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'Peaking' into the future of climate change

A phrase coming out of the Paris conference acknowledges subtly a sense of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions.

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An activist holds a poster during a demonstration near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Thibault Camus/AP

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When I was a child, I was terrified the grown-ups would destroy our beautiful planet with nuclear weapons. Now the threat seems to be from more mundane sources: the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from our tailpipes, smokestacks, and such.

When you see this, Dear Reader, the Paris climate change conference will have concluded. We may have an early read on whether anything meaningful was accomplished.

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The conference has already been etched in my thought, though, as the occasion that solidified use of peak as a transitive verb, as in “to peak (one’s) emissions.” That is, to identify, and commit to, a time after which one’s emissions, as measured on a graph, will decline.

Thus, Chuck Hagel, former senator and secretary of Defense, wrote in Time Dec. 1: “China has made impressive commitments on climate change, committing to peak their emissions....”

A recent White House “fact sheet” said, “Beijing and Guangzhou have committed to peak their carbon dioxide emissions by the end of or around 2020.”

And The Guardian, in one report from Paris, said that the Alliance of Small Island States, whose members fear being overwhelmed by rising ocean levels, “wants countries to ‘peak’ their emissions urgently.”

Note the quotation marks around “peak.” Neither the Hagel column nor the White House document was “news” writing. But the Guardian piece was, and I have a hunch that the quotation marks around peak were there at the behest of a newsroom copy editor.

Peak is one of those short words that can work as a noun (“several peaks in the mountain range”), an adjective (“a peak accomplishment”), or a verb (“a political campaign that peaked too soon”). 

As a verb, peak is generally intransitive. But the American Heritage dictionary, for instance, lists a transitive use of peak that may be apropos here: “To bring to a maximum of development, value, or intensity.”

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And the Oxford English Dictionary has a usage example dating back to 1887: “The accumulation of the national wealth ... serves mostly to heighten and peak the great social inequalities as between the capitalist and the jobbing day labourer.”

Once upon a time, a congressman who wanted to make a fuss about something threatened, “Something’s going to happen, and I’m going to happen it!” 

The threat was also a joke. It turned on the grammatical principle that, idiomatically, one can’t “happen” something, because happen is an intransitive verb. Emissions “happen,” one might say – of their own accord? 

A transitive verb, by contrast, conveys the action of a subject upon a direct object: It conveys agency. “Sam ate the cake.” Sam acted upon the cake, and the cake is no more. To use peak transitively with reference to emissions is to acknowledge, however subtly, that they don’t just happen on their own but rather are caused – and can be controlled.

And that acknowledgment is, to my mind, a peak accomplishment.