries have gone from, a year ago, a pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 — albeit passing over the very relevant detail of specifying 50% of levels from which year, 1990 or 2005 — to an agreement to drop all numbers whatsoever from this year’s text.

Instead of set targets, the 17-nations in the forum, which is chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama, will acknowledge the “broad scientific view” that global warming must not be allowed to exceed two degrees centigrade, these officials said.

Ignore the scare quotes — they are de rigueur for the Wall Street Journal. If global temperatures increase two degrees centigrade, we are beyond serious trouble. The point of these summits is to figure out how to ensure that from happening, and dodging the tough question of what targets to set does not help solve that problem in the least.

The blame here, of course, is diffuse. Developing countries like India and China don’t want to commit to stringent reductions just when their economies are booming, and poor countries are worried they won’t be able to afford the new technologies that such adaptation will necessitate. I’m going to have to pin good deal of blame on countries like the United States and Japan, though, which have more or less conceded that they are not going to be able to even try to hit the more ambitious targets. Candor is appreciated, but I fail to see how lowering the numbers — let alone leaving them out entirely — will spur developed economies to bring about the admittedly costly changes of ensuring that the planet doesn’t boil over.