Monday, December 21, 2009

There Is Now No Clear Path to Preventing Catastrophic Climate Change

With the Copenhagen climate meeting ending with the UN taking “note” of the Copenhagen Accord agreed to by the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa the belief that a UN agreement signed in 1992 would lead to the world taking steps to prevent catastrophic climate change has been proven to be an illusion. Instead of the world trying to solve the global warming problem we are left with a blame game for who is to blame for the failure. The environmental organization Friends of the Earth is blaming the rich countries. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of the UK, a rich country, is blaming China and some other developing countries. And so forth. The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by all developed countries except the US was supposed to be the first step toward stopping global warming and the meeting in Copenhagen was supposed to be where the details of the second step would be agreed on. Well, it looks like there is no second step. Apparently the billions of people in the world will be left to face the consequences of the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere not to mention the acidification of the oceans that threatens to wipe out marine life. So far Barack Obama hasn’t given us any indication that he can step in and stop this hurtling toward self-destruction. Up against the powerful fossil fuel industry, a public that largely doesn’t want to pay more for electricity no matter what the long-term consequences, coal miners and many others who depend on the coal mining industry for their jobs, and a Republican party that just seems to say no to any call for change by the Democrats, what can Obama really do? Probably he should have spoken out more about this problem, but would that really have helped? I guess we better get ready to pass some climate tipping points. This is not going to be pretty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen Accord Provides Hope of Avoiding 5°C to 6°C by 2100

It is hard for climate scientists to find any good news in the Copenhagen Accord that was hammered out at the climate meeting that just ended but Andrew Waston from the University of East Anglia in Britain told the French news agency AFP that “At least it may signal that there is some willingness to take action, so that we might have a hope of limiting the rise to 3.0°C to 4.0°C and avoid the really unknown territory that lies beyond.” That unknown territory seems to be where we are heading by the end of this century according to some recent scientific studies. So if the bar is set low enough maybe the meeting wasn’t a failure after all. For all the talk at the meeting about staying below a 2.0°C or 1.5°C rise in global temperature above preindustrial levels it seemed none of the big polluters really cared about those targets at all. Based on their pledges to lower emissions or lower the rate of increase in emissions, staying below 5.0°C seemed good enough although that was never uttered in public. So perhaps the only positive legacy of the Copenhagen meeting will be getting us on track to avoid 5.0°C. That’s probably about as low as the bar can be lowered.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Can Obama Save the Climate Summit?

It is hard to believe that anybody can save the Copenhagen climate summit as the final two days for negotiating approach but British environmentalist and columnist George Monbiot thinks Obama can do it. In his column in The Guardian Monbiot writes that “Because of the size and weight of the United States, and the moral power invested in the current president, it is Barack Obama, and Barack Obama alone, who can rescue the climate negotiations from dismal bickering into which they have slumped.” I doubt if very many Americans believe Obama can save the day. After all, whatever he proposes has to be approved by the US Congress. How is that for an unmovable obstacle? Here is what Monbiot says Obama should say in his upcoming speech: "I hereby commit the United States to cutting greenhouse gases by 50% against our 1990 levels by 2020. I commit to this cut regardless of what other nations might do, but I urge you to compete with me to exceed it. We should be striving to outbid each other, not to undercut each other.” Congress is having trouble passing a bill with target as low as about 5% below 1990 levels. What Republican or Blue Dog Democrat would vote for 50% below? Monbiot says Obama should end his speech by saying "I have no illusions about the resistance these proposals will encounter. This will be the political battle of my life. But I know it is a battle worth fighting. If I duck it, future generations will never forgive me, just as they will not forgive anyone in this room for failing to rise to our greatest challenge. This is the battle we owe to our children and to their children. This is the time to do not what is expedient, but what is right." Last I heard Obama is hoping to get something passed on health care reform very soon and then take on financial regulatory reform and job creation next year. Where would he have time for waging this fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? At this point it doesn’t appear that President Obama or anyone else on the planet can save this meeting from tanking.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Keeping Global Temperature Rise Below 1.5°C Is Almost Impossible

When it comes to global warming there is little that the countries of the world seem to agree upon except perhaps that the rise in global temperature should be kept below 2°C (3.6°F). But now even that point of consensus has been shattered by a proposal at the climate meeting in Copenhagen by small island nations and poor African countries that the rise in temperature should be kept below 1.5°C. But according to climate science is that even possible? In a report from the BBC, the head of climate science at the UK’s Met Office, Vicky Pope, says "There's no way you'd get a 50% chance of avoiding 1.5°C…If you reduced everything to zero immediately you'd still get about 1.3°C because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere." She noted that policies to ensure a reasonable chance of remaining under 1.5°C would involve "negative emissions" - sucking CO2 out of the air. So why are so many countries and climate activists embracing what seems to be virtually an impossible goal? Perhaps it is a symbolic way at making a statement that the richer countries are not doing enough. Or perhaps it is an act of desperation since anything approaching a rise in temperature of 2°C would probably lead to a sea level rise that would obliterate many of the small island countries and cause climate change in Africa that would be devastating.

What should the goal be? The 2°C target would expose us to a high risk of catastrophic climate change but while extremely difficult to meet according to the experts it remains realistically possible whereas the 1.5°C target would reduce the risks of catastrophic climate change but is apparently an unrealistic goal. Having postponed real action on this issue for two decades the world is left with no good choices.