A thread of hope

By Bryan Walker 02/12/2009

The following column was published in the Waikato Times on 1st December

Do we lament that the Copenhagen Conference is evidently not going to produce a binding global deal to tackle climate change?  Or can we take comfort from the likelihood that it will produce an agreement in principle and proceed to further legal negotiations with a deadline for their conclusion?  In other words a delay, not a failure.

The cruel reality is that President Obama, who needs no convincing as to the seriousness of the challenge, has not yet seen legislation from the Senate which will seal a US commitment to emissions reduction. It seems likely that he will see it, but not before Copenhagen and therefore not in time for the US to yet be fully confident of what it can offer to the global deal.

When one considers how for the eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration the US acted as an anti-scientific spoiler of international negotiations it may be understandable that less than a year later they are not yet quite ready for what they so long delayed. The complicated American system of government is not easily harnessed to the change of direction. The President has to carry Congress with him.

To counter disappointment it may be worth remembering the political progress that is apparent. The science of climate change is now overwhelming and widely accepted by world political leaders. They know that emissions of greenhouse gases by human agency must start to lessen almost immediately, drop substantially within the next decade, and continue to fall heavily as the century proceeds. If this doesn’t happen, the prospect for humanity is dire.  Obama, Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel, and many others say as much. Even Medvedev has recently sounded the alarm after years in which Russia seemed lukewarm on the issue.

And this has happened in spite of the organised forces of denial which continue to work feverishly on public perception to blunt the impact the science ought to have. We still see letters to the editor and opinion pieces claiming that temperature is going down, not up, that thousands of scientists disagree with their colleagues, that any changes are just naturally occurring variations, and so on.  None of it true, but well packaged and unceasing.

However although it has helped delay effective action for many years since it was first launched by vested corporate interests, denial of the science is no longer entertained by educated political leadership. That’s progress. 

Of course it’s worth nothing if not translated into effective remedial measures. Politicians are notorious evaders but on a matter now accepted to be of such serious consequence there are surely enough among them who will push for adequate action. Copenhagen may not be the time when it is all stitched up, but legal agreements not too long afterwards would be acceptable.

The November meeting between President Obama and President Hu Jintao in China was encouraging.  These two powers are central to a global deal.  Without them it will not work. They are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.  The fact that they are now talking and working together on the issue is of great significance.  Their meeting announced unexpected bi-lateral agreement on a variety of areas of practical cooperation including clean energy research, electric vehicles, an energy efficiency action plan, and a number of other quite specific matters. This is beyond sterile arguments about the respective responsibilities of developed and developing countries.  It’s affirmative joint action. 

Their statement on the Copenhagen Conference was similarly positive, and carried no suggestion of drawing back from the task of finding a common legal agreement. 

I don’t think we should surrender hope yet.