Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"No Deal" on Climate Change

We're all Easter Islanders now.   There's another climate change summit coming up, this time in Cancun, but don't hold your breath waiting for a global agreement to combat greenhouse-gas emissions and anthropogenic global warming.  Well, if nothing else, summit delegates have had some wonderful travel opportunities - Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Bonn, Kyoto, Bali, New York, Copenhagen and now Cancun.

So where's the global agreement, the deal to cap and reduce carbon emissions to keep the world on the safe side of potential global warming tipping points?  Nowhere, that's where.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created to find a deal to stabilize carbon emissions but even the head of that organization has thrown in the towel.   In July, Costa Rican Christiana Figueres was appointed to head the UNFCCC.  But she came to the job convinced there would be no deal.

As Bloomberg reported in June,  " Figueres, 53, told reporters today in
Bonn, where the latest two-week round of talks is taking place. "I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change, certainly not in my lifetime," Figueres said. "If we ever have a final, conclusive, all-answering agreement,
then we will have solved this problem. I don't think that's in
the cards." 

Ms. Figures is banking on "incremental" action to curb carbon emissions over the next 20, 30 or 40 years at the national or regional level.  That's like a blind person trying to herd cats.

University of East Anglia climate science prof Mike Hulme writing in today's Guardian says the international approach to global warming represents a break from the past:

"..there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of "here's the consensus science, now let's make climate policy" has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: "What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?" The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can't be homogenised through appeals to science. 

Those actors who have long favoured a linear connection between climate science and climate policy – spanning environmentalists, contrarians and some scientists and politicians – have been forced to rethink. It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof."

One thing that's inescapable in Figueres' and Hulme's comments is that climate geo-engineering is no longer merely a contingency, but an imperative.  We're going to have to fall back on a mix of remediation (curbing carbon emissions); adaptation (technologies and political responses to global warming impacts already en route); and geo-engineering to try to defend our civilization from runaway global warming feedbacks.

There is something overlooked in Figueres' and Hulme's remarks, the greater picture.  They're focused on one thing - global warming, man-made climate change caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions.  What they don't take into account is that global warming is but one of several potentially existential threats now facing mankind.

Global warming has a bevy of parallel or associated problems - deforestation, desertification, unstable precipitation patterns, an increase in number and intensity of major storm events, overpopulation, over-dependence on finite freshwater resources, species migration and extinction, fisheries collapse, air/soil/water contamination, resource depletion and exhaustion, global security threats including nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond in his book "Collapse" convincingly argues that you cannot cherry pick among these challenges.   To solve any of them, you must tackle all of them.  There's a common thread that runs through these problems - they're all global.  They don't readily admit themselves to national or even regional solutions.  They require global action, effective global solutions.

Resiling from a unified, global treaty on climate change all but guarantees we will not be able to find global consensus on any of these other issues that threaten our civilization and are certain to destabilize our world.   As Gwynne Dyer points out in his book "Climate Wars" it won't be global warming that kills you.   It will be war.

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