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Already Old News: Copenhagen

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:04 AM GMT on January 07, 2010

Already Old News: Copenhagen

Something of an unexpected blogging hiatus started with that blizzard. This is my comeback.

This is my look back at the Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. Having written a whole bunch of blogs before and during the meeting, fortunately or unfortunately, I have stuff to look back on. I can even cherry pick my own words. So I made a political prediction“well, I imagine that the machinations of legislation and lobbying will push climate change legislation close enough to the mid-term election that it will languish next to health care and Afghanistan and the economy. I think that there will be climate legislation, but I bet that it will be early in year 4 of the Obama administration, with it’s passage dependent on what Obama’s re-election looks like.”

We have had the Copenhagen Bubble. There was all of the press and political buildup and, now, about a month later, it’s hard to find much about Copenhagen and climate change in the news. The conference has been declared both a success and a failure. In fact, the same outcome, a nonbinding “accord,” might be a success or a failure depending on your point of view. If you are an advocacy group looking to somehow limit the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to, say, 350 ppm, the meeting started and ended as abject failure. If you are China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, then the meeting is a success.

I am personally disappointed in the tangible results of the meeting. In one big way, I feel there was a step backwards, and that is with regard to trees - more on trees later. The political lay of the land is that the European Union and Japan have been aggressively trying to address climate change. The United States, an essential player, has on the Presidential level been from one extreme to the other, and the political realities are such that my statement above looks rosy. China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, large, important, and economically growing countries, see global warming is less of a priority than economic growth. (The same can be said about the United States as well, perhaps, in reality, also, the European Union and Japan.) All will address climate change through technological development, as well as grow with the use of fossil fuels. There is a set of islands nations, which as one of my colleagues is prone to say at all possible moments, “the islands are sinking.” (OK, they’re not really sinking, they are flooding.) But these island nations and much of the rest of the world are poor, and they are not very powerful.

I don’t see that the U.S. will make changes to start on a path of significant reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. I do think that the U.S. will elevate climate change to a role that is more important in the Federal Agencies, but as far as strategies that reach across the economy to lead to actual reductions, there is no visible path towards reduction. Without the U.S., it will be difficult for the European Union and Japan to maintain their positions – the global economics are just too strong. Hence, the prospect of an effective, global approach to address greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the next 5, maybe, 10 years is close to zero probability.

In the U.S., there will be continued pressure from local governments and advocacy groups to address climate change and energy security. I expect that some of the local initiatives will flourish and some will fade away. As is, perhaps, traditional in the U.S. these local initiatives will create an environment of heterogeneous regulation and commerce, and there will be demand for the level playing field of federal policy. If there is to be growing concern in the U.S. about global warming, then it will drop to “the people.” If companies and advocacy groups, which brand themselves with climate change, are rewarded with our dollars then that will make a big difference. If people who “believe” that we need to address climate change vote and buy with that belief as a priority, then that will make a big difference.

Global warming steps back to a problem of the greater good, which is, in our world, a relatively weak position.

Pundits, politicians, and even dumb scientists like me figured out that nothing big was going to come out of Copenhagen. The success that can be counted is that there really was very little disagreement about whether or not the Earth was warming due to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. There were a couple of countries here and there on the science, for a day or two, but they were so marginalized that they were irrelevant. This success is carried a small step forward because with the acceptance of global warming as a reality, everyone agrees that something needs to be done. And there is a lot being done – but it remains voluntary and, largely, at the vagaries of economic and business viability.

My disappointment is that more was not brought forward about doing the smart things that matter in the short term. A still outstanding example of those smart things are summarized in Pacala and Socolow’s (see here) body of work that talk about a portfolio of paths that, using existing technology, can substantively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Again, there is not a policy effort to promote these short-term, smart paths towards stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and sustainability in general.

The only presence of nuclear power that I saw in Copenhagen, were statements that nuclear power was a bad thing. I think there is copious evidence to the contrary, and I recognize a whole set of ancillary issues. Most surprising to me was what seemed to be the collapse of efforts to provide valuation of the carbon dioxide in standing forests. Prior to the conference, the effort called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) was one of the most lively and exciting parts of the solution space being discussed (see here). While I think that the role of trees to remove carbon dioxide is limited, if all of the carbon that is in trees is released it will greatly increase emissions. Avoided deforestation is important. The position that seemed to have evolved from the meeting almost invited people to cut down the forests before there is regulation. (Did I read this wrong?)

So what is there going forward? The United Nations approach to develop something that looks like consensus policy is not a fast track forward. There is a subset of about 20 nations that account for the vast majority of emissions. It is possible that these nations can come to some sort of agreement that will matter. To me, there looks like some room for these countries to move forward, but I don’t see anyway to avoid 500 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. ("Pre-industrial" carbon dioxide about 280 ppm, currently about 390 ppm.) The accord called to set a 2 degree maximum of the global average warming of the surface, which is a very fuzzy target, and again, I don’t see how we can possibly avoid 2 degrees.

I expect that we will see continued warming of the planet. As there are record storms and record insurance claims, the need to address global warming will become more and more demanded. With or without global warming, there will be societal disruptions; they are a fact of life. Inattention to global warming will increase the disruptions. Some will adapt, some will not. We stand to waste the opportunities offered to us by our ability to observe, simulate, and project the physical climate system. The success or failure of Copenhagen will depend on what really happens in the next 12 months; the jury is not, yet, in. It is always after the bubble bursts that the real work starts – when the cause has lost its fashion.


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