First Things First: President Barack Obama last week shifted the date he will visit the Copenhagen climate talks from Dec. 9 to Dec. 18, the last and most consequential day. Three days into the 15th U.N.-sponsored Conference of Parties, this otherwise mundane fact carries the most symbolism. Whatever happens, whatever has already been settled or is left to do, the baseline expectation is that – whatever it is – the result is unlikely to be an embarrassment to the President of the United States.
The Thanksgiving holiday and then, more locally, the flu have kept this observer reluctantly quiet during two of the most consequential weeks in “climate history,” which have seen the unauthorized release of private e-mails from climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s formal declaration of heat-trapping gases as pollutants.
Copenhagen Briefing, in Brief: COP talks tend to generate fleeting controversy and misunderstanding as negotiators engage each other. This 15th meeting is no exception. London’s Guardian reported a day after the opening ceremonies of the existence of a secret “Danish text” agreement, which would marginalize the United Nations and impose unacceptable requirements on poor nations most vulnerable to change. This is likely a souped-up version of what’s been occurring all year—punching up whatever news is out there, because there’s so little. As ExxonMobil’s Brian Flannery told Grist in the Danish capital, “I’m trying hard to understand what is happening, as I think everyone is… Because it’s very hard to know what is actually happening here.” This morning, Tuvalu walked out of the negotiations in protest over the perceived weakness of COP-15’s goals. Talks resumed in the afternoon.
What’s certain are the main issues that nations are sparring over: emissions goals and timelines; forestry; technology transfer; and adaptation. Distance among parties on emissions drove the talks toward a political agreement, rather than a treaty, weeks before talks began. That said, an upbeat news boomlet came in late November and December when the U.S. announced that it would propose 17 percent emissions reductions (below 2005 levels) in 2020 and China said it would reduced its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent in that time. Forestry may be the most promising area, even if recent studies have questioned the amount of global warming attributable to deforestation. This area of policy has advanced rapidly in the last decade, and Nicholas Institute colleagues are thought-leaders in the field. The Nicholas Institute and Nicholas School are sending a delegation of 18 people to Copenhagen. They will record their daily thoughts and observations at a new blog, Good COP/Bad COP: Visit early and often.
“Technology transfer” is a grab-bag of issues that includes everything from intellectual property protections for U.S. inventors to trade. Nations are also pairing off to help ease trade issues. The U.S. and India secured clean-tech partnerships during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit [pdf]. China and the Obama administration continue talks on these matters.
“Endangerment Is My Middle Name”: Scientists have understood that carbon dioxide traps heat since 1859. (The 150th anniversary of John Tyndall’s famous experiment was this year.) Carbon dioxide has legally been a pollutant in the U.S. since Monday, an event Tyndall couldn’t have imagined. That’s when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the agency’s final “endangerment finding,” a legal hurdle that, now overcome, enables the U.S. to regulate greenhouse gases from large cars, factories, and utilities. Colleagues’ policy study [full pdf] earlier this year found that only a small percentage of U.S. firms might be regulated under new programs.
This afternoon, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman released a new framework for the climate change legislation they expect to introduce in coming weeks. The four-page document avoids no major issue that senators will have to wrangle if they are to pass legislation next year.
What We Know. What to Do?: If ever a topical item recommended reading beyond one’s regular news and dispassionate consideration it is the release of ten years worth of University of East Anglia climate scientists’ e-mails. In mid-November an unknown hacker or hackers uploaded more than 1,000 e-mails on to a public server in Russia. A couple of dozen e-mails raise integrity questions about scientists’ discussion of a peer-reviewed journal and the public release of their data. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see the release of such a wide latent interest in paleodendrology and a great opportunity for many people to update themselves on the state of climate science.
Two of the most helpful pieces about the e-mails–quickly dubbed “climategate” by whatever computer algorithm instantaneously adds “-gate” to the end of key words in American public controversies—are Columbia University geochemist Peter Kelemen’s Popular Mechanics take and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s report.
Last night, CNN’s Larry King hosted two garden-variety conservative men and two garden-variety liberal women simulating an argument on various issues, including the UEA e-mails. The guests groped for intelligible things to say before moving on to analysis of Sarah Palin’s book tour. This segment was one of many low-points in the UEA saga, along with CNN’s titling of a new topical series, “Climate Change: Trick or Truth.”
Climate change is neither trick nor truth. It is the sum of observed changes in the Earth system, analysis of further risks, understanding of past climate behavior, and questions of ongoing research. The volume of scientific material is vast, following independent lines of evidence; the leading solutions are expensive or complicated or both; the pace and scale of predicted effects are uncertain, both physically and economically; the moral questions of international and intergenerational equity are searing. Even right now, observed changes can trip up those living through it. The reality of human-induced climate change is a different matter than the possible lapses in scientific integrity within the e-mail conversations. The University of East Anglia has launched an investigation on that matter.
Earth system science, with neuroscience and genomics, is the most exciting, influential, and complicated endeavor researchers are working on these days. And yet in a way it’s the easiest part of the larger climate change debate to tackle: What to do is proving more difficult than discovery. The robustness of scientific understanding of manmade climate change appears to have prevented policymakers from getting distracted by the procedural and integrity questions raised within the scientific community by the UEA e-mails. Here’s one quick take on “what we know”
Certain atmospheric gases, notably carbon dioxide, absorb heat, the way an antenna absorbs radio waves or eyes absorb white light. Humans are transforming underground carbon minerals, fuels, into atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing its volume by about a third in 150 years. More gas traps more energy. More energy raises global temperatures. Higher temperatures melt ice, which raises sea levels and lowers the Earth’s reflectivity (consequently admitting more energy). As oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, they become more acidic, creating a threat to many living things and ecosystems. Climate historian Spencer Weart told the New York Times: “The physics of the greenhouse effect is so basic that instead of asking whether it would happen, it makes more sense to ask what on earth could make it not happen. So far, nobody has been able to come up with anything plausible in that line.”
Scientists predict climate impacts and attribute observed changes to human actions with varying levels of confidence. The tree ring studies at the core of the UEA e-mail debate have already been picked over for a decade and are not considered front-and-center evidence for warming. The temperature studies are quite important; that’s why the raw data has been studied at two other research centers, too, with compatible results. Leading clmatologists have recommended, some forcefully, that global carbon emissions should peak in 2015.
How we respond to this information is still, and is likely to always be, a work in progress. As Obama said today at the Nobel ceremony, “There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement — all of which will fuel more conflict for decades.”