Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I am pessimistic about Copenhagen

There is a great deal in the media about the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 which will meet in Copenhagen in just over two weeks. A number of people have asked me recently about my take on the matter. While I think that an international agreement of some kind is necessary to reduce global greenhouse gas levels (it won't happen simply by countries acting unilaterally on national interest), my expectations for Copenhagen are pretty low at the moment. Let me briefly outline some of my current perceptions.

• First, it is worth noting that an international treaty of this scale and complexity is a historical novelty. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but it does mean that we're in uncharted waters. I am certainly no expert on international law, but I am aware that the last decades have seen numerous innovations in this field. Yet any treaty that is developed will be something of an experiment, and one unable to be repeated.

• Second, there are deep divisions between the developed and developing world. This was quite predictable. The former have produced by far the lion's share of historical emissions and continue to be much higher per capita emitters than even the industrializing economies of China and India. And while responsibility is not equally shared, neither are consequences. The current effects of climate change are being felt most keenly in developing nations (perhaps Australia will be (or is) the first developed nation to be seriously affected through water shortages during more frequent and severe droughts). These divisions were visible at Kyoto and were part of the reason for the failure of that effort (when the US and other developed nations (e.g. Australia) refused to ratify the agreement that their own negotiators had reached. Despite ten more years of negotiation and massive progress in climate science, these deep divisions remain and were evident in the African bloc of 50 nations boycotting part of the most recent pre-Copenhagen negotiations in Barcelona. They did this due to a perception that the developed world was not really serious about making significant changes.

•Third, there are particular political difficulties associated with the United States. The US has been historically the largest greenhouse gas emitter and continues to be so if consumption of products made elsewhere is included (about a quarter of China's carbon footprint derives from the creation of products for Western markets). And yet for eight years during the Bush administration, it did all it could to stand in the way of any international progress on the issue, refusing to ratify Kyoto and suppressing the warnings of its own agencies. The Obama change-we-could-believe-in has revealed that the US Congress has little faith. There is basically zero chance of any US climate legislation being passed prior to Copenhagen and even when Congress does get around to addressing it, the issue has become increasingly partisan.* The significant Democrat majority in Congress provides no guarantees for Obama's agenda, as demonstrated in the heath care debate. The US is not the only nation to have internal political divisions over the issue, but some of the quirks of the US system ensure that legislation will have particular difficulty in being passed.
*It is quite refreshing to see that it is much less so here in the UK, where the Conservatives are in full support of Gordon Brown's aggressive stance and promising to not make this an election issue (which may be a political move to neutralise a perceived Labour advantage; the actual determination of a (likely) Cameron government to make this a high-priority issue remains to be seen). It is also quite partisan in Australia.

• Fourth, public opinion about climate change remains in some degree of flux (with the numbers who view it as a serious threat declining in at least the US, Australia and the UK). While elected representatives ought to make their own judgements based on wisdom and available evidence, rather than simply seeing which way the wind is blowing), it only seems to be increasingly true that too many politicians follow rather than lead public opinion. And public opinion in some countries seems to have shifted away from seeing climate change as a real and present danger for various reasons. First, the economic downturn is an immediate distraction from a long-term problem like climate change, and provides a convenient excuse for inaction until economic conditions are better. Second, there is a growing and highly successful misinformation campaign of climate change denial that is muddying the waters with outdated, pseudo-scientific and de-bunked claims (and not just about climatology). This is not to say that there are not plenty of bogus claims made by those who see climate change as a serious issue, but the noise-to-signal ratio on each side is not even close to being equivalent. Of course there is a difference between genuine scepticism and denialism. And of course we ought to weigh important claims that made upon our lives and are right to take most things reported by the media with a grain (or five) of salt. However, Andrew Cameron puts it well when he says, “Too little scepticism is gullible, but there comes a time when too much scepticism is a crippling disconnection from reality.” I intend to write more on this at some stage soon.

As crippling as these four point are, none is entirely insurmountable. Together, they combine to mean that negotiations at Copenhagen are unlikely to reach a binding treaty. Indeed, as a result of these and other obstacles, President Obama has recently stated the increasingly obvious: that Copenhagen will not deliver a legally binding deal. Despite all the momentum and build-up, the talks will now become just another stepping stone rather than a finish-line for climate negotiations. Will this matter? Is a bad deal worse than no deal? Will this cripple the possibility of a treaty or just delay it? All that remains to be seen.

However, I have three more reasons for remaining pessimistic that would still be true even if a miraculous 11th hour deal is reached in Copenhagen.

• Fifth, even the most ambitious targets on the table may well be too modest. There is currently around 387 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The pre-industrial level was about 275 ppm. Twenty years ago, when the issue started to gain more widespread attention, 550 ppm was seen as an upper limit, but this was basically just a doubling of 275 and was not based on much evidence. The general consensus is currently to try to limit average warming to 2ºC (though even this would have significant negative effects) and most of the recent efforts have focused on stabilizing CO2 levels at 450 ppm as a means towards this (though it is difficult to be precise, it seems 450 ppm only gives about a 50% chance of staying below 2ºC warming). This is what is on the table at Copenhagen. Stabilizing levels at 450 ppm will be extremely difficult and will require massive shifts in economic patterns and expectations. The model proposed by Nicholas Stern in his Stern Report included "overshooting" 450 ppm to peak at 550 and come back down from there. However, more recent studies suggest that even 450 ppm may well lead to runaway warming as feedback effects gain pace and a number of scientists are now calling for a goal of 350 ppm.

• Sixth, I am not currently persuaded that the cap-and-trade market based system proposed as the mechanism driving emission reductions will actually work to reduce CO2 levels. From my limited understanding, a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be better and could also be the subject of international agreements. Solving ecological issues through extending the reach of market logic into more spheres of life seems a little like trying to put out a fire by pouring oil on it.

• Seventh, even if politicians fashion a binding agreement (whether in Copenhagen or some time next year) for 450 ppm, we are very unlikely to get there. The required changes are enormous, the momentum behind business as usual is too large. The economic assumptions of centuries (though note that they only arose during the period of modern industrialization) are too deeply entrenched. No leader is talking about anything other than economic growth as their primary goal. No leader is being honest about the fact that stabilizing levels at even 450 ppm would require massive changes on a scale similar to those experienced in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union (the only example in recent history of a nation dropping its emissions at anything like the rate required). Of course, that was (a) unplanned, (b) lasted only a few years rather than decades, and (c) was still not fast enough.

In summary, the Copenhagen conference is an attempt to reach a novel international agreement in a short time frame despite deep political divisions between and within nations and lagging public support, an agreement which may well be too little, too late, using the wrong mechanism and obscuring the true size of the challenge. So call me an optimist.

Nonetheless, politics is the art of the possible and I do not see the conference as either hopeless or useless. Nor, despite my pessimism, do I believe that such pessimism is self-fulfilling. But these points will have to wait for another day since this post is already way too long.


gbroughto said...

A long post, and a tad depressing too! What strikes me in your analysis is our (my) propensity to delay action, procrastinate over all kinds of issues (last year's tax return is now officially late - again - even though as a full-time student for the last 12 months it will ridiculously easy to complete...).

What eventually prods me into action on the things I stall on? I'm not sure there is a single answer, but something along the lines of "I can't get away with putting it off any longer / the consequences of further delay will begin to have an immediate and negative impact upon me" probably covers most of the answers that come to mind.

That propensity within myself, extrapolated across the planet to those who could be making real and significant changes, is the source of my own pessimism about climate change generally.

So I wonder how many of us there are who have climate change in the "convinced to act, but not perceived as urgent enough yet" basket (that is already pretty full with the tax return, losing some weight / lowering cholestrol, re-writing that chapter for my thesis that I wrote 12 months ago, fixing the gate to the rear lane...).

Sorry, didn't meant to turn this into "confessions of a procrastinator" - but it seems relevant to the issue at hand...

Anonymous said...

Great article, this link may interest you and your readers regarding this summit. Worth a listen...

Great blog site by ther way,


byron smith said...

Geoff - I think your analysis (and confession) of procrastination is spot on. The problem with this problem is that the problems we cause are easy to procrastinate over because they are not (yet) very personal for us.

Dave - why do you find that interesting? Monckton is off the planet and his claims were given a "pants on fire" rating by PolitiFact. Other than that, Alan Jones quotes an interesting article by Peter Hartcher in the SMH about how Rudd has used very little political capital to push the need for action on climate change, preferring to stand back and let the opposition self-destruct, basically putting politics ahead of national interest.

byron smith said...

PS Are you a Dave that I know personally?

byron smith said...

PPS Still listening to Jones and trying to keep my blood pressure down. Nicholas Stern is "not a climate scientist"? Of course he isn't, that's why he was writing an economics paper! Monckton is not a scientist and yet he refers in this interview to papers he has published on the science of climate change! BTW the MIT paper he refers to has been thoroughly discredited.

byron smith said...

Guardian: David King abandons Kyoto and argues for a new system based on a per capita emissions standard of two tonnes per capita by 2050. This is basically (if I understand it), a call for contraction and convergence, an approach with a very broad backing by a wide range of serious commentators, including many church groups.

The main debate here seems to be between those who think that Kyoto represents the only game in town, whose abandonment would mean effectively giving up on what has already been achieved (which is admittedly modest in many ways) and those who think that it is better to start something that will actually lead to emissions reductions and increasingly try to strengthen it and bring more nations on board.