Climate science conference in Copenhagen

2009-03-16

in Politics, Science, The environment

The recently concluded International Scientific Congress on Climate Change has released the ‘key messages’ from the conference. Somewhat truncated, they are:

  1. “Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised… There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts. “
  2. “The research community is providing much more information to support discussions on “dangerous climate change”. Recent observations show that societies are highly vulnerable to even modest levels of climate change, with poor nations and communities particularly at risk.”
  3. “Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ regardless of how it is defined.”
  4. “Climate change is having, and will have, strongly differential effects on people within and between countries and regions, on this generation and future generations, and on human societies and the natural world.”
  5. “There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches… to deal effectively with the climate change challenge.”
  6. “To achieve the societal transformation required to meet the climate change challenge, we must overcome a number of significant constraints and seize critical opportunities.”

The conference involved 2,500 delegates from nearly 80 countries, and was intended to consider scientific issues prior to the UNFCCC negotiating meeting in December. A synthesis report on the conference will be released in June.

There is still an enormous gap between what climate scientists say must be done in the near-term and what most governments have pledged to do. Hopefully, the two will converge sharply during the next year, and the UNFCCC meeting will produce a viable successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 17, 2009 at 11:36 am

Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ regardless of how it is defined.

This is interesting, because it alters the science/policy dynamic. Previously, it was argued that it was up to non-scientists to decide how much climate change is ‘dangerous’ after being informed about the likely physical consequences of different scenarios.

Once it is acknowledged that a failure to mitigate is ‘dangerous’ by any sane definition of the word, the scope for politicians and economists to ignore what scientists say must be done is arguably reduced.

. March 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Posted March 17, 2009

If you think preventing climate change is politically difficult, look at the political problems of adapting to it.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 16th March 2009.

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last week. It’s more or less what Bob Watson, the environment department’s chief scientific adviser, has been telling the British government. It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for example, suggests that even global cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of warming by the end of the century. At the moment emissions are heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues, what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Sarah March 17, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Monbiot’s argument makes sense up until the last two sentences of that article: “Yes, it might already be too late – even if we reduced emissions to zero tomorrow – to prevent more than two degrees of warming, but we cannot behave as if it is, for in doing so we make the prediction come true. Tough as this fight may be, improbable as success might seem, we cannot afford to surrender.”
So you’re saying what? Ignore the best available scientific advice about the scope of the problem lest it depress people? Base our mitigation strategies on wildly over-optimistic assertions? Privilege optimism over evidence? Or could we maybe try telling people honestly, brutally, that sacrifices will be needed in order to ensure the continued survival of out societies? Could we try proposing the scale of changes that are actually needed instead of encouraging people to change their lightbulbs but continue using electricity from coal, buying and driving cars, deforesting large areas and flying cheaply whenever they wish? I can’t see how lying to people to make them feel better will ever produce meaningful debate let alone effective policy.

Milan March 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I have a post specifically on Monbiot’s piece scheduled for tomorrow evening (March 18th).

Monbiot is definitely asking for sacrifices – the kind that would get you instantly fired as a Canadian, British, or American cabinet minister. What he is saying is that we cannot let despair about the grim reality of climate change stop us from taking action. At best, we can ensure that the consequences will be ‘severe’ rather than ‘catastrophic.’

Milan March 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Actually, Monbiot’s book is a good place to start reading about the sacrifices that could produce massive emissions reductions. He describes a strategy to reduce British emissions by a huge amount by 2030 (I will look up the exact figure when I have a chance).

Sarah March 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

What he is saying is that we cannot let despair about the grim reality of climate change stop us from taking action. At best, we can ensure that the consequences will be ’severe’ rather than ‘catastrophic.’ that might be what he meant, but that is not what he said in that article. What he said is that we should pretend that we can still expect to prevent more than 2 degrees of warming because otherwise people will despair & stop trying. What I am questionning is precisely the equivalence he posits between “2 degrees of warming is gonna happen” and “let’s give up on mitigation – we’re doomed!”

Milan March 17, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Communications strategy is one of the toughest issues relating to climate change. For instance, you could argue that political parties should be bracing people for the possibility of harsh changes in the future. For instance, warning them that within a few decades there might be high carbon taxes with no consumer refunds, harsh restrictions on air travel and private vehicles, etc.

That being said, parties that took that position would risk getting clobbered by parties that pretend the climate crisis is less urgent and severe than it is, or that technology will magically fix it.

Often, it comes down to this: how honest can you be without completely undermining your own influence?

Sarah March 17, 2009 at 8:59 pm

how honest can you be without completely undermining your own influence? I have never been able to see the point in lying about the best course of action – that way if they do listen to you (which is supposedly what you’re trying to achieve) then incorrect action will be taken based on incorrect advice. The tragic history of criminal justice policy largely consists in people over-representing the efficacy of most policies & in the process managing to overlook the things which actually do (or would if you hadn’t scrapped them) work fairly well. For the most part Monbiot gives the impression of ‘speaking truth to power’ which is partly why I find it so concerning that he now seems to be proposing we conceal the seriousness of the situation.
Of course, fear-laden subjects may be beyond many people’s capacity or willingness for rational debate & analysis, but that may not matter as long as they’re willing to mostly turn the policymaking over to people who know more.

Milan March 18, 2009 at 8:43 pm
Peter April 17, 2009 at 8:55 am

I don’t think the article is advocating ignoring data or reality. I understand the quote, “Yes, it might already be too late – even if we reduced emissions to zero tomorrow – to prevent more than two degrees of warming, but we cannot behave as if it is, for in doing so we make the prediction come true.” to mean that it might be impossible to prevent more than two degrees, or alternatively it might be possible to prevent more than two, and therefore we must try because inaction will assure that we don’t prevent any.

The blog post is going to remove the italics for emphasis added – both the “might”s are stressed. The choice of “might” in the sentence seems to reveal the lack of information, rather than presenting it as an impossibility that we should willfully ignore.

Milan April 17, 2009 at 10:26 am

The blog post is going to remove the italics for emphasis added – both the “might”s are stressed.

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