Realism and risk: waiting for the bus

By Bryan Walker 02/09/2012

Climate Change Minister Tim Groser gave a substantial and intelligently argued speech recently to an informal meeting in Auckland of international climate negotiators met to discuss the  way forward to a new agreement in 2020. Groser makes the case for political realism in climate negotiation. He records his sense after attending a COP conference at Poznam a year before Copenhagen that the negotiation was not on track and that if more reality did not prevail Copenhagen might be a train wreck. It was, and he says that it was only some superb political leadership by the Mexican hosts at Cancun which got the UNFCCC process back on the tracks. “My conclusion is simple: negotiating scenarios which are developed without any political realism behind them cause great and unhelpful friction.”

The claim to political realism is always difficult to argue against, particularly with someone who has spent literally decades in difficult international trade negotiations, as Groser has. But those of us who aren’t negotiators or politicians can’t allow the question to be arbitrated only by those who are.

To be fair to Groser he doesn’t push political realism to the point of helplessness in addressing the problem:

“Our objective must be to aim for a high quality comprehensive agreement that actually deals with the problem of global emissions, not finds a political fix to a diplomatic problem.”

“Fresh thinking is possible.”

“As we look towards the task of delivering a long-term comprehensive agreement that might actually deal with global, not regional, emissions, the first order requirement is around participation. And by ‘participation’ I mean mitigation — the ultimate and agreed objective of the Convention. I am convinced this can be achieved within the framework of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

He also stresses that the eight-year transition period between now and when the new agreement is timed to come into effect should not be treated as of little consequence:

“Well, my strong view is that ‘the transition’ is not a vacuum, and the way that we all shape our actions, the way we report them, and the way we are held accountable for them — now and over the next few years — will be critical to whether we can succeed in building a new global agreement.”

To turn to his argument for political realism. At its heart is the notion that we must first get everyone on board the mitigation bus before we worry about picking up speed:

“In political language — ie, not to professional negotiators — I have often talked about the importance of ‘getting people on the bus’, rather than worrying about the speed limit. If we get more and more countries on the mitigation bus, doing what they can to drive towards a lower carbon future for their own country, we can later look at the speed limit, or pace of adjustment. The logic of this is straightforward: we are trying to get lower carbon economic strategies embedded administratively and politically. There is huge resistance to this, for a variety of reasons. Look at the debate over comprehensive carbon pricing proposals in any number of countries if you are in any doubt. It is still unsettled in many countries.”

It sounds sensible enough, but it founders because it doesn’t properly reckon with the urgency now required. Groser’s reply to that objection is clumsy and overlooks not a political reality but a scientific reality:

“I know the counter-argument. It starts by taking the most extreme of the IPCC scenarios of future climate change and arguing that ‘nothing less’ than immediate and drastic action will suffice.”

It’s significant that he goes on to make a slight acknowledgment that the scenario issue may be a little more complicated than that, while at the same time affirming that even if it is, the political reality is not affected and that “later” is the time to consider a more serious economic response.

“What I know is that there is a range of scientific views about the time dimension of the risk and which scenario is the more probable. But the one thing that will absolutely guarantee failure to develop a meaningful response to this global challenge is if we do not get most of the large emitters, plus a large number of small emitters like New Zealand who are absolutely prepared to join in genuine collective action, on board the mitigation bus. It is a global problem; only global action or something close to it, can work.

“Further, at this stage in the evolution of a global response, you are more likely to persuade countries, where climate change policies are very immature, to get on board the bus if they can persuade their political masters that the commitments are realistic and doable. Later, when lower carbon strategies are more deeply embedded, then we need to return to the matter to the pace of adjustment and the development of a global carbon price.”

That is too complacent about the level of risk. Groser’s use of the word “extreme” in relation to some scenarios carries the suggestion of exaggeration, of pushing something further than is necessary. As I understand the projections of climate science, though they cover a range of possibilities none of them are fanciful and it is not safe to dismiss any of them on the grounds that they must be extreme. As George Monbiot wrote in in his column on the same day that I read Groser’s speech:

“As I’ve warned repeatedly, but to little effect, the IPCC’s assessments tend to be conservative. This is unsurprising when you see how many people have to approve them before they are published.”

Groser’s appeal to political realism needs to far more disturbed than it appears to be by the magnitude of the threat that climate change is already disclosing. His wide experience of international negotiations is not as relevant as he appears to think.  Monbiot again:

“There are no comparisons to be made. This is not like war or plague or a stockmarket crash. We are ill-equipped, historically and psychologically, to understand it, which is one of the reasons why so many refuse to accept that it is happening.

“What we are seeing, here and now, is the transformation of the atmospheric physics of this planet. Three weeks before the likely minimum, the melting of Arctic sea ice has already broken the record set in 2007. The daily rate of loss is now 50% higher than it was that year.”

Or from our own climate scientist James Renwick, who describes the break-up of Arctic sea ice as “just jaw-dropping”:

“This event unfolding in the Arctic Ocean right now should be a wake-up call to governments world-wide, that climate change is a serious threat, and it is not distant menace, it is on our doorstep today.”

Groser’s claims about political realism do not seem to have been exposed to the full impact of scientific realism. He does not say that human society is in grave danger. I have not heard that from any government Minister. Maybe the political realities will remain problematic even when that is said, but we would have more confidence in our negotiators if we knew that our government was fully cognisant of what climate change is threatening.  We would also expect such cognisance to put a dampener on the government enthusiasm for an increase in fossil fuel exploration and mining which sits very ill with the claim that we are attempting to persuade others to get on the mitigation bus.

In the eight years before the new international agreement we should not just be sitting on the bus waiting for it to fill up with passengers. We should be acting vigorously on our own account with serious mitigation measures because we understand the great danger of climate change.

[The Hollies]