The Elephant feels the same – sizing up Warsaw in Week 2

Our 20 years of climate talks – for that is essentially what they are – are strewn with high-sounding phrases: Rio Earth Summit and its Framework Convention, Berlin Mandate, Kyoto Protocol, Buenos Aires Action Plan, Marrakech Accords, New Delhi Work Programme, Bali Action Plan, Copenhagen Accord, Durban Platform, Doha Gateway.

There is a chance we shall have the Warsaw Stepping-stone soon, though mercy may intervene.

Either way we shall retroactively apply a label to convey, to an increasingly fearful world, a particular flavour – a charm – to the on-going purgatorial experience that is the annual conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

For without diplomatic exegesis we shall all be astray, falling about ourselves in recrimination and concern over the fate of the planet.  With annual labels we can reason our way – develop an explanatory framework – as to why it has taken the two critical decades to essentially miss the boat.  Why the sea ahead is stormy, even if we are in fact on the same boat.

We actually got it right at Rio back in ’92 with the statement of global objective in the Framework Convention – stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.  Perhaps that was the easy part.  And rich country emissions (from the North) would immediately commence reductions within the context of stabilising global emissions – thereby allowing the poor (the South) to develop ‘low-emission trajectories’ for their economic development.

The two main principles underpinning the ‘global bargain’ – common but differentiated responsibility on the one hand; and precaution on the other – would underpin the future negotiations.

But the diplomatic theory was never internalised in the political world. The US President, stepping off the plane at Rio, warned that the US lifestyle was ‘not up for negotiation’ when in fact it was, or at least its black-energy underpin certainly was. So when the Kyoto Protocol, five years later, sought to have the US and the North accept a legal obligation to cut emissions while China and the South would not, the US spat the dummy.

‘Historical responsibility’ and ‘contraction & convergence’ never got a serious look-in.

And the brave concept of ‘sustainable consumption’ that was meant to twin with ‘sustainable development’ was embraced by one country only – Norway.  It required us all to look in the mirror.  The phrase withered away.

And the precautionary principle – that lack of certainty on aspects of the climate science must not be used as pretext for political inaction – was violated from the beginning.  By-and-large the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report of 2013 advances observations and conclusions comparable to its 1st report of 1990 – with, ironically, an increase in confidence level from 90% to 95%.  Yet the contributing science has been undermined relentlessly, often with hostility, by varying forms of scepticism whose intrinsic proportions are inflated by the media.

As a result the scientific method, which rests on empiricism, contestability and objectivity, and political opposition to it have morphed in the public mind into competing ‘belief systems’.  The confrontation between science and faith over climate futures is deeply ill-fated – causing division to trump unity, hesitation to weaken resolve, inertia to substitute for action.

The Framework Convention was always meant to be consummated with a second global agreement in which all parties would accept legal obligations to curb, then reduce, national emissions.  Kyoto was never more than a pilot run for the North.  The crunch was Copenhagen, where the historic pivotal power-shift occurred – between the US and China, North and South.

The three years since the train-wreck at Copenhagen have been devoted to picking up  the pieces and striving once again, to re-do Bali in the form of the Durban Platform – for a global legal agreement to be signed, now, in 2015 rather than 2009, and enter into force in ’20 rather than ‘13.

Except that, the force of the Rio principles is today in question, stretched and torn by persistent national pin-pricking. New fledgling concepts circulate – bounded flexibility, top-down/ bottom-up hybrid, spectrum of commitments, numbers v rules, opt-in/opt-out, pledge-and-review.  The jargon delineates the cognoscenti, duly assembled – linguistic markers along a cliff-trail of failure.

To stay under the 2° threshold of dangerous climate change, global emissions are meant to peak by 2017, three years before the global agreement that would curb and reduce even comes into force.

Back in 1992, global emissions were some 38 billion tonnes.  Today they are 50 Gt.  The 2°C target requires 44 in 2020 and 21 in ‘50.

At present, voluntary pledges promise 54 Gt. in 2020.  Business-as-usual will deliver 58.

BAU will incur 4.5°C.  Warming to date (since 1750) is 0.8°.  What we see occurring around the world today is caused by 0.8.  We are on track to something between 2.6 and 4.5.

That is why legions of youth turn up at the annual climate talks, mill around, meet experts and officials, talk and argue, demonstrate, learn, and report home.  They are the symbol – the walking embodiment – of humanity’s hopes and fears for the future.

Here at the Stadium in Warsaw, the scene is different from Doha, from Copenhagen and Rio — all of which I attended.  Each has its own visuals, its different dynamic. But they also have much in common..  There are the same competent diplomats, with kids back home, working through the night, the same political leaders descending for the brief high-level segment before hiving off home, the same heady mix of negotiating buzz and global-national tensions.

Above all, the same sense of titanic scale, the same recurring dissonance between common interests yet separate responsibilities.

The same intensifying, existential doubt.

All the world needs now, is love, sweet love.

8 Comments Posted

  1. That’s good to know, bj.

    Maybe among our main differences is that I think it’s fruitless to start from a position of trying to save whatever you, I, Joe or Jane, thinks is the neatest thing about civilisation. But we’ve been through this before and, to be honest, there is almost zero chance of either of our preferred paths to the future being the path we will ultimately take. We (or future generations) will eventually need to figure out how to live on what nature provides, without degrading that provision by our own actions. There is nothing I wouldn’t jettison from civilisation, to achieve that in a moderately ordered way.

    Yes, unfortunately, we will lose a lot of knowledge because of our blinkered view of progress, assuming that the binary digits will always be retrievable in some form or another. Get good quality books whenever you can and store them as safely as you can.

    Civilisation is characterised by the growth of cities, which require importation of all resources from other regions. It destroys the environment and is unsustainable. You can either have civilisation or you can have a liveable planet. Past civilisations have been fairly localised or didn’t have the energy to do the sort of damage we see these days. This civilisation will hopefully be the last global one and the last to have access to such cheap concentrated forms of energy. At least for tens of millions of years.

  2. Tony, I don’t think you quite got where I come from. I actually AGREE that our way of life HAS to change in order to retain “civilization” and I am beginning to think we mean different things by that word.

    The thing is that I think that we can manage to change our “way of life” without losing everything good about the way we live now, and that we WILL change as the pressure cracks the armor of the BAU bastards. The change isn’t a step change, it happens between now and 2030 or so, and it involves a population that learns that the BAU crowd doesn’t know what is good for us economically, only what is good for them.

    Basically I see a possibility of a transition, but it isn’t an easy one and it requires as much non-CO2 energy resource as it is possible to get built ahead of the need. Once the crunch arrives our kids will have no time to build more and will have to live on/with what we leave them. If they get through the crunch they have to have enough to be able to bootstrap anything more that they need.

    My particular fear is that we’ll lose the ability to make chips and disk drives and computers… and so lose access to the knowledge we have accumulated and the communication that enables so much of what we enjoy now. The fabs and the factories are in some of the most vulnerable locations on the planet, and there is not AFAIK, so much as a prototyping plant here. We don’t make bearings. We don’t have several critical capabilities as too many things go that don’t come from around here go into the things we DO make here.

  3. Actually, bj, I may be even more pessimistic than you think. If some miracle does happen and humans manage to pull out of their headlong plunge, with something that could be considered a “solution”, that would imply our way of life more or less continuing. That would just continue environmental degradation. It’s because we need a wholesale change to everything we do, in order to continue to have a habitable planet, that makes me believe (it’s almost an empirical observation) we’ll continue that plunge and all the other plunges we seem intent on.

    Funnily enough, on some forums, I’m one of the deniers. Go figure.

  4. Tony – True… but the only way to ensure failure is to not try…
    I may go down but I am going to fight it the whole way.

    Runs in the genes I think… politely one of my bosses calls me tenacious.

    …and you’re probably the only person I know of who is more pessimistic than I am.

    In my family we run to “mule-headed stubbornness” and call it that.



  5. bj,

    That’s a lot of hope there. My hope is that you’re right and that it won’t be too late to avert catastrophic climate change (or, at least, uber-catastrophic climate change). Realistically, that hope is hanging by a thread. By next year or the year after, it will likely be dead on the ground.

  6. Tony

    Hope – The feeling you have that the feeling you have isn’t permanent? 🙂

    The “hope” I have is that two things will be happening at the same time.

    The first is that the symptoms of climate change will continue to worsen, damaging more and more of the “Usual” part of BAU. This will change some minds

    The second is generational change. Inhofe WILL die… the children who grew up and inherited an ever increasing mess WILL vote increasingly for Greens and others who are going to eventually put a price on carbon that will give the Koch Brothers nosebleeds.

    The third – oh well who’s counting anyhow – is that if we HAVE to go CO2 negative there are some experimental ways to accomplish that… provided we can afford the energy to do it.

    It is a race. I expect that significant portions of what is now the habitable world and significant numbers of humans, are going to be consumed by the current crop of BAU assholes. I also expect that there is still an opportunity for it NOT to kill off our civilization. My job is to keep things close enough for a future generation to actually seize that opportunity. They WILL reach for it.

    The ground will shift


  7. Very interesting analysis. One aspect that needs greater consideration however is the impact of the desires of democratic constituencies and other political forces on what is seen to be possible.

  8. To stay under the 2° threshold of dangerous climate change, global emissions are meant to peak by 2017, three years before the global agreement that would curb and reduce even comes into force.

    To add to the problem, Kennedy, 2°C is not the threshold, it’s the imagined threshold. The science seems to be pointing to 1.5°C or even 1°C. We’re at 0.89°C, now, last I heard.

    Also, even the pledges you mention wouldn’t guarantee a rise of less than 2°C, only a 50-50 chance of keeping within that imagined threshold. In other words, even meeting the pledges still has an even chance of missing the target.

    To be realistic, emissions need to start to decline now, and rapidly. If Hansen is right, from looking at the paleoclimate record, then even that wouldn’t be enough; we’d have to go emissions negative.

    There doesn’t seem to be much hope, does there?

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