Friday, November 30, 2012


The State of Climate Change at COP-18

Every year at this time I post on the state of the world's response to climate change. This began in 2009 with Copenhagen, which was a watershed moment for international cooperation on getting a grip. That was COP-15, the fifteenth Conference of Parties. Now we are at COP-18. How many times does it take for the climate bullies of the world to get a grip, to cop to the woolly mammoth in the room?

Watershed moment indeed. It has passed, the geopolitical energy peaked. At Copenhagen, the truth-sayers were not allowed inside the party (with a couple of eloquent exceptions – a fifteen year old Canadian girl looking the bureaucrats in the eye and speaking simple, plaintive truth; a weeping elder chief from drought-ridden Africa, testifying to the end of his culture). This has been the case ever since, with the UNFCC becoming an annual occasion for diplomatic doublespeak while global NGO's mass outside the official hall proclaiming the shame of it all. As Clive Hamilton put it in Requiem for a Species, Copenhagen was the moment when we may have lost our “last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss.”

The reports from climate scientists are bleak, getting worse all the time. CO2 emissions are growing, not abating. Mitigation targets from Kyoto were mostly missed, and Canada has recently accelerated its dreadful backward slide by publicly withdrawing its commitment to the protocol. Even as the tar sands await their route to the sea, the boreal forest is dying from drought and the infestation of mutating beetles, imperiling one of the planet's major carbon sinks. Worse, what I feared years ago, because it was so obvious a threat, but had never been included in official calculations on the rate of warming, has begun in earnest the last two or three years, namely the thawing of the Arctic tundra. The permafrost contains amounts of methane with CO2 equivalents that dwarf the amount of increased emissions we are currently experiencing. Already, 44 million tons a year (out of 400 billion tons) are leaking into the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions of 29 million cars.

Climate Denial. Though the effort by the infamous Koch brothers to debunk the global consensus of climate scientists by funding a study led by Berkeley physicist and McArthur fellow Richard Muller ended up backfiring (he found data even worse than the published results of the IPCC), convincing a hireling denier to change his position, the denial industry still holds the upper hand. They made it politically inexpedient to mention climate change during the Presidential campaign, and recently vigorously debunked findings by Iowa's 130 climate scientists that the protracted, crippling Midwest drought is fueled by climate weirding.

With COP 18 negotiations underway in Doha Qatar, the chair, Christine Figuera, has bravely pointed to slow, steady progress, while acknowledging that we have much more to do. Frankly, other than a few isolated countries (and states like California, Hawaii, Vermont, and Iowa), there is very little progress indeed. Though I fervently backed an international agreement in 2009, and renewed that call in subsequent years, I no longer see meaningful progress towards this kind of solution. As I wrote last month, a series of “clubs” - bilateral, small groups of nations, etc, modeled on trade agreements between sovereigns - might be able to achieve piecemeal what we have not been able to do wholesale through an international agreement. And if some of the big players, especially the US and China, would enter into agreements to reduce emissions, then significant progress could be possible. The argument runs that carbon emissions partners need to have similar goals and strategies. On the face of it, the US and China are in competition more than partnership. Why not turn that competition into something the whole planet can benefit from?

But if we pull back from a binding international agreement (the stated goal is to have a successor to Kyoto signed by 2015), it is critically important that any shift towards a new strategy be carefully signaled to provide a continuum of hope. Any hope attached to the present charade is dishonest, false hope. There are no signs that anything serious is afoot at Doha. It is time to shift strategies, putting Plan B into place. I don't know what the US strategy is for the current round of meetings, but something needs to be in place by the time the next UNFCC meeting is scheduled to occur a year from now. In the interim, instead of trying to get all UN states to agree, negotiations could go on among trading blocks and trading pairs, with the space for international activity next Advent filled instead by final negotiations of these treaties. First World peoples could issue manifestos, and rich nations could work more honestly on aid to countries at most immediate risk from climate destabilization.

In other words, all the things that we have come to expect from these gatherings would continue, but most of the energy towards negotiating economic changes to reduce carbon by the big players could be constructively spent in bilateral talks. If a few significant ones were signed, then we would have cause for some honest hope for a change. At that point the UNFCC wonks could crunch the numbers resulting from climate club treaties, and the ever-receding goal of holding temperature rise to 2 degrees C could be replaced by something more realistic.

Are bilateral climate treaties possible, even thinkable, in the current political atmosphere? There is progress outside the conference hall in Doha, mainly in China and Australia. Autralia has initiated a carbon tax, and China is giving it serious thought, as both James Hansen and Al Gore report. As Gore points out, things go on under the radar and may be ready to break out. Like many of us, he argues for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. If the new leadership in China moves boldly, then they might join Australia in instituting one. France under Hollande may achieve what it could not along these lines under Sarkozy. And the suicidal reign of ultra-conservatives in the US Congress might, just might, give way to climate realism. Let us continue to work for this improbable goal, and pray that this Advent covers the seeds of a climate change awakening in our recalcitrant nation.

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