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The long history of hot air and inaction Bryan Walker Oct 13

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In a comment on Tom Bennion’s recent post on the water crisis in Tuvalu and Tokelau Gareth drew attention to an article in the Economist which sounded similar themes. Small island states are well aware of the danger in which they stand and of how grudging any help is likely to prove:

Australia has turned down Tuvalu’s request for an emergency migration programme that would resettle the islanders. Even a €90m ($119m) aid package to tackle regional climate change pledged earlier this year by the European Union has done little to tamp down its fears.

The leaders of countries as far afield as Barbados and Grenada joined Tuvalu in raising the alarm over the issue in a series of impassioned speeches to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, laid the blame for the current debacle squarely at the feet of developed economies.

He was ’baffled’ he said, ’by the intransigence of major emitters and developed nations that refuse to shoulder the burden for arresting climate changes that are linked to the excesses of their own wasteful policies.’ As it happens, the first states to experience the effects of climate change as an existential threat are among the world’s smallest, most isolated and least powerful.

What particularly caught my attention in the Economist article was a link back to a past story published in the magazine in 1997. It was revealing both of how long the island states have been anxious and of how summarily those concerns have been treated by the more powerful.

Fourteen years ago at the South Pacific Forum meeting the small island states banded together to push for a Forum position at the then forthcoming Kyoto conference. They wanted the Forum to press for a world-wide cut of 20% of 1990 emission levels by 2005, tougher even than the target of 15% proposed by the European Union by 2010. They stood no show, of course. After days of heated argument with Australian PM John Howard, with New Zealand’s PM Jim Bolger trying to steer a course down the middle, the island leaders eventually reluctantly agreed to a statement in which the forum ’recognised’ the concerns of low-lying island nations, but accepted that there should be different reduction targets for different countries. The Economist commented that this ’differentiation’ was what Australia had been pushing for.

There was little choice for the aid-dependent island nations, though that didn’t stop Tuvalu’s PM expressing his frustration with Australia: ’There was no compromise. It was just no, no, no, no, no.’

Mr Howard dismissed the islanders’ fears as ’exaggerated’ and ’apocalyptic’. Australia argues that it depends heavily on energy-intensive industries, and that binding greenhouse-gas limits would hit it unfairly. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of black coal. Other raw and semi-processed commodities figure highly in exports to Asia, its biggest market. Mr Howard claims that 90,000 jobs in Australia could be lost if it were forced to reduce its emissions.

Well, the Islanders’ fears in 1997 were not exaggerated, as is becoming all too apparent.  And this year’s meeting of the Forum saw no attempt to downplay those fears, all the more, perhaps, because of the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He had come via endangered Kiribati and said ’Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet — quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.’

The Forum called for ’an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states.’ Fourteen years ago it might as well have urged a reduction of greenhouse emissions small enough to allow business as usual to continue in Australia. However although today’s rhetoric is more on the mark there’s little evidence that it will be reflected in action.

Where did Howard get the confidence to use words like exaggerated and apocalyptic in dismissing the small island fears in 1997? It seems to have been the perceived threat to the Australian economy that gave him such boldness. No doubt it was mingled with science denial, or at least the assumption that the scientists must be overplaying the picture. And perhaps a touch of political swagger. Today’s politicians may be more circumspect in their language (or not, in the case of American Republicans), but perceived threats to the economy of developed countries still often outweigh in importance the need to address emissions reduction. Nick Smith has made it clear in New Zealand that the emissions trading scheme will not be permitted to pose any imagined threat to our major industries. In the UK the Chancellor George Osborne has recently and startlingly announced in the course of a speech to the Conservative Party conference:

Now we know that a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies. Yes, climate change is a man made disaster. Yes, we need international agreement to stop it. Yes, we must have investment in greener energy. And that’s why I gave the go ahead to the world’s first Green Investment Bank.

But Britain makes up less than 2% of the world’s carbon emissions to China and America’s 40%. We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe. That’s what I’ve insisted on in the recent carbon budget.

That’s very reminiscent of the words used by New Zealand government politicians:

It is important that New Zealand does its fair share to combat climate change, but we don’t want to jump ahead of the rest of the world.

That is why our ETS will be regularly reviewed, so we can assess our approach relative to international progress and the latest science. Our very moderate ETS is the sensible way for New Zealand to go forward.

We may not be as brash as John Howard fourteen years ago, but there’s no comfort for the small island states in the cautious approaches to emissions reduction still typical of much of the developed world. No comfort indeed for any of us who are aware of just how real the threatened impacts of climate change are.

Can Cancún’s COP deliver? Gareth Renowden Nov 30

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Another year, another Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, number 16 in a series that looks set to run and run. Mexico is the host, Cancún the seaside resort where thousands of diplomats, negotiators, activists and apparatchiks are gathering to have another go at sorting out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. High hopes for a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen last year were dashed on the rocks of US inaction, Chinese intransigence and a failure of political will. A weak but face-saving Accord was cobbled together at the last minute, but it satisfied very few — least of all those who’d like to do more than pay lip service to a 2ºC target.

By way of contrast, the build-up to Cancún has seen prospects of a final deal downplayed by just about everyone involved in the process. COP 16 will make progress on the building blocks of a Kyoto follow-up, we are told, but few expect anything substantial to happen before COP17 in Durban next year.

Nature News has a good overview of expectations:

“It’s a question of trying to get some incremental gains,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. “The approach of all-or-nothing that we took in Copenhagen blew up in our faces, and we can’t just sit back and do nothing at all.”

John Vidal in the Guardian reports on the impatience of Latin American and African nations:

“There is deep frustration among the least developed countries”, said Bruno Sikoli, the spokesman for the 54-strong group of mainly African countries. “We feel there has been far too much talking. If the rich countries put nothing new on the table, then it will be very serious. Climate change is affecting our countries hard now. It is most urgent.”

Johann Hari in The Independent takes the bleak view:

The collapse of Copenhagen has not shocked people into action; it has numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking — in theory, at least — about the legally binding cap on the world’s carbon emissions, because the world’s scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that has created and sustained human civilization. What are we talking about this year? What’s on the table at Cancun, other than sand?

Hari’s extended riff on the “great ecological crash” we’re staring in the face is well worth a read — he’s a compelling writer — and he articulates all too well the reality of the huge disconnect between the evidence piling up that we need to act fast and the complacency of the international realpolitik.

The Economist joins the chorus with perhaps the ultimate in negative perspectives. In an editorial the magazine declares:

In the wake of the Copenhagen summit, there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam. Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should. But even if it does, the world is going to go on getting warmer for some time.

The chance of hitting a 2ºC target has passed. It’s now time to focus on adapting to the inevitable:

Though they are unwilling to say it in public, the sheer improbability of such success has led many climate scientists, campaigners and policymakers to conclude that, in the words of Bob Watson, once the head of the IPCC and now the chief scientist at Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ’Two degrees is a wishful dream.’

The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change–finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed–are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun.

What’s left is planning to adapt, and The Economist does a characteristically through job of providing an overview. I’d say it was notably optimistic in the face of the climate numbers — particularly those presented in a “theme issue” of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society AFour degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications. [All the papers in the special issue are available free until Nov 30, and many beyond that date.] The Guardian does a good job of summarising the bad news:

Rachel Warren, at the University of East Anglia, described a 4C world in her research paper: “Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Warren added: “This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.”

Another Met Office study analyses how a 4C rise would differ from a 2C rise, concluding that threats to water supplies are far worse, in particular in southern Europe and north Africa, where regional temperatures would rise 6-8C. The 4C world would also see enhanced warming over most of the US, Canada and northern Asia.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), “the prognosis for agriculture and food security in a 4C world is bleak”, according Philip Thornton, of Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, who led another research team. He notes there will be an extra billion people populating Africa by 2050.

Expectations for Cancún are low, but the stakes just keep on getting bigger. The next two weeks will give us an idea which way the chips are falling. Hot Topic will once again be featuring guest posts by Oxfam NZ’s Barry Coates, who is already in Cancún, plus I’ll add comment as news catches my attention. You can also follow the NZ Youth Delegation at their blog.

For more detailed news, there’s the International Institute for Sustainable Development‘s Reporting Services’ coverage, including their Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a daily update of events. iPhone owners can even download a UNFCCC app, Negotiator, designed to keep you up to date with COP 16 news — even read conference papers. Slightly more quixotic is the Twitter newspaper The unfccc-ipcc-cop Daily at paper.li. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes…

And finally: we can expect more comedy gold as the Scaife-funded Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow is flying Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley into Mexico to bring his unique brand of, er, something or other to proceedings. He’ll even have Roy Spencer to act as his bag man… I confidently expect high jinks.

What becomes of the broken Hartwell? Gareth Renowden May 13

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Calls for a radical re-framing of policies to deal with climate change are intuitively attractive — after all, current national and international policies don’t seem to be doing much to curb rising emissions. The latest effort comes from a group of developed world academics brought together by London School of Economics professor Gwyn Prins, and takes the form of The Hartwell Paper [PDF] — a document based on discussions held in February at the English country house of the same name. It suggests ditching Kyoto and all its structures, and instead tackling climate change with policies that approach the problem more obliquely. The authors claim:

…it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore, the Paper advocates a radical reframing — an inverting — of approach: accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

Sounds reasonable enough at first reading, but my suspicions were roused when I read beyond the executive summary.

Prins et al derive the need for their new approach from what they describe as two watersheds that were crossed in late 2009: the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen to deliver on its promise of a global deal to follow Kyoto, and what they call “an accelerated erosion of public trust [in climate science] following the posting [...] of more than a 1,000 emails from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit” last November. Copenhagen clearly did not live up to expectations, and the UN-mediated policy process may well have lost impetus, but the authors go on to assert that the CRU email theft, and the subsequent press furore and investigations means that “the legitimacy of the institutions of climate policy and science are no longer assured”. That, it seems to me, is a very long bow to draw. To see the Hartwell take on the emails applauded by Steve McIntyre and that they approvingly reference Andrew (Bishop Hill) Montford’s book The Hockey Stick Illusion suggests to me that the authors are coming at the issue with their own set of preconceptions — a framing they want to impose on the issue. A look at the author list (Roger Pielke Jr, Nordhaus and Shellenburger from the US think tank The Breakthrough Institute, amongst others) hardly dispels that notion…

When they consider the underlying science, they are at pains to misrepresent what’s going on:

Climate change was brought to the attention of policy-makers by scientists. From the outset, these scientists also brought their preferred solutions to the table in US Congressional hearings and other policy forums, all bundled. The proposition that ‘science’ somehow dictated particular policy responses, encouraged — indeed instructed — those who found those particular strategies unattractive to argue about the science. So, a distinctive characteristic of the climate change debate has been of scientists claiming with the authority of their position that their results dictated particular policies; of policy makers claiming that their preferred choices were dictated by science, and both acting as if ‘science’ and ‘policy’ were simply and rigidly linked as if it were a matter of escaping from the path of an oncoming tornado.

If “the science” has been unhelpful, then this misrepresentation of the message is even more so. The basic message from “the science” is clear enough. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, and adding more is going to make life very uncomfortable — all life, not just human beings — in the not too far distant future. Did scientists really bundle this message with “particular policy responses”? Only if reducing carbon emissions can be considered a policy response — but that’s the very response Prins et al seems to want to dance around. Decarbonisation they can countenance, but not now, not quantified. They want to ignore the quantification of the size of the problem we face because it might be inconvenient:

We share the common view that it would be prudent to accelerate the historical trend of reducing the carbon intensity of our economies, which has been a by-product of innovation since the late eighteenth century. However, we do not recommend doing so by processes that injure economic growth, which we think — and the history of climate policy demonstrates — is politically impossible with informed democratic consent.

What if political impossibility is confronting the harsh impact of physical reality? The Hartwell Paper assumes that we have the luxury of time, that we can step away from the progress made over the last 20 years , and somehow recast international policy according to a wishlist of interventions that might (if we’re lucky) set us on the right path. They imply that we need not face reality now, that we should take the Capability Brown approach to a country house, up a winding path that yields carefully framed glimpses of our goal, rather than march straight towards a target defined by our understanding of physical reality.

There is some good analysis of The Hartwell Paper at the Economist (with nice Eno reference), and by Richard Black at the BBC. Both writers suggest that whatever the merit of the Paper’s recommendations, the authors cannot ignore where we are now. We may not want to start from where we are, but we have no choice. In a wider perspective, the Paper is arguing for a bottom up approach to carbon reductions, looking for the low hanging fruit — efficiencies, black carbon reduction — while the Kyoto approach is top-down, starting (with luck) from an informed appreciation of what we would do well to avoid. It seems obvious to me that we need both approaches, at a national as well as international level. Setting a 40% target for emissions reduction by 2020 is just as valid as mandating the use of low energy lightbulbs, or encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.

Prins, Pielke Jr et al prefer to ignore what we really know about the climate system and the one-way nature of the changes we’re imposing on it (who can put a species back after it’s gone, or reconstruct a coal seam?), adopting instead a high-minded but ultimately wishy-washy stew of policies that look a lot more like sticking plasters than a remedy. And, being a cynic, I can’t resist asking the cui bono question… who might benefit most from the policy mix they propose? I leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.

[Jimmy Ruffin]